By Mark Curtis
Chapter in John Pilger (ed), Tell Me No Lies: Investigative Journalism and its Triumphs, Jonathan Cape, London, 2004. Available at: http://www.word-power.co.uk/catalogue/0224062883
“I have never concealed from you my belief that a little shooting in Indonesia would be an essential preliminary to effective change.” (Britain’s ambassador to Indonesia, letter to the Foreign Office, 1965)
In July 1996, I published an article in the Observer revealing British complicity in the slaughter of a million people in Indonesia in 1965. The article was based on the recent release of formerly secret files available at the Public Record Office. I only just managed to persuade the editors to publish it after the Guardian turned it down. Following the appearance of the article, I did a couple of minor radio interviews. The story then disappeared into oblivion, with only one or two subsequent mentions in the media.
I happened to be watching the ITV lunchtime news on 1 January 1997, which carried a report on just-released secret files from 1966. It mentioned two items: a row between prime minister Harold Wilson and the governor of the Bank of England over interest rates; and the world cup football match between England and Argentina. Yet the 1996 files reveal much about the British role in the 1965 slaughters – an everyday indication of media selection, that keeps important issues from the public.
The history of British complicity in massive human rights abuses in Indonesia has been buried by the media and academia. When the Suharto regime fell in May 1998, almost no journalists mentioned that Britain had supported the brutallly repressive regime for the past 30 years as well as its murderous assumption to power after 1965. Similarly, Britain supported Indonesia’s invasion of East Timor in 1975 – killing hundreds of thousands of people, a third of the population – and proceeded to give effective support to Indonesia in its illegal occupation. This basic fact was not noticed by journalists in reporting East Timor’s independence in May 2002. Neither did the media notice Britain’s culpability in the massive human rights abuses committed in East Timor before the historic election in 1999.
The case of Indonesia shows how repressive the political culture is of basic facts when they provide the wrong picture about the role of the state. Perhaps in a democracy the truth would have been reported about British complicity in the tragedies of the peasant families massacred in 1965, the Timorese villagers sliced up by Indonesian troops in 1975, and the families forced to flee Indonesian terror in 1999. Instead, these tragic plights have been met largely by silence.
“A necessary task”
The formerly secret British files, together with recently declassified US files, reveal an astonishing story. Although the Foreign Office is keeping many of the files secret until 2007, a clear picture still emerges of British and US support for one of the postwar world’s worst bloodbaths – what US officials at the time called a “reign of terror” and British officials “ruthless terror”.
In his 600-page long autobiography, Denis Healey, then Britain’s Defence Minister, failed to mention at all Suharto’s brutal seizure of power, let alone Britain’s role. It is not hard to see why.
The killings in Indonesia started when a group of army officers loyal to President Sukarno assassinated several generals on 30 September 1965. They believed the generals were about to stage a coup to overthrow Sukarno. The instability, however, provided other anti-Sukarno generals, led by General Suharto, with an excuse for the army to move against a powerful and popular political faction with mass support, the Indonesian Communist Party (PKI). It did so brutally: in a few months hundreds of thousands of PKI members and ordinary people were killed and the PKI destroyed. Suharto emerged as leader and instituted a brutal regime that lasted until 1998.
Close relations between the US and British embassies in Jakarta are indicated in the declassified files and point to a somewhat coordinated joint operation in 1965. These files show five ways in which the Labour government under Harold Wilson together with the Democratic government under Lyndon Johnson were complicit in this slaughter.
First, the British wanted the army to act and encouraged it. “I have never concealed from you my belief that a little shooting in Indonesia would be an essential preliminary to effective change”, the ambassador in Jakarta, Sir Andrew Gilchrist, informed the Foreign Office on 5 October.
The following day the Foreign Office stated that “the crucial question still remains whether the Generals will pluck up enough courage to take decisive action against the PKI”. Later it noted that “we must surely prefer an Army to a Communist regime” and declared: “It seems pretty clear that the Generals are going to need all the help they can get and accept without being tagged as hopelessly pro-Western, if they are going to be able to gain ascendancy over the Communists. In the short run, and while the present confusion continues, we can hardly go wrong by tacitly backing the Generals”. British policy was “to encourage the emergence of a General’s regime”, one intelligence official later explained.
