Fifty years ago, on 30 September, one of the worst atrocities of the 20th century took place on Australia’s doorstep.
An estimated half a million people affiliated with the Partai Komunis Indonesia (Indonesian Communist Party or PKI) were massacred by the Indonesian Army, with help from local religious and youth groups. These killings contributed to a reorientation in Indonesian politics, installing general Suharto as president and eliminating the once-strong PKI through violent purges and systematic imprisonment. Declassified documents have shown that the US and its allies played a significant role in these killings, as the US provided weapons, communications equipment and lists of known communists. As an ally of the US, the Australian Embassy and the Department of External Affairs acted in a way that made Australia an accomplice, by helping to create the conditions that allowed the massacres to take place.
At the end of September 1965, Indonesia was on knife edge. Under president Sukarno, Indonesian politics were dominated by three forces: the army, nationalism, and the PKI. While both the army and the PKI pledged loyalty to Sukarno, they were fierce political rivals, and Sukarno played each other off to strengthen his position. In the years leading up to 1965, Sukarno favoured the PKI and it grew in strength, while his foreign policy became increasingly hostile towards the West. The Indonesian Army and the US and its allies watched these developments with suspicion, and formed secret relationships. From 1958 to 1965, the US secretly trained, funded and advised the army to turn it into a “state within a state” that would be ready to take over government if the opportunity arose.
On the night of 30 September 1965, the commander of the army Lt general Achmad Yani and five generals were kidnapped by a group calling themselves the September 30th Movement. They were murdered and thrown down a well. The army and the US embassy had been patiently waiting for an event like this. It declared the PKI responsible for masterminding a coup, seized almost all media outlets and spread the story of PKI treachery. General Suharto extracted a mandate from Sukarno to return order to the country, before setting out to destroy the Communist Party.
Across the archipelago, a campaign to eliminate the PKI saw the murder of an estimated 500,000 people. Victims were rounded up and detained for days, or months, before being executed. The army was instrumental in the massacres, often accompanied by local militias. Those who weren’t killed were transferred to prison camps, with one million people held in detention facilities without trial, with terms varying from a few months to 14 years.
Following the events of 30 September, Western nations solidified their support for the Indonesian Army, in an effort to remove the PKI from power and sideline Sukarno. The US and the UK, supported by other nations in the region including Australia, carried out clandestine operations which supported and encouraged the army-led massacres of alleged PKI. Documents from the National Archives of Australia show that the Australian Embassy and the Department of External Affairs were closely aligned with the Indonesian Army, offered support for their activities in overthrowing Sukarno and eliminating the PKI, and used Radio Australia to broadcast army propaganda in Indonesia that contributed to anti-Communist hysteria.
Cables show that the Australian Embassy was aware that communists were being rounded up and killed from early October 1965. The Australian ambassador to Indonesia, Keith Shann, “personally witnessed” around 250 prisoners being taken away by the army, and noted that it was impossible to know the number of people killed and detained, but “it cannot be small”. In February 1966, J.M. Starey, the first secretary at the Australian Embassy, visited Bali, Flores and Timor, and spoke to Australian students who had been in Lombok. He heard first-hand accounts of the killings by people who had participated in them, and in Flores even saw victims’ heads on spikes in some villages. Starey noted that the army was in control of the proceedings. The Australian Embassy and Department of External Affairs made it clear they were satisfied with these events. In early October 1965, ambassador Shann cabled the department saying that it was “now or never”, and that he “devoutly hope[d]” that “the army [would] act firmly” against the PKI. In mid-1966, prime minister Harold Holt expressed detached satisfaction with the pro-Western shift in Indonesian foreign and economic policy. He casually told the crowd at the Australian-American Association in New York, “with 500,000 to one million Communist sympathisers knocked off, I think it is safe to assume a reorientation has taken place”.
As the Indonesian Army murdered hundreds of thousands of alleged PKI, the Australian Embassy maintained ties with Indonesian Army generals, discussing anti-PKI activities and ways Australia could assist the army in its transition to power. A cable from 12 November 1965 shows ambassador Shann discussed the army’s anti-Communist campaign and Australia’s military campaign in Borneo to defend the newly-created Malaysia against Indonesian aggression with the undersecretary from the Indonesian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Dr A.Y. Helmi.
Helmi requested Australian and British troops restrict all patrols and activities in Borneo, so the Indonesian Army could deal with the communists. Shann reassured Helmi that the army was “completely safe in using their forces for whatever purposes they saw fit”, knowing those forces would be used to attack PKI members and allies.
The biggest role Australia played in the 1965-66 massacres of the PKI was through broadcasting and supporting Indonesian Army propaganda. In the weeks that followed the attempted coup, the Indonesian Army seized control of virtually all of Indonesia’s media, and began an aggressive and pervasive anti-PKI campaign which spread disinformation aimed at discrediting and dehumanising the communists.
During the time of the killings, Radio Australia was under the influence of the Department of External Affairs, which was passed information from the Australian Embassy in Jakarta following instruction from the Indonesian Army. Cables show that through regular daily guidance, Radio Australia was instructed on the topics it should report on and the phrases it should use about key figures and events.
Ambassador Shann urged Radio Australia to focus on the PKI’s involvement in the attempted coup, and to “pound the facts into Indonesians”, noting that it is “excellent propaganda and of assistance to the anti-PKI forces” who were “refreshingly determined to do over the PKI”. Radio Australia was also encouraged to report manipulations and misconstructions of the truth, in line with what the Indonesian Army requested. A 9 November 1965 cable showed that ambassador Shann was approached by an unnamed colonel from the army’s Information Section and was told that Radio Australia should not focus on the army, but to “mention as often as possible youth groups and other organisations, both Moslem and Christian” that were involved in anti-communist actions, to dilute the culpability of the army. He also discussed the reporting of a list of other internal and external issues in favour of the army. Shann concluded the cable with the comment that he could “live with most of these [instructions], even if we must be a bit dishonest for a while”.
Radio Australia was also told to avoid “giving information to the Indonesian people that would be withheld by the army-controlled internal media”, and Radio Australia should not compromise the army’s position. Almost all the media outlets in Indonesia were controlled by the army, and Radio Australia was one of the most popular foreign radio stations in the country. The army’s anti-PKI propaganda was an incitement to violence, which contributed to the mobilisation of parts of the Indonesian population to participate in the massacres. By contributing to the propaganda that swept the country, Australia played a part in encouraging militias and civilians to participate in the slaughter, while justifying the killings through the demonisation of the victims.
Australia’s actions as an accomplice to these killings should not be exaggerated. The massacres of the PKI took place against the backdrop of years of tension and hatred between the army and the PKI, in a complex internal political environment that would have seen the killings take place regardless of any role Australia might have played. Fifty years later, those who committed the atrocities have never been brought to justice. Denial of the killings is rife. Where it is acknowledged, the perpetrators are admired as heroes who saved the nation from a communist menace. As activist groups across Indonesia struggle to cut through the propaganda and spread the truth about the massacres of the PKI, it is important that Australia’s role in these events is understood.
Marlene Millott is a research assistant at Monash University. This article is based on the thesis completed for her Masters in Journalism and International Relations. This article was first published at the Australian Institute of International Affairs.