As Indonesians celebrated their independence from Holland in 1945 on August 17, western governments congratulated president Megawati Sukarnoputri. But Indonesians took their warm sentiments with generous pinches of salt: their expression had coincided with the publication of details of the role played 35 years ago by the US and Britain in the overthrow of Sukarno, who was leader of Indonesia’s independence movement and its first president.
Sukarno was driven from power by a slow-motion coup (1965-1967) in which more than one million supposed communists were butchered. The Americans provided lists of those to be murdered, and a British-run propaganda machine portrayed the massacres (1965) as a ‘clean-up operation’ against an imaginary communist uprising. The information services of the world’s two noisiest advocates of democracy also misrepresented general Suharto, who succeeded Sukarno in 1967, as a “Mr Clean” who had only his country’s interests at heart. The role of both countries in what has been described as “one of history’s worst ever blood-baths” is not in doubt: it is revealed in both US and British documents that have come to light recently.
The American documents are contained in a book, produced by the State Department, which records US diplomatic and intelligence activities in Indonesia during 1965 and 1966. It shows, for instance, how the US embassy in Jakarta provided general Suharto’s murder squads with a list of top leaders of the PKI, the Communist Party opposition at the time. The list was handed over during the massacre of alleged communists in 1965. The book also throws light on the US’s involvement in the slaughter of people who it says were 100,000 communists, but who may have been more than one million supposed communist sympathisers. The National Security Archive, a non-profit research institute in Washington which campaigns for access to official documents, obtained a copy of the book after it was sent to government bookstores by accident.
In December 1965 Marshall Green, the US ambassador, “endorsed a 50 million rupiah (£3,500) covert payment to the Kap-Gestapu movement leading the repression”. Other documents comment on the number of ‘communists’ killed. “We frankly do not know whether the real figure of Communists that have been killed is closer to 100,000 or 1 million but believe it is wiser to err on the side of the lower estimate, especially when questioned by the press.” The document had been sent to the state department from Jakarta. Another document boasts that the chances of the US’s role in the massacres being exposed are low. “The chances of detection ... of our support in this instance are as minimal as any black bag operation can be.”
Other documents in the US national archives in fact show that the plot by Washington to remove Sukarno began in 1960, when the US defence and state departments secretly informed the head of the Indonesian military that Washington would provide military and economic assistance in any showdown with the Indonesian Communist Party. Two years later, a document recorded US president John F Kennedy and British prime minister Harold Macmillian agreeing that it was desirable to “liquidate” Sukarno.
The implementation of the plot began in October 1965, when, in what was alleged to be a left-wing coup attempt, six right-wing generals were murdered. General Suharto exploited this incident, which was almost certainly arranged by the US Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), to massacre the alleged communists, purge the Indonesian military of pro-Sukarno officers, and remove the highly popular president, replacing him in 1967. It was because of Sukarno’s popularity that the coup was pushed through so slowly. The Americans were against taking on Sukarno in case this led to a popular uprising.
After Suharto became president, the British and American propaganda machines portrayed him as an incorruptible leader who had acted to save his country. Western journalists, who had been kept out of Indonesia during the coup, were forced to make do with the propaganda that American and British diplomats were giving out. Typical of the ‘information’ fed to the media was a report in the Atlantic Monthly: “Suharto is regarded by Indonesians who know him well as incorruptible... In attacking the communists, he was not acting as a western puppet; he was doing simply what he believed to be best for Indonesia.”
Roland Challis, a former BBC south Asia correspondent, has described how British diplomats planted misleading stories in British newspapers. Challis quotes Norman Reddaway, a foreign propaganda expert, as telling him in October 1965 that his brief was “to do anything you can think of”‘ to get rid of president Sukarno. Writing in the Sunday Times on July 29, Challis has described the foreign office propaganda campaign as “brilliantly executed”, adding that it “largely succeeded in misrepresenting the 1965 slaughter as a clean-up operation against a non-existent communist uprising.”
Both Washington and London had strong reasons to want to get rid of Sukarno. The US wanted to keep communism out of the region and to isolate China, and Sukarno was too independent to cooperate. Britain was engaged in withdrawing from its colonies in the region, while securing its economic and political interests there. It was intending, for example, to include Singapore in a federation with Malaya to be known as Malaysia, but Sukarno was in the way.
Washington was also, of course, interested in the region’s resources. It was standard practice to eliminate regional leaders who put the interests of their own countries first. Patrick Lumumba of the former Belgian Congo was assassinated with the connivance of Belgium, the US and the UN. Both Indonesia and the Congo are huge countries blessed with enormous resources; both have been blighted by the intervention of imperial powers with their eyes on those resources. They are not, of course, the only countries to have suffered such persecutions and, like the rest, they are unlikely to obtain the compensation to which they are entitled.