Suharto's rise: Communist plot or military coup?

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Suharto's rise: Communist plot or military coup?

By James Balowski

People watching Indonesian television on the night of September 30 didn't need a guide to know what was on. With the Suharto regime desperate to resurrect the "latent threat of communism" in the wake of the July 27 riots, a film titled Penghianatan G30S/PKI ("The September 30 Movement/Indonesian Communist Party Treason") was just one of the many treats in this year's orgy of anticommunist propaganda.

The G30S/PKI affair proved to be the precursor to one of the most brutal massacres in human history — and the beginning of Suharto's rise to power and the birth of the New Order regime.

In the months leading up to October 1965, Jakarta was rife with rumours that a group of generals, fearful of the growing strength and influence of the Indonesian Communist Party (PKI), were planning to move against President Sukarno.

While Sukarno's strong anti-US and anti-imperialist rhetoric won broad support among the Indonesian masses, for western governments it appeared that Indonesia was on a headlong slide to the left. Sukarno's announcement in January 1965 of the formation a "Fifth Force" of armed peasants and workers — independent of army control — led to a bitter rift between Sukarno and key military leaders such as Lieutenant General Achmad Yani and General Nasution.

September 30 Movement

Lieutenant Colonel Untung, Lieutenant Colonel Latief and Brigadier-General Supardjo set out to pre-empt the coup against Sukarno. In the early hours of October 1, squads of soldiers bust into the homes of Nasution, Yani and five other members of the army general staff, intending to take them before Sukarno. Yani and two others were killed at their homes. Nasution was able to escape, but his five-year-old daughter was fatally shot and one of his aides abducted.

The kidnap victims were taken to Halim air force base in south-east Jakarta. Meanwhile, troops from other units occupied the national radio station and the telecommunications building and took up positions opposite the presidential palace.

Calling themselves the September 30 Movement (G30S), at around 7am the officers announced on national radio that they had taken preemptive action against a "Council of Generals" who, with the support of the CIA, had been plotting a coup against Sukarno.

Later that day, a decree was broadcast setting up a Revolutionary Council, dismissing the cabinet and ordering the establishment of regional councils. No mention was made of the PKI or Sukarno's role, and Untung stressed it was "an internal army affair".

In the absence of Yani, the Strategic Reserve (Kostrad) commander, Major General Suharto, took the initiative and assumed "temporary" command of the army. Throughout the day, he marshalled his troops and then persuaded some of the rebel troops to change sides.

Hearing that the operation had failed, a captain in charge of the kidnapped officers panicked, and the remaining captives were shot. The bodies were disposed of in an unused well known as Crocodile Hole, where a national shrine, complete with wax figures depicting the story, now stands.

The other rebel battalion, formally under Untung's command, withdrew to Halim. Suharto then ordered a commando regiment to move in, and the base fell without much of a struggle early on the morning of October 2.

Manipulated news

Having also seized the national radio station and closed down most of the country's newspapers, Suharto was in a position to manipulate events for his own interests — the overthrow of Sukarno and the obliteration the PKI.

Within days, Suharto announced that evidence had been "uncovered" that the coup had been masterminded by the PKI. National coverage was given to gruesome pictures of the generals' bodies being removed from the well and to stories claiming they had been tortured and sexually mutilated by members of the PKI's women's organisation Gerwani before being killed. (Autopsy records, discovered several years ago, proved there had been no such mutilation.) Tales of "fiendish Communist women" who had engaged in frenzied sex orgies with troops were also instrumental in stirring up anticommunist passions.

On October 5, Armed Forces Day ceremonies were replaced by an elaborate military funeral for the dead generals, Nasution delivering a bitter oration. Army-backed student and Muslim groups were mobilised. Mobs attacked and destroyed homes of prominent PKI figures, and the party's headquarters in Jakarta were ransacked and burned to the ground.

Suharto's security units began a wave of arrests, while local military commanders in provinces launched their own purges. PKI chairperson Aidit and other PKI leaders were hunted down, most being executed soon after capture on specific instructions from Suharto.

Meanwhile, the military were training and arming Muslim gangs for the "final solution". The killings started in East Java and soon spread through Java, Bali and Sumatra. Within four months, as many as 1 million Communists and left-wing sympathisers were murdered, and hundreds of thousands of others were interned for long periods.

