‘I cannot see how in the short term things could have gone any better,” wrote British spy Norman Reddaway as six months of massacres ended in Indonesia.
Up to a million ordinary, unarmed people had been killed at the orders of Indonesia’s new right wing dictator general Suharto—and Reddaway was delighted.
Two years earlier, in 1964, the British government had sent him to nearby Singapore to act as “coordinator of political warfare” against Indonesia.
Reddaway later said his job was “to do anything I could do to get rid of Sukarno”—Indonesia’s president.
Secret British government documents, only recently released to the National Archives, now reveal what Reddaway meant.
Sukarno was trying to push what remained of the British Empire out of southeast Asia (see right). What’s more, he was backed by the Indonesian Communist Party (PKI)—one of the largest communist parties in the world.
Yet Sukarno’s vision of national independence rested on some authoritarian measures and military power. It left him relying on some right wing generals, supported and trained by the US.
For its part, the PKI was focussed on electoral alliances with “progressive” capitalists such as Sukarno.
This was the legacy of an order from Stalin to communist parties across the world, designed to find allies for Russia among the rulers of other capitalist countries.
In Indonesia, it left the PKI vulnerable against the generals—and its members completely unprepared for the onslaught to come.
Backed by Britain and the US, Suharto began his horrific campaign on 1 October 1965—justified as an attempt to stop a supposed coup the night before.
This “coup” was an apparently botched operation by a group of mid-ranking officers loyal to president Sukarno calling themselves the 30 September movement.
The officers arrested several senior generals, who they accused of a US-backed plot against Sukarno, and ended up killing six of them.
It’s still not clear what exactly went on. There are varying theories. One is that the officers were doing exactly what they said—protecting Sukarno against the US-backed generals.
Some theories say parts of the PKI’s leadership were in some way involved. Others suggest it could all have been a setup by Suharto. A sort of double bluff in which he encouraged the action to move against it and take office himself.
Whatever it was, it gave Suharto an excuse to execute a move long hoped and planned for by the US and Britain.
A recent book on the takeover, The Jakarta Method, was written by journalist Vincent Bevins. He states that as early as September 1964, “The CIA listed Suharto in a secret cable as one of the army generals it considered to be ‘friendly’ to US interests and anticommunist.
“The cable also put forward the idea of an anti‑communist military-civilian coalition that could gain power in a succession struggle.”
Suharto declared himself leader of the armed forces and ordered the soldiers commanded by the 30 September movement to stand down or he would attack. He then told Sukarno to leave the capital city of Jakarta.
A propaganda campaign followed, clearly prepared well in advance.
Suharto ordered the closure of all non-military controlled media outlets. The remaining newspapers and radio stations were full of stories blaming the PKI, along with false stories about how the six generals died.
They claimed the PKI had been secretly stockpiling weapons and digging mass graves for its victims. Some of this was planted in the media by US and British spies—it’s what Reddaway had been sent to do in 1964.
Even US National Security Archives historian Bradley Simpson says, “It is highly likely that a key element of US and British covert operations in this period involved the creation of ‘black propaganda’”—fake news—“in Indonesia.”
Some of the newly-released documents in Britain’s National Archives reveal how this “black propaganda” incited the massacres that followed.
From an office in Singapore a team of British spies produced radio broadcasts, and a newsletter they pretended was written by Indonesians abroad.
They sent this to about 1,500 recipients in Indonesia, including newspapers, soldiers and politicians.
“We demand in the name of all patriotic people that this communist cancer be cut out of the body of the state,” they wrote. The PKI was, “Now a wounded snake. Now is the time to kill it before it has a chance to recover.”
The mass murder began on 7 October. Over six months the army carried out a systematic plan to arrest and murder PKI members and supporters, trade unionists and members of other left groups.
Using torture, the army extracted “confessions” from some of the PKI prisoners, and often raped and sexually abused the women.
“It is highly likely that a key element of US and British covert operations in this period involved the creation of ‘black propaganda’ in Indonesia”Historian Bradley Simpson
Then they carried out mass executions. They threw bodies into rivers, hiding them in caves, dumping them in mass graves—or left them out in the open for everyone to see.
Some five percent of the population on the island of Bali was killed. In East Java, they left the bodies of mutilated women on the side of the road.
Britain’s phony newsletters urged them on throughout. One praised “the fighting services and the police” for “doing an excellent job”.
An equal—or even greater—number of prisoners were put to slave labour in prison camps for years.
In some cases, prisoners found themselves working for US companies that moved in after Suharto’s takeover, such as a Goodyear tyres rubber plant.
By March 1966 Suharto was mostly done, and he officially replaced Sukarno as Indonesia’s president, laying the basis for a Western-backed dictatorship that lasted until 1998.
All that was left for Reddaway was “to conceal the fact that the butcheries have taken place with the encouragement of the generals.”
Britain’s and the US’s interests were secured. Indonesia’s new leaders were murderers but, wrote Reddaway, they “will do us better than the old gang.”
Labour government fully backed United States violence
Britain had a Labour government at the time of the massacres. Its prime minister, Harold Wilson, is sometimes presented as some kind of left winger.
But like every Labour leader, Wilson was committed to preserving the health and interests of the British state.
For a start, that meant trying to keep hold of what little power Britain had as an empire.
Some 20 years earlier, another Labour government—led by Clement Attlee—had waged war on Indonesia to hold on to colonies in southeast Asia.
But Sukarno’s resistance made occupation impossible—as did a strike by Indian, Indonesian and British seafarers who refused to carry troops.
By 1965, Britain was again trying to shore up its power in southeast Asia.
This time Britain planned to create a supposedly “independent” new state, Malaysia, out of its old colonies—right on Indonesia’s border.
Sukarno declared a policy of “konfrontasi”—a sort of border war against British soldiers. So Wilson wanted him gone. Behind this was an even bigger strategy for British power.
Britain’s empire had collapsed, and the US had taken its place as a dominant imperial power. Wilson wanted to carve out a place for Britain as the US’s junior partner.
He also tried to convince the left that this would allow a Labour government to restrain the US’s worst excesses.
In reality, there was no restraint.
The US saw communist parties in southeast Asia, allied to its rivals Russia and China, as a challenge to its power.
It was already waging war against communists in Vietnam—backed by Wilson.
And it was worried that the KPI—at three million members—would soon become the government in Indonesia.
That’s why it organised and supported the massacre, backed by Britain.
When Labour’s politicians today talk about supporting the US as a “force for good in the world”, we should remember what that meant in Indonesia.