Skip to main content

Book Review: Pretext for Mass Murder

carmel budiardjo reviews john roosa's new book, the 'most detailed and best-researched account of the events of 1965 ever written,' concluding that 'anyone wishing to understand these events... would benefit hugely from reading this first-rate book.'
13 August 2007

John Roosa, Pretext for Mass Murder: The September 30th Movement and Suharto’s Coup d’Etat in Indonesia. 2007, University of Wisconsin Press, 329 pages.

Nearly forty-two years after an event that plunged Indonesia into a bloody inferno and led to a massacre in which hundreds of thousands of people were killed and many more were thrown into jail and held without trial for more than a decade, historians are still not agreed on who was ultimately responsible for the kidnap and murder of six army generals and a junior officer on the morning of 1st October 1965 that triggered the massacres.

However, there is no dispute about the consequences of the takeover of power by General Suharto in the wake of that event who presided over the killings that continued without interruption from late October until March the following year. Suharto went on to rule Indonesia for more than thirty-three years until he was forced to resign in May 1989 after student demonstrations swept the country. Since then, moves to bring Suharto to justice on corruption charges have been thwarted on the grounds of ill-health. Now aged 86, he may well live out the remainder of his life free from charges of crimes against humanity or politicide, the term used by the author for the annihilation of the PKI (Indonesian Communist Party) which stood at the helm of a movement of many millions of people.

As the author explains at the outset: ‘Even in this post-Suharto era, most Indonesians do not understand the process by which he came to power. He is reviled today for his stupendous corruption and greed but not for misrepresenting the movement and organising a pogrom…. The Suharto regime constructed a distinct fantasy world, elements of which, especially those pertaining to the events of 1965, are proving remarkably persistent as seemingly eternal truths of the Indonesian nation.’

Nor should it be forgotten that laws are still in force requiring state officials to clamp down on anything deemed to be in support of the (still-banned) Indonesian Communist Party. Law 27 of 1999 amending the state constitution, empowers the Attorney-General to confiscate books which are perceived as supporting the PKI or Marxism. These powers were recently exercised by the Attorney General to ban a school history book for failing to link the PKI with the G30S, the initials by which the kidnapping event in 1965 is known. Personnel from his office burned thousands of copies of the book, an action that was widely condemned by NGOs, academics and historians.

Describing his work as being in the nature of a detective novel and delving deep into a mass of evidence, some old and some new, Roosa does not lay claim to reaching a final solution to the puzzle of who was ultimately responsible for the kidnap plot. He rejects the interpretations of the Indonesianist scholars Benedict Anderson and Harold Crouch, who suggested that military officers played the dominant role, as well as the hypothesis of the late Professor W.F. Wertheim that Sjam Kamaruzaman who headed the PKI’s clandestine Special Bureau and was for years a close associate of D.N. Aidit, chairman of the PKI, was an army intelligence operative working within the frame of the PKI – in other words, a double agent.

The author dissects the evidence of many people, the foremost of whom are Sudisman, the only member of the PKI’s Politbureau to survive the blood-letting, who delivered his own verdict in a speech at his trial titled ‘Analysis of Responsibility’, Iskandar Subekti who regularly attended Central Committee and Politbureau meetings as note-taker, ‘Hasan’ a senior-ranking PKI member interviewed by the author who insisted on using a pseudonym, as well as the words of many PKI members recorded in the voluminous records of the post-1965 trials before the Mahmilub (Extra-ordinary Military Tribunal) created by Suharto early in October 1965.

But it was the discovery of a document written by Brigadier-General Supardjo which prompted the author to realise that, despite the many books already written about 1965, something new could be said about the movement. Supardjo, a latecomer to the group which carried out the kidnaps, wrote his analysis of the failure of the movement some time in 1966 before his own arrest on 12th January 1967. The document is reproduced in full as an Appendix and is described by the author as ‘the primary source of the movement’ which contains ‘information of unique reliability and frankness’. It was not written under pressure from interrogators or prepared as a statement in court but was intended for the benefit of his colleagues to learn from their mistakes.