US officials similarly expressed their hope of “army at long last to act effectively against Communists” [sic]. “We are, as always, sympathetic to army’s desire to eliminate communist influence” and ”it is important to assure the army of our full support of its efforts to crush the PKI”.
US and British officials had clear knowledge of the killings. US Ambassador Marshall Green noted three weeks after the attempted coup, and with the killings having begun, that: “Army has… been working hard at destroying PKI and I, for one, have increasing respect for its determination and organisation in carrying out this crucial assignment”. Green noted in the same despatch the “execution of PKI cadres”, putting the figure at “several hundred of them” in “Djakarta area alone”[sic].
On 1 November, Green informed the State Department of the army’s “moving relentlessly to exterminate the PKI as far as that is possible to do”. Three days later he noted that “Embassy and USG generally sympathetic with and admiring of what army doing” [sic]. Four days after this the US Embassy reported that the army “has continued systematic drive to destroy PKI in northern Sumatra with wholesale killings reported”.
A British official reported on 25 November that “PKI men and women are being executed in very large numbers”. Some victims “are given a knife and invited to kill themselves. Most refuse and are told to turn around and are shot in the back”. One executioner considered it “his duty to exterminate what he called ‘less than animals'”.
A British official wrote to the Ambassador on 16 December, saying: “You – like me – may have been somewhat surprised to see estimates by the American embassy that well over 100,000 people have been killed in the troubles since 1 October. I am, however, readier to accept such figures after [receiving] some horrifying details of the purges that have been taking place… The local army commander… has a list of PKI members in five categories. He has been given orders to kill those in the first three categories… A woman of 78… was taken away one night by a village execution squad… Half a dozen heads were neatly arranged on the parapet of a small bridge”.
The US Consulate in Medan was reporting that “much indiscriminate killing is taking place”: “Something like a reign of terror against PKI is taking place. This terror is not discriminating very carefully between PKI leaders and ordinary PKI members with no ideological bond to the party”.
By mid December the State Department noted approvingly that “Indonesian military leaders’ campaign to destroy PKI is moving fairly swiftly and smoothly”. By 14 February 1966 Ambassador Green could note that “the PKI has been destroyed as an effective political force for some time to come” and that “the Communists…have been decimated by wholesale massacre”.
The British files show that by February 1966 the British ambassador was estimating 400,000 dead – but even this was described by the Swedish ambassador as a “gross under-estimate”. By March one British official wondered “how much of it [the PKI] is left, after six months of killing” and believed that over 200,000 had been killed in Sumatra alone – in a report called “The liquidation of the Indonesian Communist Party in Sumatra”. By April, the US Embassy stated that “we frankly do not know whether the real figure is closer to 100,000 or 1,000,000 but believe it wiser to err on the side of the lower estimates, especially when questioned by the press”.
Summarising the events of 1965 the British Consul in Medan said: “Posing as saviours of the nation from a communist terror, [the army] unleashed a ruthless terror of their own, the scars of which will take many years to heal.” Another British memo referred to “an operation carried out on a very large scale and often with appalling savagery”. Another simply referred to the “bloodbath”.
British and US officials totally supported these massacres, the files show. I could find no reference to any concern about the extent of killing at all – other than constant encouragement for the army to continue. As the files above indicate, there is no question that British and US officials knew exactly what they were supporting. One British official noted, referring to 10,005 people arrested by the army: “I hope they do not throw the 10,005 into the sea…, otherwise it will cause quite a shipping hazard”.
It was not only PKI activists who were the targets of this terror. As the British files show, many of the victims were the “merest rank and file“ of the PKI who were “often no more than bewildered peasants who give the wrong answer on a dark night to bloodthirsty hooligans bent on violence”, with the connivance of the army.
Britain connived even more closely with those conducting the slaughter. By 1965, Britain had deployed tens of thousands of troops in Borneo, to defend its former colony of Malaya against Indonesian encroachments following territorial claims by Jakarta – known as the “confrontation”. British planners secretly noted that they “did not want to distract the Indonesian army by getting them engaged in fighting in Borneo and so discourage them from the attempts which they now seem to be making to deal with the PKI”.
The US was worried that Britain might take advantage of the instability in Indonesia to launch an offensive from Singapore “to stab the good generals in the back”, as Ambassador Gilchrist described the US fear.
