US documents released on 1965-66 massacres in Indonesia

Staring from October 1965, Indonesian army officials led by then Major General Suharto oversaw a campaign of mass killings targeting the Communist Party of Indonesia, in which up to a million people may have been slaughtered. No one has been brought to book for these crimes and the whole issue is being allowed to fade into oblivion. While the recent decision of the US government to release some 30,000 pages of US embassy documents on the issue is to welcomed, it is incumbent on the US to release all documents pertaining to the subject so that justice can be done.

NEWLY released US government documents on the mass killings in Indonesia in 1965-66 underscore the need for the US and Indonesian governments to fully disclose all related classified materials, Human Rights Watch has said. Those classified documents are crucial to an accurate historical record of the killings and to provide justice for those crimes.

The 39 US Embassy in Jakarta documents released on 17 October by the US non-governmental public transparency organisation National Security Archive show that US diplomatic personnel were fully aware of the scale and savagery of the 1965-66 killings.

The documents reveal that US diplomats and their State Department counterparts in Washington were documenting tens of thousands of killings by the military, paramilitary groups and Muslim militias of suspected members of the Communist Party of Indonesia (PKI) and ethnic Chinese, as well as trade unionists, teachers, activists and artists.

'These newly released documents make clear that US officials had detailed knowledge of the mass killings in Indonesia in 1965-66,' said Phelim Kine, deputy Asia director of Human Rights Watch. '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.'

The 39 documents are part of a cache of almost 30,000 pages of declassified embassy paperwork spanning from 1965 to 1968, processed by the National Declassification Center, a division of the US National Archives and Records Administration (NARA). They include State Department letters, telegrams, situation reports, and confidential communications between US consulates in Indonesia and the US Embassy in Jakarta. They do not include US Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) documents, which remain classified.

In Indonesia, there has been a recent surge in efforts by paramilitary groups and militant Islamists to stoke 'anti-communist' paranoia in response to calls for accountability for the mass killings. Elements of those groups led a violent 'anti-communist' demonstration in Jakarta in September while the Indonesian military launched a propaganda offensive aimed at reinforcing the official narrative that the killings were a justified response to an attempted communist coup.

Starting in October 1965, Indonesian army officials, led by then-Major General Suharto, oversaw a campaign of mass killings targeting Communist Party members and giving free rein to a mix of soldiers and local militias to kill anyone they considered a communist. Over the next few months into 1966, at least 500,000 people were killed (the total may be as high as 1 million).

In the 52 years since the killings, the Indonesian government has justified the massacres as a necessary defence against the PKI. Its account holds that the communists attempted a coup, murdering six army generals on 30 September 1965 as part of their attempt to turn Indonesia into a communist state. In October 2012, then-Coordinating Minister of Political, Legal and Security Affairs Djoko Suyanto responded to findings of the National Commission on Human Rights (Komnas HAM) that the events of 1965-66 constituted a 'gross human rights violation' by insisting that those killings were justified.

Public discussion about the killings, a taboo topic in Indonesia for decades, has increased in recent years, a process substantially aided since 2012 by the release of the documentary films The Act of Killing and The Look of Silence.

On 10 December 2014, US Senator Tom Udall introduced a 'Sense of the Senate Resolution' condemning the 1965-66 atrocities in Indonesia and calling on US authorities to declassify related documents in US files. The proposed Senate resolution highlighted the continued impunity enjoyed by those who carried out the crimes, and called on Indonesian political leaders to establish a truth and reconciliation commission to address alleged crimes against humanity and other human rights violations. It called upon all relevant US government agencies to 'locate, identify, inventory, recommend for declassification, and make available to the public all classified records and documents concerning the mass killings of 1965-1966, including but not limited to records and documents pertaining to covert operations in Indonesia from 1 January 1964-30 March 1966,' and to expedite the public release of such files. The release of the 30,000-odd US Embassy documents was just the first step in that process.

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

Excerpts from the 39 declassified US Embassy in Jakarta documents

*  'We continue to receive reports [of] PKI being slaughtered by Ansor [a Muslim militia] many areas East Java. Killing of PKI continues in villages bordering Surabaya and wounded released from Surabaya refuse to return to their homes. According head East Java Railways, 5 stations closed because workers afraid to come to work since some of them have been murdered.' (Telegram from US Consulate in Surabaya to the US Embassy in Jakarta, 26 November 1965)

*  'Meanwhile, both in the provinces and Djakarta, repression of the PKI continued, with the main problem that of what to feed and where to house the prisoners. Many provinces appear to be successfully meeting this problem by executing their PKI prisoners, or by killing them before they are captured.' (Cable marked 'Secret' from the Political Affairs Counsellor at the US Embassy in Jakarta to Washington DC, 30 November 1965)

* 'Muhammadiah [a reference to Muhammadiyah, Indonesia's oldest Muslim mass membership organisation] source reports that preachers in Muhammadiah mosques are telling congregations that all who consciously joined PKI must be killed. "Conscious" PKI members are classified as lowest order of infidel, the shedding of whose blood is comparable to killing a chicken. This appears to give Muhammadiah Muslims wide license for killing. Policy of reformist Muhammadiah very similar to "Final Interpretation" issues by conservative NU [a reference to Indonesia's mass membership Muslim organisation Nahdlatul Ulama], suggesting Muslim opinion here practically unanimous on disposal of PKI members.' (Cable marked 'Confidential' from the US Consulate in Medan to the US Embassy in Jakarta, 6 December 1965)

* '[Anti-PKI violence] have now resulted in an estimated 100,000 PKI deaths. A reliable Balinese source informed the Embassy that PKI deaths on the island of Bali now total about 10,000 and include the parents and even distant relatives of crypto-Communist Governor Sutedja.' (Cable marked 'Secret' from the Political Affairs Counsellor at the US Embassy in Jakarta to Washington DC, 21 December 1965)


*Third World Resurgence No. 322/323, Jun/July 2017, pp 57-58