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MLM Revolutionary Study Group in the U.S.
Suharto, who was the brutal U.S.-backed military dictator of Indonesia from 1965 to 1998, is now dead. Here is the story of his bloody road to power — excerpted from a detailed analysis by the MLMRSG, called “The Destruction of the Indonesian Communist Party in 1965 and the Road Not Taken.” When the full text of this document is available online, we will announce it here on Kasama. In the meanwhile, pdfs of MLMRSG analyses can be obtained by emailing: mlm (dot) rsg (at) gmail (dot) com.
One of the greatest crimes of the 20th century was committed in Indonesia. On October 8, 1965, right-wing mobs ransacked the offices of the Communist Party of Indonesia (PKI) and its mass organizations in Jakarta, the capital city. Ten days later, in densely populated Central Java, army paracommandos under the direction of pro-American General Suharto led the attack on the PKI. Tens of thousands of PKI cadre and supporters were rounded up at night, detained, and executed. Anti-communist youth groups were supplied with weapons by the army and sent out to murder PKI members and supporters in thousands of towns and villages. In one area of Central Java known as a stronghold of the party, one-third of the population died in the massacre.
According to Time magazine:
|Backlands army units are reported to have executed thousands of Communists after interrogation in remote jails…Armed with wide-blade knives called parangs, Moslem bands crept at night into the homes of Communists, killing entire families and burying the bodies in shallow graves…The murder campaign became so brazen in part of rural East Java that Moslem bands placed the heads of victims on poles and paraded them through villages. The killings have been on such a scale that the disposal of the corpses has created a serious sanitation problem in East Java and Northern Sumatra, where the humid air bears the reek of decayed flesh. Travelers from these areas tell of small rivers and streams that have been literally clogged with bodies; river transportation has at places been seriously impeded.|
In order to justify this campaign of extermination, the army told people in the towns and villages that the PKI was about to go on a killing spree against all non-communists. PKI members were accused of digging mass graves, compiling lists of people to be executed, and stockpiling special instruments to gouge out eyeballs.
The massacres, which were most intense in East and Central Java and on Bali, spread to Aceh in northern Sumatra, Sulawesi (the Celebes) and Kalimantan (Borneo). It is not known exactly how many were killed, but Indonesian activists estimate the number at from one to three million people. The only recent massacre of this magnitude was the Rwandan government’s attempted genocide of the Tutsi people in 1994, which left 800,000 dead.
The Hand of U.S. Imperialism in the Massacre
In the 1990s, some details of the U.S. hand in the massacre became known as several former State Department officials admitted their role publicly. Political officers at the U.S. embassy in Jakarta handed the Indonesian army lists of PKI leaders in unions, peasant and student organizations that it had compiled. From this, Indonesian army intelligence was able to create a “shooting list” of 5,000 PKI leaders. In the weeks and months that followed, the U.S. embassy and the CIA’s intelligence directorate in Washington D.C. checked off the names as they were “eliminated.”  According to Robert Martens, a former member of the U.S. embassy’s political section who had spent two years compiling the lists:
|It really was a big help to the army. 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 the decisive moment.|
As the anti-PKI bloodbath was just getting underway, the U.S. provided essential logistical equipment to General Suharto’s forces. These included light aircraft, jeeps and most importantly, hundreds of the highest-powered mobile radios available at that time. The radios were secretly flown into Indonesia at the last minute by U.S. planes based at Clark Field in the Philippines. They plugged a major hole in army communications by enabling units in Java and the outer islands to talk directly with Suharto’s command (KOSTRAD) in Jakarta. These radios were monitored by the U.S. National Security Agency throughout the massacre.
In 1965 the U.S. imperialists were alarmed at the situation developing in Southeast Asia. In March, the 303 Committee of the National Security Council approved a CIA-State Department political action program designed to reduce the influence of the PKI and the People’s Republic of China and to support anti-communist elements in Indonesia. After visiting Sukarno in April, Ellsworth Bunker told President Johnson that “U.S. visibility should be reduced so that those opposed to the communists and extremists may be free to handle a confrontation, which they believe will come, without the incubus of being attacked as defenders of the neo-colonialists and imperialists.” A high-level U.S. intelligence report prepared in early September 1965 predicted that the Indonesian government would become completely dominated by the PKI within two to three years.
U.S. officials saw events in Indonesia and Vietnam as closely intertwined and believed that decisive action had to be taken in both countries. In a 1965 speech in Asia, Richard Nixon argued in favor of bombing North Vietnam in order to protect Indonesia’s “immense mineral potential.” According to William Bundy, Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs:
By 1965 [Indonesia] was hostile to us, engaged in a sterile but dangerous military confrontation with Malaysia and Singapore, and headed very shortly for Communist control and an effective alliance with Communist China….The situation in Vietnam in 1965, stood, alongside the trend in Indonesia, as the major dark spot in the area. And in early 1965, it became clear that unless the United States and other nations introduced major combat forces and took military action against the North, South Vietnam would be taken over by communist force.