So the British Ambassador proposed reassuring those Indonesians who were ordering mass slaughter, saying that “we should get word to the Generals that we shall not attack them whilst they are chasing the PKI”. The British intelligence chief in Singapore agreed, believing this “might ensure that the army is not detracted [sic] from what we consider to be a necessary task”. In October the British passed to the Generals, through a US contact, “a carefully phrased oral message about not biting the Generals in the back for the present”. The US files confirm that the message from the US, conveyed on 14 October, read: “First, we wish to assure you that we have no intention of interfering Indonesian internal affairs directly or indirectly. Second, we have good reason to believe that none of our allies intend to initiate any offensive action against Indonesia” [sic].
The message was greatly welcomed by the Indonesian army: an aide to the Defence Minister noted that “this was just what was needed by way of assurances that we (the army) weren’t going to be hit from all angles as we moved to straighten things out here”.
According to former BBC correspondent Roland Challis, the counsellor at the British embassy, (now Sir) James Murray, was authorised to tell Suharto that in the event of Indonesian troops being transferred from the confrontation area to Java, British forces would not take military advantage. Indeed, in his book, Challis notes a report in an Indonesian newspaper in 1980 that Britain even helped an Indonesian colonel transport an infantry brigade on confrontation duty back to Jakarta. “Flying the Panamanian flag, she sailed safely down the heavily-patrolled Malacca Strait – escorted by two British warships”, Challis notes.
The third means of support was propaganda operations, mainly involving the distribution of false anti-Sukarno messages and stories through the media. This was organised from Britain’s MI6 Phoenix Park intelligence base in Singapore. The head of these operations, Norman Reddaway, told the BBC’s Southeast Asia correspondent to “do anything you can think of to get rid of Sukarno”.
On 5 October Reddaway reported to the Foreign Office in London that: “We should not miss the present opportunity to use the situation to our advantage… I recommend that we should have no hesitation in doing what we can surreptitiously to blacken the PKI in the eyes of the army and the people of Indonesia”.
The Foreign Office replied: “We certainly do not exclude any unattributable propaganda or psywar [psychological warfare] activities which would contribute to weakening the PKI permanently. We therefore agree with the [above] recommendation… Suitable propaganda themes might be… Chinese interference in particular arms shipments; PKI subverting Indonesia as agents of foreign communists”. It continued: “We want to act quickly while the Indonesians are still off balance but treatment will need to be subtle… Please let us know of any suggestions you may have on these lines where we could be helpful at this end”.
On 9 October the intelligence agent confirmed that “we have made arrangements for distribution of certain unattributable material based on the general guidance” in the Foreign Office memo. This involved “promoting and coordinating publicity” critical of the Sukarno government to “news agencies, newspapers and radio”. “The impact has been considerable”, one file notes. British propaganda covered in various newspapers included fabrications of nest-eggs accumulated abroad by Sukarno’s ministers and PKI preparations for a coup by carving up Jakarta into districts to engage in systematic slaughter (forerunners of current modern propaganda on Iraq).
The fourth method of support was a “hit list” of targets supplied by the US to the Indonesian army. As the journalist Kathy Kadane has revealed, as many as 5,000 names of provincial, city and other local PKI committee members and leaders of the mass organisations of the PKI, such as the national labour federation, women’s and youth groups, were passed on the Generals, many of whom were subsequently killed. “It really was a big help to the army” noted Robert Martens, a former official in the US embassy. “They probably killed a lot of people and I probably have a lot of blood on my hands, but that’s not all bad. There’s a time when you have to strike hard at a decisive moment”.
The recently declassified US files do not provide many further details about this hit list, although they do further confirm it. One list of names, for example, was passed to the Indonesians in December 1965 and “is apparently being used by Indonesian security authorities who seem to lack even the simplest overt information on PKI leadership at the time”. Also, “lists of other officials in the PKI affiliates, Partindo and Baperki were also provided to GOI [Government of Indonesia] officials at their request”.
The final means of support was provision of arms – although this remains the murkiest area to uncover. Past US support to the Indonesian military “should have established clearly in minds Army leaders that US stands behind them if they should need help [sic]”, the State Department noted. US strategy was to “avoid overt involvement in the power struggle but… indicate, clearly but covertly, to key Army officers our desire to assist where we can.”