After setting out the events as they occurred on 1st October (one day late as it turns out) in a chapter called The Incoherence of the Facts, and presenting the various interpretations of the movement, the author devotes the remaining chapters to analysing the roles of Supardjo, Sjam, Aidit and Suharto, and a chapter in which the author assembles a New Narrative.

Although Supardjo was a brigadier-general, he was one of four deputies of the five soldiers involved in the movement, subordinate to Untung who was a lieutenant-colonel, a striking anomaly in any military operation. Among the many mistakes identified by Supardjo was the lack of a Plan B in the event of failure. He regarded the preparations as being amateurish and short-sighted, with no thought about what to do once the generals had been kidnapped. (They were all murdered and their bodies thrown down a deep well although the original intention had apparently been to bring the men, alive, to the President to account for their activities.) Nothing was done about logistics, especially the crucial matter of stocking up food for the troops. He apportioned much of the blame for these shortcomings to Sjam who served as the link between the movement and the chairman of the PKI, D.N. Aidit. For Supardjo, the movement largely collapsed under the weight of its own incompetence.

Sjam Kamaruzzaman was more instrumental than anyone in dragging the Party’s chairman Aidit into involvement in the disastrous events of 1st October. In November 1964, he took over as the head of Biro Khusus, the Special Bureau, a clandestine body in the PKI whose task it was to build links with progressive officers in the armed forces. He took over after the death of Karto, the previous head, a man widely respected within the PKI who had advised Aidit not to appoint Sjam as his successor. But there appears to have been a long-standing bond of friendship between Aidit and Sjam. When I was in Bukit Duri Prison in the early 1970s, I remember being told by Aidit’s widow Dr Tanti Aidit that Sjam was a regular visitor to their home and a good friend. Focussing on Sjam’s character, Roosa quotes others in the PKI as describing him as ‘bombastic, arrogant and not particularly bright’.

Benedict Anderson watched Sjam giving evidence at a trial in 1967 and later said it was difficult to believe he was a high-ranking PKI member. ‘Sjam spoke in a manner completely unlike other witnesses – boastful, a tad megalomaniac, but above all in a “frozen” version of the kind of talk that was used in 1945-49. It felt like entering a kind of aural antique shop.’ Hasan who knew a lot about the Biro Khusus told Roosa that Sjam ‘never read books and barely read the party literature. He was too busy meeting people and arranging subterfuges to be bothered with theory.’ According to Hasan, his job was to take orders from Aidit, keep secrets and cosy up to left-wing officers. It is worth noting that the shallowness of Sjam’s political beliefs was certainly not unique in the PKI at the time. The Party had chosen to build a mass party with millions of members rather than a small cadre party of well-educated members; many people joined for the benefits membership would bring, with little if any knowledge of Marxism.

Sjam was also unprincipled and very opportunistic. After being sentenced to death, he devoted himself to saving his own skin by betraying many of his former comrades. According to Hasan, Sjam believed that if he could postpone his own execution long enough by implicating other members of the army, he might outlast the Suharto regime.

Together with four others, Njoto, Sakirman, Lukman and Sudisman, D.N. Aidit led the PKI from the early 1950s and saw it grow into a mass party with around three million members. Although it won strong support in the general election in 1955, becoming one of the four main parties, its allegiance with President Sukarno and its acceptance of Guided Democracy in 1959 meant that it could not win power through the ballot box as elections had now been dispensed with.

In the mid-1960s, rumours were circulating that army generals were planning to organise a coup d’etat against Sukarno. This was discussed by Sudisman in his Analysis of Responsibility statement. He said that Aidit had told the Politbureau that a group of progressive officers were planning to take action against a Council of Generals, an action which he always said was ‘internal to the military’.

