A detailed look at Indonesia's 1965-66 mass killings — and the West's complicity

Suspected leftists rounded up by Indonesia's military in 1965.

The Killing Season: A History of the Indonesian Massacres, 1965-66

By Geoffrey B Robinson

Princeton University Press, 2018

429 pages

From October 1965 to mid-1966, one of the worst mass killings of the 20th century took place in Indonesia. Anywhere between 500,000 and more than 1 million people associated with the Indonesian Communist Party (PKI) were estimated to have been killed and more than 1 million others jailed, some for more than 3 decades, in an anti-leftist purge led by the Indonesian military.

In The Killing Season, historian and human rights activist Geoffrey B Robinson documents how the Indonesian military orchestrated and led the killings. He also details the complicity in the slaughter of the US, Britain and other major Western powers including Australia. The killings accompanied the overthrow of the anti-imperialist president Sukarno and the rise of the New Order dictatorship. Headed by General Suharto, this regime lasted until it was overthrown in a pro-democracy uprising in 1998.

By 1965, the PKI had become the largest communist party outside the USSR and China. It had about 1 million members, with about 17 million more belonging to various affiliated mass organisations. It also gained influence through its support for land redistribution and by the backing of Sukarno, who sought to balance the influence of the Army and Islamist groups under what was termed “Guided Democracy” from 1959 onwards.

Robinson makes it clear that the Western countries, such as the US, Britain and Australia, were increasingly concerned with the anti-imperialist direction taken by Sukarno. He took Indonesia closer to China and opposed the creation of Malaysia, which he viewed as a neo-colonialist plot by Britain to weaken Indonesia. This led to what was known as “the Confrontation” between Indonesia, Britain and Malaysia.

Along with concerns about Indonesia moving leftward, this gave Western powers ample reason to assist the military in the removal of Sukarno and to move against the PKI.

On October 1, 1965, six generals were kidnapped and killed in mysterious circumstances. It is unknown exactly who was responsible, however the Suharto-led military used these events as the pretext to crack down on the PKI.

Robinson considers different interpretations of what exactly happened. He eventually draws the conclusion that the plot was carried out by left-leaning lower ranking officers who wanted to pre-empt a feared right-wing coup against Sukarno. Robinson concludes that while this group may have had secret links to the PKI and some party leaders played some role, by no means was the party in control of the event. Neither the PKI’s politburo nor central committee, let alone its membership, were aware of the plot.

None of this stopped the plot from becoming the pretext for the massacres that followed and the annihilation of the PKI and Indonesia’s left.

During the years of the New Order regime, Indonesians were fed the lie that the killings were justified as a “spontaneous uprising” against the “treachery of the PKI”. Robinson debunks this propaganda by showing that these killings were clearly orchestrated by the Indonesian military.

Others, such as the Islamist Nahdlatul Ulama (NU) and other anti-communist groups, played a role in the killings, but only the military had the organisational and logistical capacity to coordinate and carry out the killings on such a scale. It also had the capacity to exploit pre-existing tensions that existed in Indonesian society.

In his research, Robinson finds that while killings took place throughout Indonesia, the worst massacres happened in Aceh in Northern Sumatra, East and Central Java, Bali and Nusa Tengarra. He also finds that there were clear class and social tensions exploited by the military.

For example, Northern Sumatra was Indonesia’s plantation belt and had been the scene of struggles between the plantation owners and the workers organised in PKI-led unions.

Elsewhere, the struggles tended to be over land redistribution, with the NU and the right wing of the Indonesian Nationalist Party (PNI) tending to be supported by the Islamic and Hindu (in Bali) elites who controlled the land against the PKI and left wing of the PNI who called for land reform and therefore drew their support from peasants and workers.

Killing Season goes into heartbreaking detail to describe the grotesque, predominantly non-mechanised violence of the killings: death by decapitation, disembowelling, stabbing, genital mutilation, impaling, strangling. Women associated with the PKI affiliated women’s organisation Gerwani, especially suffered in this way because the military fabricated claims that members of the organisation had carried out acts of torture and sexual sadism.

Meanwhile, while the military were the primary perpetrators of the killings, the evidence of Western complicity in making these killings possible is well established with the CIA providing the military with training and support in the years leading up to 1965.

The US and British governments waged a devious campaign of psychological warfare before, and to suppressed accurate reports of the murders. US diplomats and the CIA’s Indonesia station left little to chance, giving the army money, mobile radio equipment and lists of Indonesian communists to be killed.

For the Western governments, these killings were considered a major victory for the Capitalist west in the Cold War. Australian PM Harold Holt joked in 1966 to the New York Times that “with 500,000 to 1 million Communist sympathizers knocked off, I think it is safe to assume a reorientation has taken place”. These governments continued to help cover up their involvement in the killings and gave key support to the Suharto’s dictatorship, especially in terms of training and funding its military. This was in spite of its many human rights abuses, such as the illegal occupation of East Timor.

Even today, Western governments continue to support and train the Indonesian military despite its occupation of West Papua because corporate interests override human rights concerns.

Up to 1.5 million people were jailed without trial by the New Order regime in a vast network of prisons and concentration camp such as Baru Island.

In the 1970s, a growing international human rights campaign bought increasing attention to the plight of these prisoners. This led to the New Order regime being forced to close Baru Island prison in 1979.

However, even after release, these people were subject to all manner of restrictions by the regime. They were subject to discrimination and stigmatisation as the “New Order” regime indoctrinated Indonesians into its narrative about what happened on September 30, the 1965-66 killings and its aftermath. An example was the infamous Betrayal of Indonesia Communist Party film school children were shown from its released in 1984 until 1998.

Even after the fall of the Suharto dictatorship in May 1998 the effects of the New Order dictatorship remain. Attempts to find the truth of what happened in 1965-66 and to gain justice for the victims and survivors still encounter resistance, especially considering the culture of impunity fostered during the New Order era means that the perpetrators still hold much power.

In many ways, what happened in 1965-66 could be considered an act of politicide. It involved wiping out an entire political movement and culture that had been a vital part of Indonesian life since the 1920s. 

Robinson’s The Killing Season is a vital work in documenting one of the worst mass killings of the 20th century — and exposing the complicity of Western governments.