US supported mass killings of half a million Indonesians in 1965
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US supported mass killings of half a million Indonesians in 1965

NEWLY declassified documents have reaffirmed that the United States government knew about and provided support for the killings of an estimated 500,000 to a million Indonesians in 1965-66 by the Indonesian military and affiliated vigilante groups.

Described by the US Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) as “one of the worst mass murders of the 20th century”, the 1965 massacre was sparked by an attempted coup in September of that year by a group of left-leaning generals and Indonesian Communist Party (PKI) leaders.

Documents published on Tuesday by George Washington University’s National Security Archive, in an “unprecedented collaboration” with the National Declassification Centre, show that the US government had “detailed knowledge” of the mass killings that targeted communists, leftists and ethnic Chinese across Indonesia in the wake of the failed, so-called Sept 30 movement.


General Suharto in the days after the Sept 30 Movement. Source: National Security Archive

They detail that the US embassy in Jakarta was recording the names of executed PKI members and “actively supported” the army’s efforts to annihilate the communist party in Indonesia – at that time the third largest in the world. A further million alleged communists were imprisoned.

SEE ALSO: Indonesia: Activists arrested as backlash stirs over bid to probe anti-communist massacres

Amid the Cold War, this event saw the ousting of Sukarno and ascendency of right-wing General Suharto who would come to rule the country for 32 years.

Rights groups including Indonesia’s Human Rights Commission, Human Rights Watch and Indonesia’s Commission for Missing Persons and Victims of Violence (Kontras) have long pushed for the declassification of US files.


Poster for Joshua Oppenheimer’s acclaimed documentary, The Act of Killing. Source: Final Cut for Real

The release of some 30,000 documents this week also came after US Senator Tom Udall filed a resolution to then-President Obama after he watched American director Joshua Oppenheimer’s documentaries about 1965, The Act of Killing and The Look of Silence.

One cable from a US consular officer in Surabaya dated Nov 24, 1965, noted the “slaughter” of thousands of PKI members across East Java by Ansor – the paramilitary wing of Nahdlatul Ulama (NU), which remains the largest Muslim organisation in Indonesia.

The officer reported cut throats of victims, dozens of bodies floating down local rivers, and the murder of 15,000 people in a single village. Killings in the region had the “colouration” of being a “Holy War: Killing of infidel” allowing executioners passage into heaven, it said.


Alleged communist female prisoners at the Adi Sucipto prison camp in Pontianak, Indonesia in June 1971. Source: Peter Schumacher / People’s Tribunal 1965

Historians and activists have long documented the role of the United States in the atrocities in Indonesia. Tellingly, the US declined to participate in the International People’s Tribunal for 1965 in The Hague, Netherlands led by civil society groups in November 2015.

The Tribunal’s final report found that: “The US gave sufficient support to the Indonesian military, knowing well that they were embarked upon a programme of mass killings and other, criminal conduct for the charge of complicity in crimes against humanity to be justified.”

“The clearest evidence of this was the supply of lists of names of PKI officials when there was strong presumption that these would facilitate the arrest and/or execution of those named.”

The documents released by the National Security Archive this week also demonstrate US awareness of anti-Chinese propaganda and violence, including a concerted campaign to blame the September 30th movement on Communist China and of the targeting of Indonesian-Chinese businesses in Surabaya by paramilitary groups.

SEE ALSO: Human rights: Does Indonesia’s Jokowi walk the talk?

“The US government now needs to release the remaining documents, not only for the historical record of one of the 20th century’s worst atrocities, but as a long overdue step toward bringing redress to the victims,” said Phelim Kine, deputy Asia director at Human Rights Watch this week.


People stand at the excavation site of a mass grave from the 1965 massacre in Wonosobo, Indonesia. Source: International People’s Tribunal 1965

The 1965 massacres remain a hugely taboo topic in Indonesia, demonstrated last month by the siege of a community legal centre in Jakarta by ultranationalist and Islamist groups for hosting an event for victims of the massacre.

While the Indonesian Human Rights Commission’s released its findings from a four-year investigation into the killings in 2012, the Attorney General’s office has never accepted the report. There is yet to be any legal redress for victims or their families.

“The US government can help the Indonesian government shine a light on the 1965-66 massacres,” said Kine. “Meaningful accountability for those heinous crimes – including the role of the US government – requires full-disclosure and declassification of all relevant official information.”