Confronted by such a dangerous situation, according to Hasan, the PKI had to take a position and resist the coup against Sukarno, a task which Aidit assigned to the Biro Khusus. Moreover, reports were circulating that Sukarno might soon die following a kidney operation. (He lived for another six years.) Again according to Hasan, as conditions became even more critical, it was decided that the Biro Khusus would not wait for the coup to happen but would act pre-emptively.

Living in Jakarta in those days, I recall the atmosphere of tension and expectancy, with information being fed to persons like myself, through links with the Party, of a momentous political development that was about to happen. Basically we were told to ‘to do nothing and listen to the radio’.

Sudisman said that Aidit alone was in touch with the officers and he alone would determine what action PKI personnel would take in support of the officers. Even a person as senior in the Party as Sudisman was apparently in the dark about what was going to happen. Party members were instructed to ‘listen to the radio and support the Revolutionary Council’. Explaining later why he felt responsible for what had happened, Sudisman said that as a party leader, he had allowed Aidit far too much leeway to act on his own. One can only admire Sudisman for the dignified way in which he criticised himself and others before a court which he knew was about to sentence him to death and which he regarded as unlawful. He must have seen this as his only chance to use a public platform to get his message across to the nation as a whole. It was an attempt to shield the mass of party members from the retribution that was being visited upon them. By that time, however, hundreds of thousands had already been killed.

By 1965, Aidit enjoyed enormous prestige and power within the PKI; many members of its leading councils were only too willing to defer to him and saw him as being intellectually head and shoulders above everyone else. As the linchpin between the Special Bureau and the above-ground party leadership, Aidit was in a uniquely powerful position. As Roosa explains, ‘Whatever the precise reasons for Aidit’s dominance, the surviving PKI leaders identified it as the cause of the party’s downfall.’

Whose responsibility?
Aidit was also deeply impressed by a successful military coup that occurred in Algeria in June 1965. This took place while Aidit was on an overseas trip with Sukarno. They were to have visited Algeria but the visit was cancelled because of the coup. A friend of mine who accompanied Aidit on this trip as his interpreter visited me after returning home and told me that Aidit saw the Algerian coup as a possible precedent for Indonesia, a coup by the military that would create a better environment for the PKI in its progress towards a greater grip on power. Roosa makes the same connection with events in Algeria.

Roosa disputes the Suharto regime’s version which accused the PKI as being the mastermind of the 1965 movement. ‘The party as an institution was not responsible. Only two individuals in the party, Aidit and Sjam, were responsible for organising it,’ writes Roosa.

In November, six weeks after the murder of the generals, Aidit was captured while hiding in Central Java and was summarily executed by Colonel Yasir Hadibroto, commander of the fourth infantry brigade of Kostrad. It was Suharto, commander of Kostrad, who instructed Yasir to kill Aidit. This was not only a crime; it also meant that Aidit would never face justice or give his own account of the 1965 events. [For one of several accounts by Colonel Yasir in which he brags about his role in Aidit’s capture and murder, see Kompas Minggu, 5th October 1980.]

United States complicity
While allegations of the CIA’s involvement in the events of 1st October 1965 have never been substantiated, there is no doubt that Washington had for many years been watching political developments in Indonesia with increasing alarm The US ambassador to Indonesia, Howard Jones, showed incredible prescience when he said, on 10th March 1965: ‘From our point of view, of course, an unsuccessful coup attempts by the PKI might be the most effective development to start a reversal of political trends in Indonesia.’

With this comment as the benchmark for his chapter on Suharto, the Indonesian Army and the United States, Roosa gives a comprehensive account of Washington’s dealings with Indonesia from the mid 1950s until 1965. As declassified US government documents reveal, the generals realised that an old-fashioned coup d’etat against Sukarno was out of the question as he was far too popular. They needed a pretext, namely an unsuccessful coup attempt that could be blamed on the PKI.

