• Army officer briefs soldiers and local militia members about the campaign against the PKI in a village in Central Java, ca. 1965. Source: National Library of Indonesia.

  • Suspected PKI members detained by army and anticommunist militias near the base of Mount Merapi, Central Java, ca. 1965. Source: National Library of Indonesia.

  • Left: Member of the anti-communist Pemuda Marhaen militia holding a machete, Bali, ca. 1965. Source: National Library of Indonesia. Right: Entrance to the Sumber-Rejo prison camp in East Kalimantan, 1977. The sign reads: “Attention: Gate Must Remain Closed and Locked.” Photo: David Jenkins.

  • Left: Women political detainees pray in Plantungan prison camp, Central Java, 1977. Photo: David Jenkins. Right: Cover of special issue of the weekly Indonesian magazine Tempo titled “Executioners' Confessions 1965,” published in 2012. Source: Tempo.

  • PKI members and sympathizers detained by the army in Bali, ca. December 1965. Source: National Library of Indonesia.

The slaughter of 500,000 communists and the incarceration of 1 million more in Indonesia in 1965–66 remains one of the least known and least examined mass killings of the 20th century, said Geoffrey Robinson at a recent CSEAS event.

By Peggy McInerny, Director of Communications

UCLA International Institute, May 23, 2018 — In the course of six months, from October 1965 through mid-1966, roughly half a million members of the Communist Party of Indonesia (Partai Komunis Indonesia, or PKI) were killed and another one million were detained without charge, said Geoffrey Robinson at UCLA on April 25, 2018. 

To date, no one has been held accountable for the mass violence. The Indonesian army’s account of the events, notable for its extreme demonization of Indonesian communists, has been propagated in the country for over 50 years and is now widely accepted. That history, said Robinson, has been supported by the enduring silence of the two major international powers whose implicit and explicit support made the 1965–66 violence possible: the United States and the United Kingdom.

Indonesia. Based on UN Map No. 4110, Rev. 4, January 2004.

A professor of history at UCLA and a human rights expert who has worked for Amnesty International and the United Nations, Robinson spoke about his recently published book, “The Killing Season: A History of the Indonesian Massacres, 1965–66” (Princeton, 2018) at an event cosponsored by the Center for Southeast Asian Studies (CSEAS) and the UCLA department of history

The culmination of 30 years of work, the book is based on declassified documents from the archives of seven or eight foreign countries, as well as fieldwork and interviews conducted in Indonesia by Robinson, as well as by two of his dissertation advisors, Ben Anderson and George Kahin. (The latter conducted interviews in the country immediately following the 1965 coup, but never published the materials).

A translated edition of the book will be released by an independent publisher in Indonesia in July. (See notice in Indonesian about the book.)


“The targets of [the 1965–66] violence were ordinary people: farmers, day laborers, teachers, civil servants,” said Robinson. “And they were killed in some pretty gruesome ways: they were decapitated, some were castrated and their dismembered bodies were left in public places.

“This was, I stress, not a civil war,” remarked the author. “Those killed and detained were not armed and they had not committed a crime. All of them belonged to what were at the time lawful political and social organizations.

“The violence stemmed from official allegations, never proven, that the PKI leadership had killed six top army generals in a failed coup attempt on October 1, 1965,” he explained. “Based on that unproven allegation, the army began a campaign to destroy the party and to overthrow the popular left-nationalist President Sukarno.”

Although the PKI was not in power, it supported Sukarno’s government and the president was in turn sympathetic to the party, noted Robinson. At the time, he said, the PKI was the largest non-governing communist party in the world, with 3.5 million members and perhaps 20 million supporters in affiliated organizations.

Historical arguments

Robinson attributed the mass violence of 1965–66 to three major dynamics: certain historical conditions and antecedents related to Indonesian political life, the army’s leadership and the influence of powerful external states. He concentrated his remarks on the latter two dynamics, which he considered most significant.

“What I am arguing,” he said, “is that the resort to mass killing and mass detention was not, as the army has long insisted, the inevitable result of popular anger against the PKI, nor a spontaneous expression of deep-seated religious or cultural conflict,” said the historian. “It was, rather, encouraged, facilitated and organized by the Indonesian army leadership itself.”

He noted that the Indonesian army:
• carefully crafted a media and propaganda campaign that demonized and dehumanized the PKI
  and its affiliates;
• alone possessed the organizational and logistical capacity to facilitate the mass detention, transport,
  interrogation and internment of Indonesian leftists nationwide;
• mobilized an extensive network of civilian militia groups throughout the country;
• experienced limitations to its power that led to geographical and temporal variations in the violence; and
• was free to rewrite and disseminate its own history of the violence, silencing all alternative histories,
  because it seized and remained in power for over 40 years.