The first US supplies to the Indonesian army were radios “to help in internal security” and to aid the Generals “in their task of overcoming the Communists”, as British Ambassador Gilchrist pointed out. “I see no reason to object or complain”, he added.
The US historian Gabriel Kolko has shown that in early November 1965 the US received a request from the Generals to “arm Moslem and nationalist youths…for use against the PKI”. The recently published files confirm this approach from the Indonesians. On 1 November Ambassador Green cabled Washington that: “As to the provision of small arms I would be leery about telling army we are in position to provide same, although we should act, not close our minds to this possibility… We could explore availability of small arms stocks, preferable of non-US origin, which could be obtained without any overt US government involvement. We might also examine channels through which we could, if necessary, provide covert assistance to army for purchase of weapons”.
A CIA memo of 9 November stated that the US should avoid being “too hesitant about the propriety of extending such assistance provided we can do so covertly, in a manner which will not embarrass them or embarrass our government”. It then noted that mechanisms exist or can be created to deliver “any of the types of the materiel requested to date in reasonable quantities”. One line of text is then not declassified before the memo notes: “The same can be said of purchasers and transfer agents for such items as small arms, medicine and other items requested.” The memo goes on to note that “we do not propose that the Indonesian army be furnished such equipment at this time”. However, “if the Army leaders justify their needs in detail…it is likely that at least will help ensure their success and provide the basis for future collaboration with the US”. “The means for covert implementation” of the delivery of arms “are within our capabilities”.
In response to Indonesia’s request for arms, Kolko has shown that the US promised to provide such covert aid, and dubbed them “medicines”. They were approved in a meeting in Washington on 4 December. The declassified files state that “the Army really needed the medicines” and that the US was keen to indicate “approval in a practical way of the actions of the Indonesian army”. The extent of arms provided is not revealed in the files but the amount “the medicines would cost was a mere pittance compared with the advantages that might accrue to the US as a result of ‘getting in on the ground floor’”, one file reads.
The British knew of these arms supplies and it is likely they also approved them. Britain was initially reluctant to see US arms go to the Generals for fear that they might be used by Indonesia in the “confrontation”. The British files show that the US State Department had “undertaken to consult with us before they do anything to support the Generals”. It is possible that the US reneged on this commitment; however, in earlier discussions about this possibility, a British official at the embassy in Washington noted that “I do not think that is very likely”.
The threat of independent development
The struggle between the army and the PKI was “a struggle basically for the commanding heights of the Indonesian economy”, British officials noted. At stake was using the resources of Indonesia for the primary benefit of its people or for businesses, including Western companies.
British and US planners supported the slaughter to promote interests deemed more important than people’s lives. London wanted to see a change in regime in Jakarta to bring an end to the “confrontation” with Malaya. But commercial interests were just as important. Southeast Asia was “a major producer of some essential commodities” such as rubber, copra and chromium ore; “the defence of the sources of these products and their denial to a possible enemy are major interests to the Western powers”, the Foreign Office noted. This was a fancy way of saying that the resources will continue to be exploited by Western business. Indonesia was also strategically located at a nexus of important trading routes.
British Foreign Secretary Michel Stewart wrote in the middle of the slaughter: “It is only the economic chaos of Indonesia which prevents that country from offering great potential opportunities to British exporters. If there is going to be a deal in Indonesia, as I hope one day there may be, I think we ought to take an active part and try to secure a slice of the cake ourselves”.
Similarly, one Foreign Office noted that Indonesia was in a “state of economic chaos but is potentially rich”. “American exporters, like their British counterparts, presumably see in Indonesia a potentially rich market once the economy has been brought under control”.
For the US, Under Secretary of State George Ball had noted that Indonesia “may be more important to us than South V-N [Vietnam]”, against which the US was at the same time massively stepping up its assault. “At stake” in Indonesia, one US memo read, “are 100 million people, vast potential resources and a strategically important chain of islands”.
US priorities were virtually identical in Vietnam and Indonesia: to prevent the consolidation of an independent nationalist regime that threatened Western interests and that could be a successful development model for others. President Sukarno clearly had the wrong economic priorities.
In 1964, British-owned commercial interests had been placed under Indonesian management and control. However, under the Suharto regime, the British Foreign Secretary told one Indonesian army General that “we are…glad that your government has decided to hand back the control of British estates to their original owners”.
