1965 killings in Indonesia: evidence from Canadian documents

Originally published by the East Timor and Indonesia Action Network at http://etanaction.blogspot.ca/  as “1965: Evidence from Canadian documents” by David Webster

At a time when the Indonesian government seems to be clamping down on discussion of the mass killings of 1965, it’s more important than ever to share documentary evidence about the wave of violence that swept Indonesia 50 years ago and brought the Suharto military dictatorship to power.

The events of 1965 are not just an Indonesian story. In the words of a recent book co-edited by Indonesian scholar Baskara Wardaya SJ and international scholar Bernd Schaefer: “So far the international dimension of those events is hardly explored. Although they were domestic by execution, they were also firmly embedded into the global Cold War.”

Fifty years ago an army-led campaign of brutality targeted hundreds of thousands of Indonesians accused of being left-wingers in sympathy with the Indonesian Communist Party (PKI). The killings started with a coup and counter-coup, and were encouraged by the US embassy’s provision of names to the army. As American government documents published in 2001 reveal, the Johnson administration had severed most American ties to President Sukarno’s government, preferring to work with the Indonesian army.

The true extent of American involvement in the Indonesian regime change and mass killings of 1965 is a story still to be written. Increasingly, there seems to be evidence that those once accused of being “conspiracy theorists” were right on many scores. Peter Dale Scott, a former Canadian diplomat who became a professor of English in California, is one of the most prominent of those figures, and has recently written a retrospective on his seminal article on US complicity in the events of 1965, forty years after its first publication.

Many State Department documents have been released. But many more remain hidden. American government documents are normally declassified on a fixed cycle and the key documents published in the series Foreign Relations of the United States. When the time came to release the FRUS volume dealing with Indonesia in 1965, the government stalled on releasing of the volume.

That’s why ETAN/US has launched a campaign for a full declassification of all the United States government documents and a US government acknowledgement of the American role in aiding and abetting the 1965 killings.

In the face of this withholding of information, it may be worth checking the files of more distant and less involved governments. Below I share some documents declassified by the Library and Archives Canada, part of the files of Canada’s Department of External Affairs. They reveal that Western governments had been aware of coup planning by the Indonesian army months before the actual coup; that Western governments did not initially believe the PKI was involved, but encouraged the army to attack the PKI regardless; that Canada’s government was one of those that did nothing to deter the mass killings – even with an estimate by the Indonesian ambassador in early 1966 that half a million people were already dead; and that the restoration of foreign aid to the new military regime of General Suharto was designed to anchor Indonesia into the Western side in the Cold War rather than aiming at humanitarian relief. Canada was a minor but well-informed player. Like other Western governments, it was pleased to see the Indonesian army take power, and indifferent to the enormous death toll that aided that path to power.

Many accounts depict the coup attempt of October 1, 1965, as a surprise that caught Western governments unaware. But in fact, coup talk had been around for some time. In June 1965, for instance, the prime minister of Malaysia informed diplomats from Britain, Canada, Australia and New Zealand that that Indonesia’s ambassador, a noted anti-communist, had told him that the army planned to get Sukarno out of the country and have him held hostage while it destroyed the PKI. PM Tunku Abdul Rahman said his information was that the Indonesian army “had decided time had come for drastic action to save country from Communist take-over. Army leaders were plotting to get Soekarno out of country and to hold him ‘if necessary at pistol point’ while army suppressed Communists and established pro-Western Govt.” The Tunku thought that the story might be fabricated, but also suspected the hand of the United States behind the army’s alleged plans.

2.KL 380.PDF

When, as September turned to October, soldiers led by Lt.-Col. Untung struck at the army command, capturing and killing top generals, General Suharto was quick to blame the PKI. Army-orchestrated massacres began soon after. The evidence shows that the “Old Commonwealth countries” put little faith in the claim that Untung’s coup was masterminded by the PKI. “As far as Brits could learn,” a Canadian diplomat in London wrote after meeting the responsible official at the Foreign Office, “Untung himself was not Communist and there was no firm evidence that Sep. 30 movement was inspired by Communists.” The British official reportedly told his Canadian counterpart: “Although it was tempting to believe that army would take advantage of present opportunity as excuse to deliver really crushing blow to Communists, unfortunately there were signs already that this was not likely to happen…” The hopes of the British Foreign Office, in other words, lay parallel to those of the US State department as already revealed in US documents – that the army would seize the chance to destroy the PKI. Their fears were that the army lacked the resolve or the capacity to carry out this task.

5.London 3971.PDF

In information-gathering about the coup, Canada’s mission in Tokyo similarly learned that the Japanese government assessment was also that there was no PKI involvement. “There was no evidence of sufficient prior planning to indicate organized effort by PKI,” a report stated. In a subsequent report, Japanese officials expressed a “low opinion of [the Indonesian army’s] admin[istrative] capacity and honesty” and predicted that they thought the army would do a poor job of governing Indonesia.