William Colby, the head of CIA operations in Southeast Asia from 1962-1966, not only welcomed the massacre in Indonesia, but applied its lessons as head of the infamous Operation Phoenix in South Vietnam. If Vietnam was the major post-World War II defeat for U.S. imperialism, the destruction of the PKI was its greatest single victory. With its oil and other natural resources, large population and strategic location, Indonesia was at least as important to the U.S. as Indochina, albeit in different ways.
How Did This Happen?
In 1965, the PKI was a formidable organization. It had 3.5 million members and was the largest communist party in the world that was out of power. The PKI’s allied organizations claimed a combined membership of nearly 20 million out of a total population of 110 million. It had ministers and staffers in governmental bodies from the national cabinet to local municipalities.
However, since the early 1950s, the PKI had adopted a political line and strategy of a peaceful path to socialism. By building an alliance with the “progressive sectors” of the government, the PKI believed that Indonesia’s reactionary pro-imperialist forces, with their core in the army, could be prevented from making a decisive move to close off the party’s gradual march to power. Thus, the PKI and its followers were politically and militarily disarmed in 1965 and were left without effective options in confronting the army-led death squads.
At the decisive moment, the PKI expected President Sukarno and sympathetic military officers would come to their aid. While Sukarno called for peace, pro-American General Suharto ignored him and proceeded to gradually strip Sukarno of power. Suharto’s three decade-long military dictatorship turned Indonesia into a compliant U.S. neo-colony in Southeast Asia.
The role of the CIA and the U.S. military in this bloody counter-revolution has become more exposed over the years. However, the causes for this defeat that were internal to the PKI have not been examined closely enough. This is not simply a question of setting the historical record straight. Without a deeper understanding of fundamental errors in the PKI’s political line and work, the massacre in 1965 will continue to cast a long shadow over revolutionary activists with the message that imperialism and reactionary regimes are too powerful to challenge. An analysis of these events also provides some critical lessons for communist and anti-imperialist forces worldwide, especially concerning countries where peaceful, electoral paths to “socialism,” or some variant, are being pursued.
 Time, December 17, 1965. Cited in David Ransom, “Ford Country: Building an Elite for Indonesia,” reprinted in The Trojan Horse: A Radical Look at Foreign Aid, ed. Steve Weissman, 1975. www.cia-on-campus.org/internat/indo John Roosa, Pretext for Mass Murder: The September 30th Movement and Suharto’s Coup d’Etat in Indonesia, 2006, p. 26. Roosa’s book is a valuable source of information about these events. He also provides a detailed analysis of the origins and actions of the September 30 Movement, which provided Suharto and the U.S. with the pretext to suppress the PKI.
 Kathy Kadane, “Ex-Agents say CIA Compiled Death Lists for Indonesians,” San Francisco Examiner, May 20, 1990. www.namebase.org/kadane.html
 Peter Dale Scott, “The United States and the Overthrow of Sukarno, 1965-1967,” Pacific Affairs, 58, Summer 1985, pp. 7-8. Citations are from the internet version at www.namebase.org/scott.html
 David Easter, “’Keep the Indonesian Pot Boiling,’ Western Covert Intervention in Indonesia, October 1965-March 1966,” Cold War History, Vol. 5, No. 1, February 2005, p. 58. The U.S. political action program for Indonesia included the use of the ten radio transmitters of the Voice of America based at Clark Air Force Base in the Philippines.
 Roosa, p. 14.
 tQuoted in Peter Dale Scott, “Exporting Military-Economic Development: America and the Overthrow of Sukarno,” in Malcolm Caldwell (ed.), Ten Years’ Military Terror in Indonesia, 1975, p. 241.
 Department of State Bulletin, May 22, 1967. The reactionary actor John Wayne stated more bluntly: “We went into Vietnam, and Indonesia got enough guts to throw the Communists out of Indonesia.” New York Times, December 24, 1967. Both quotes are from Arnold Brackman, The Communist Collapse in Indonesia, 1969, pp. 190, 202-203. Brackman’s book is virulently anti-communist and anti-Sukarno.
 Operation Phoenix was a joint U.S.-South Vietnamese program set up by the CIA in 1967 to uproot the political infrastructure of the National Liberation Front by assassinations of its cadres and supporters. It was modeled after and planned by the same CIA operatives who oversaw the destruction of the PKI in 1965-66.
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