Officially portrayed as a failed Communist coup — thwarted only by decisive action on the part of Suharto and the army — the events have been carefully, woven into the fabric of New Order mythology and its ideological justification for the seizure of power, the military's ongoing social and political rule and even the economic and political policies pursued by the government to this day.

The Cornell paper

But the many unexplained contradictions and loose ends, the intriguing web of relationships between the key actors and the prevailing social, political and economic conditions have led may observers to question the official line and look for a more plausible explanation. (Not a single book, investigation or report which contradicts the official version of events has ever been allowed to be published in Indonesia.)

One of the first serious investigations was conducted by Ben Anderson and Ruth McVey from Cornell University in 1971. Known as "the Cornell paper", its findings essentially supported Untung's public statement, concluding that the PKI was not directly involved. Later works by Anderson and McVey have begun to point the finger more squarely at Suharto himself, the person who most benefited from the coup.

One of the first questions which immediately comes to mind is why Suharto, commander of the strategically important Kostrad, a unit equipped and trained for rapid deployment against just such a rebellion, was not on the kidnappers' list. Initially, rumours were spread that he had been included but was away from his home on the night. Suharto later admitted that this was not true.

In the absence of Yani, Suharto was the next in the chain of command and was far more important than many of the others. Suharto's own corrupt financial and political dealings would have been more than enough to accuse him of plotting against Sukarno. That Suharto and Kostrad were simply forgotten by the plotters is hard to believe.

Links with Latief and Untung

According to Suharto, he heard of the coup by chance at around 5.30 that morning. He then drove his own jeep to Kostrad HQ, where shortly afterwards he heard the coup broadcast on the radio. With Untung's troops occupying key positions close to the Kostrad HQ, it seems surprising that, alone, Suharto was able to reach his destination without incident.

In an interview in 1969, Suharto revealed that, just hours before the operation, he had met with Latief at a military hospital where Suharto's son was being treated for minor burns. By then rumours of the meeting had surfaced, and it became necessary for Suharto to come up with some kind of explanation.

Suharto claimed that Latief was there to keep an eye on him, but in a later interview said that Latief planned to assassinate him but got cold feet at the last minute. Suharto had long-term personal and professional ties with both Untung and Latief. Latief and his wife were close personal friends of the Suhartos.

When Latief was finally brought to trial in 1976, he gave a very different version of events. He asserted that not only did he inform Suharto of the operation, but that they had discussed the matter at his home two days before. A request that Suharto appear for his defence was rejected by the court.

Another key figure was Sjam Kamaruzzaman, who with Aidit was alleged to have headed the PKI's Special Bureau to handle the party's political and intelligence work within the armed forces and to recruit "progressive" officers. With Aidit dead, Sjam was the only other person who could testify to the existence of the bureau.

Sjam appeared as a witness in dozens of the G30S/PKI trials, blaming Aidit and the PKI for the coup. Although tried and sentenced to death in 1966, Sjam was kept alive for 20 years and is said to have boasted to other prisoners that every time he thought his execution was imminent, he would inform on another PKI contact in the armed forces.

Later investigations found that Sjam also had a personal relationship with Suharto. A CIA report on the 1965 events refers to Sjam as a long-time informer for military intelligence who reported on the activities of the PKI and other parties.

Aidit, who was a minister in Sukarno's government, was captured and shot without trial on November 22 and his body disposed of in a well. Since then, the officer responsible, Colonel Yasir Hadibroto, has given no less than three different accounts of what happened. In the first account, he makes it quite clear that Suharto ordered him to track down and kill Aidit. By the third account, Yasir appears to have taken the initiative himself.

Sjam's role makes it clearer why it was necessary for Aidit to be disposed of a quickly as possible and why Suharto has tried to distance himself from the killing.

On September 30, 1988, the Jakarta daily Merdeka carried an editorial entitled "Retracing history" which indirectly questioned the official version. Labelling the plotters as "G30S", not the official acronym "G30S/PKI", it referred to historians as "still combing the depths to discover the unknown truth". The paper was severely reprimanded and the journalist who wrote the editorial sacked.
[James Balowski is the national deputy coordinator of ASIET.]