The US Ambassador in Malaysia cabled Washington a year before the October 1965 events in Indonesia saying that “our difficulties with Indonesia stem basically from deliberate, positive GOI [Government of Indonesia] strategy of seeking to push Britain and the US out of Southeast Asia”. George Ball noted in March 1965 that “our relations with Indonesia are on the verge of falling apart”. “Not only has the management of the American rubber plants been taken over, but there are dangers of an imminent seizure of the American oil companies”.
According to a US report for President Johnson: “The government occupies a dominant position in basic industry, public utilities, internal transportation and communication… It is probable that private ownership will disappear and may be succeeded by some form of production-profit-sharing contract arrangements to be applied to all foreign investment”. Overall, “the avowed Indonesian objective is ‘to stand on their own feet’ in developing their economy, free from foreign, especially Western, influence”.
This was a serious danger that needed to be removed. Third World countries are to develop under overall Western control, not by or for themselves, a truism about US and British foreign policy revealed time and again in the declassified files.
It is customary in the propaganda system to excuse past horrible British and US policies by referring to the Cold War. In Indonesia, the main threat was indigenous nationalism. The British feared “the resurgence of Communist and radical nationalism”. One US memo says of future PKI policy: “It is likely that PKI foreign policy decisions, like those of Sukarno, would stress Indonesian national interests above those of Peking, Moscow or international communism in general”.
The real danger was that Indonesia would be too successful, a constant US fear well documented by Kolko and Noam Chomsky in policy towards numerous other countries. A Special National Intelligence Estimate of 1 September 1965 referred to the PKI’s moving “to energize and unite the Indonesian nation” and stated that “if these efforts succeeded, Indonesia would provide a powerful example for the underdeveloped world and hence a credit to communism and a setback for Western prestige”. One critical area was the landlessness of the poor peasants – the source of the grinding poverty of most Indonesians – and land reform more generally, the key political issue in rural areas and the smaller cities. The PKI was recognised by British and US officials as the champion of the landless and poor in Indonesia.
Britain was keen to establish good relations with Suharto, that were to remain for thirty years. A year after the beginning of the slaughter, the Foreign Office noted that “it was very necessary to demonstrate to the Indonesians that we regarded our relations with them as rapidly returning to normal”. Britain was keen to establish “normal trade” and provide aid, and to express its “goodwill and confidence” in the new regime. British officials spoke to the new Foreign Minister, Adam Malik, of the “new relationship which we hope will develop between our two countries”. A Foreign Office brief for the Cabinet said that Britain “shall do all we can to restore good relations with Indonesia and help her resume her rightful place in the world community”.
There is no mention in any of the files – that I could find – of the morality of engaging with the new regime. The slaughter was simply an irrelevance. Michael Stewart recalled in his autobiography that he visited Indonesia a year after the killings and was able to “reach a good understanding with the Foreign Minister, Adam Malik”, a “remarkable man” who was “evidently resolved to keep his country at peace”. Suharto’s regime is “like Sukarno’s, harsh and tyrannical; but it is not aggressive”, Stewart stated. Malik later acted as a primary apologist for Indonesian atrocities in East Timor. In 1977, for example, he was reported as saying: “50,000 or 80,000 people might have been killed during the war in East Timor…It was war…Then what is the big fuss?”.
A combination of Western advice, aid and investment helped transform the Indonesian economy into one that, although retaining some nationalist orientation, provided substantial opportunities and profits for Western investors. President Suharto’s increasingly corrupt authoritarian regime kept economic order. Japan and the United States, working through consortia and the multilateral banks, used aid as a lever to rewrite Indonesia’s basic economic legislation to favour foreign investors. Western businesses moved in. By the mid-1970s, a British CBI report noted that Indonesia presented “enormous potential for the foreign investor”. The press reported that the country enjoyed a “favourable political climate” and the “encouragement of foreign investment by the country’s authorities”. RTZ, BP, British Gas and Britoil were some of the companies that took taken advantage.
With Suharto gone after May 1998, British ministers were able to talk frankly of the regime they had supported. It could now be admitted that under Suharto there was “severe political repression”, the “concentration of economic and political power in a few, extremely corrupt hands”, and the “involvement of the security forces in every tier of social and political life”, for example. All these things had been miraculously discovered.