Robinson attributed the remarkable uniformity of the violence used in the mass killings throughout the country — disappearances, sexual violence, decapitation and corpse mutilation and display (what he called the army’s “repertoire of violence”) — to the army’s central role in mobilizing the militias that carried out the killings.

Powerful external actors were complicit in both the Indonesian genocide and its cover-up, he said. “There is now abundant documentary evidence that, for at least a decade before 1965, the United States and other western powers, worked assiduously to undermine — in fact, to overthrow — [President] Sukarno and to destroy the PKI,” he said.

Specifically, noted Robinson, “[i]n the final year before the alleged coup of 1965, the United States, the United Kingdom and their commonwealth allies, including… Canada, Australia and New Zealand... undertook a joint covert operation which was designed, in their words, ‘to create the conditions for a military takeover.’

“What did that mean?” asked Robinson. “Among other things, [it meant] provoking a premature or bogus left-wing coup that would provide an ideal pretext for a military intervention in the name of saving the country. And that indeed, is exactly what happened,” he concluded.

British Foreign Office note on a December 1964 report about Indonesia reads: “A premature PKI coup
may be the most helpful solution for the West – provided the coup failed.” Source: UK National Archive.

“Available evidence shows in the months and weeks following the supposed coup, the U.S. and its allies actively encouraged and facilitated the mounting violence,” he added.

They did this in a number of ways: through a covert campaign of disinformation and propaganda designed explicitly to “blacken the name” of the PKI; through the provision of covert economic, logistical and military assistance to the army leadership; and through a policy of deliberate silence in the face of what they knew to be widespread army-instigated violence against civilians. That support continued, and in fact increased, said the speaker, even as it became clear that many thousands of civilians were being killed.

Since the massacres of 1965–66, Robinson said, “[t]he U.S. government in particular has gone to extraordinary lengths to hide the documentary record of its own and the Indonesian army’s complicity. Likewise, the U.S. and its allies have not supported any process aimed at elucidating the truth or seeking justice for the victims of 1965.”

The Cold War and the broader international political context — including U.S. policy makers’ fear that communists could take power in both Indonesia and Vietnam (where U.S. ground troops were introduced in 1965) — played a fundamental role in the Indonesian violence, said the historian. “That context dominated the domestic political scene in Indonesia, helping to create the highly polarized left-right division that was one precondition for mass violence,” he explained.

“The Cold War was also essential in shaping Indonesia's pre-1965 international relations, driving it ever closer to Mao’s China and alienating it from the U.S. and other westerns powers,” explained Robinson. “It was Sukarno's drift to the left, after all, that led the U.S. and its allies to support the army leadership's campaign against him and the PKI, regardless of the cost in human life.”

Finally, the author contended that the weakness of international human rights norms, institutions and networks in the mid-1960s was an additional factor that made the violence possible.

Political detainees at Sumber-Rejo prison camp, East Kalimantan, 1977. Photo: David Jenkins.

Lessons from the Indonesian case

“Mass violence is not in any sense the natural or inevitable consequence of ancient cultural proclivities, deep-seated religious difference or underlying socioeconomic conditions,” said Robinson. “Rather, I argue it is the product of specific acts and omissions of people in political and social power.”

In a chilling echo of the current genocidal campaign against the Rohingya people of Myanmar, he noted, “The Indonesian example also confirms a longstanding judgment that genocide and mass killings are provoked and facilitated by language that dehumanizes the target groups, portraying them, say, as atheists, traitors, animals, barbarians, whores or terrorists.”

Robinson emphasized that discourses of treachery that result in violence can emerge not only in times of actual war, but also, “in times of intense, yet largely nonviolent, conflicts for political ideas, such as the Cold War.” And he pointed out, “International actors and contexts can either contribute to or constrain largely domestic processes in the direction of genocide and mass violence.”

Pondering the lack of accountability and long silence that has surrounded the 1965–66 killings, Robinson said succinctly, “Power matters.… As long as those responsible for crimes remain in power, the processes of truth seeking, justice, reconciliation, compensation and memorialization are not likely to happen.

“Where powerful external states are complicit in crimes against humanity and in their continued cover-up, as in Indonesia,” he added, “the prospects for accountability become ever more remote,” he said.

Robinson concluded his remarks with cautious optimism and a call to action. “Indonesia's experience makes clear that the power of states to control historical narrative, memory and justice is never absolute,” he remarked. “Even in the darkest year of Suharto's ‘New Order,’” he continued, “there were still those willing to challenge official narratives and to work for justice in some form.”

He urged scholars and citizens alike to insist that their governments open their archives on the period in question and to demand credible judicial proceedings against those deemed responsible for crimes. Robinson specifically encouraged scholars “to do whatever we can — with or without our governments — through our scholarship, through our teaching, our creative work, our direct political action, to disrupt the terrible silence that has allowed these and other such crimes to go unnoted and unpunished for more than half a century.”

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Published: Wednesday, May 23, 2018