During the 1950s, the US had supported several regional rebellions in Indonesia led by local army commanders, which could have resulted in the dismemberment of the country. However, US policy was reassessed in 1959 following an analysis by the National Security Council which saw the national army, then under General Nasution, as ‘the principle obstacle to the continued growth of Communist strength.’ In 1958, the US commenced a military assistance programme which, by 1965, had brought two thousand eight hundred army officers for training in Fort Bragg or Fort Leavenworth. In 1964, Secretary of State Dean Rusk said that although the military assistance to Indonesia was of little significance in military terms, it was ‘permitting us to maintain some contact with key elements in Indonesia which are interested in and capable of resisting Communist takeover’.

US assistance was also directed towards civic action programmes which involved the military in economic and social welfare projects such as education, training and public works. Generally speaking, civic action programmes were supported in other countries as a counter to guerrilla movements, but in Indonesia, their purpose was to counteract the PKI’s growing influence in the countryside. This helped improve the standing of the military forces with the population as well as promoting the army’s dwifungsi or dual function.

During the course of 1965, there were mounting protests in Indonesia against the US embassy and local US offices. In January, after Malaysia was given a seat on the UN Security Council, Sukarno who had launched a policy of confrontation with Malaysia, announced Indonesia’s withdrawal from the UN. This ‘emboldened the PKI to call for thousands, if not millions, of people to be armed into a so-called fifth force alongside the military’ which made the top generals realise that confrontation was spinning out of control.

A group of army generals under the army chief, General Yani began to hold meetings to discuss the deteriorating situation. To Sukarno this was reported as the creation of a Council of Generals and one man in the group, General Parman was known to have reported that the army was developing plans for a takeover the moment Sukarno stepped off the stage, while some at the top were pushing for a coup before the president’s death, if the PKI succeeded in forming an armed militia. But the US ambassador, Howard Jones advised that a coup that was seen as a move against Sukarno would not succeed as he was so beloved by the people and also enjoyed the support of some senior officers. The advice was further refined to stress that any such action would have to appear to be an effort to save Sukarno instead of being his gravedigger. But such an action needed a pretext.

As Roosa writes: ‘The movement (by which he means the 30th September 1965 movement), elevated to the status of the nation’s greatest betrayal, a manifestation of absolute evil, was a convenient pretext for him [Suharto] to begin the army’s long-considered strategy for destroying the Communist Party, displacing President Sukarno, and founding an army dictatorship.’

As mass killings spread across the country, US officials made no secret of their delight at this turn of events. In a memo written in November 1965, the US ambassador, Marshall Green observed that ‘even the small fry in the PKI were being systematically arrested, jailed on executed’. Green went on to note that the embassy had ‘made clear’ to a contact in the army ‘that Embassy and USG (the US Government) generally sympathetic and admiring of what army doing’. Although there was a lingering fear that the army might make a compromise with Sukarno and allow the PKI to retain some vestiges of its former power, Green assured Washington that the army was ‘working hard at destroying PKI and I for one have increasing respect for its determination and organisation in carrying out this crucial assignment.’

Thanks to the delivery to Kostrad earlier in 1965 of state-of-the-art mobile radios, ‘The United States thus had a blow-by-blow account of the army’s assault on the PKI, overhearing for instance commands from Suharto’s intelligence unit to kill particular persons in given locations’. A member of the embassy staff, Robert Martens wrote in a letter to The Washington Post that he had handed over the names of ‘a few thousand’ members whom he termed ‘leaders and senior cadre’.

This book by John Roosa provides the most detailed and best-researched account of the events of 1965 ever written. He draws certain clear conclusions on many aspects of the events and the complicity of certain individuals, while making no secret of the fact that certain aspects of what happened still remain a mystery. Anyone wishing to understand these events that still cast a cloud over Indonesia and are barely understood by the vast majority of Indonesia would benefit hugely from reading this first-rate book.

Carmel Budiardjo