8. Tokyo 697ff.PDF

Increasingly in the final months of 1965, the army command took the reins of government and encouraged violence against PKI members and others. By January 1966, the army-dominated government in Jakarta was ready to ask for foreign aid. The Canadian response to an Indonesian request to resume aid, which Canada had ended in 1964, was cautious to a fault. Ottawa planned to consult its major allies before acting, but noted that aid “might provide a means by which Indonesia could be drawn back into corporate international life.” Short-term relief, delivered ideally through the United Nations and its specialized agencies, might help ensure that the new regime in Jakarta would be pro-Western.

22.Y-3.PDF

What is striking in Canadian embassy reporting from Jakarta in the last months of 1965 and the early months of 1966 is the lack of attention to killings engulfing parts of the country. One embassy report opened with a declaration that the major challenges in Indonesian domestic affairs were led by high prices and inflation. Ironically, it took the Indonesian ambassador to Canada to put an estimate of the death toll of record. In his last call in Ottawa before being recalled to Jakarta, Ambassador L.N. Palar, speaking with “great frankness,” said that half a million people might have been killed by January 1966. Palar was one of the most respected members of Indonesia’s diplomatic corps – he had led the insurgent Indonesian independence delegation at the UN in the 1940s and then Indonesia’s UN delegation and been ambassador in Washington. His views, therefore, carried weight. His estimate was that the official estimate of 87,000 dead “was on the conservative side; speaking personally he would not be surprised if the tally came closer to 500,000.”

27.Y-65.PDF

This death toll did not alter Canadian views. Indeed, the Canadian ambassador in Jakarta, like US colleagues, lamented the “passivity of [the] generals” in the face of President Sukarno’s efforts to remain in office. Canada, like its allies, hoped that the army would be more ruthless and seize power sooner rather than later.

31.Jakarta 33ff.PDF

Days later, Indonesian generals forced Sukarno to sign the “11 March 1966 order” in which he handed real power to General Suharto. A representative was dispatched to stress to the British ambassador that the transfer of power was “gentlemanly” rather than brutal, and that “it would greatly help the Generals if this view could be taken abroad, rather than a renewed impression of lawless violence.” Britain’s man in Jakarta duly made that recommendation.

33.Gilchrist 455.PDF

In sum, the Canadian documents add to the weight of evidence that 1965 was an international story, as well as an Indonesian tragedy. Western governments were not surprised by events. They did not look on passively – instead, they encouraged the army to finish off its PKI rivals. They carefully used levers such as diplomatic pressure and foreign aid to support the result they desired: a military regime in Indonesia. And if that meant thousands killed, this was not bad news to the West, but simply the cost of bringing about the intended end of a pro-Western, army-governed Indonesia.

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Eyeing the Indies: Canada-Indonesia relations, 1945-99

“Can you boil down your book to 7,500 words?” A question every author likes to hear.

When asked to do so for a textbook on Modern Canada, though, I tried. It summarizes the main points of my book Fire and the Full Moon: Canada and Indonesia in a Decolonizing World. And I had the chance to add back in some material that was cut from Fire and the Full Moon.

Here’s the opener; click through at the end to read the whole article (15 pp).

WHEN IN 1958 Theodore Newton became Canada’s second ambassador to Indonesia, his reaction summed up his new station’s peripheral place in Canadians foreign relations:

“Indonesia? The other side of the world! Visions of watery islands, brown hordes struggling to assert themselves, equatorial jungles, smoking volcanoes, gorillas and other bizarre forms of life flashed through my mind…. The die was cast, but my ignorance of my future parish was colossal and what little knowledge I possessed of it was bookish and remote.”

Indonesia mattered: it was the fifth most populous country in the world, the largest Muslim-majority country, and a trailblazer of non-alignment. Yet as Newton noted, even the capital city of Jakarta was a ‘confusing South Seas metropolis,’ pioneer territory for Canadian diplomats.

Canadian involvement with Indonesia began when Canada’s Security Council mission played a significant role in the UN-brokered peace settlement that saw the Netherlands accept the independence of its Indonesian colonies in 1949. The two countries exchanged embassies in 1953 and Canadian development aid commenced in the 1950s. Cordial if low-key relations continued until 1963, when the remaining British colonies in the region joined the Federation of Malaya to form a new independent Malaysia. This angered President Sukarno, who embarked on a ‘confrontation’ with the new Commonwealth member state.  The Canadian government lent strong support, even including some military aid, to Malaysia, and suspended aid to Indonesia. It welcomed the military coup that toppled Sukarno in 1965-66 and began to seek closer trade and aid ties with the authoritarian ‘New Order’ regime headed by General Suharto. Ottawa made Indonesia a ‘country of concentration’ for development aid in 1970; Indonesia rose as high as second among bilateral aid recipients in the years that followed. Canadian governments increasingly cultivated closer economic relations. Human rights, by contrast, were not a major factor. Only after the fall of Suharto in 1998 did any Canadian government press very hard on rights issues, giving support to the 1999 decolonization of East Timor. Human rights were again been subordinated to economic interests in Canadian policy towards the democratizing governments of Indonesia in the first decade of the twenty-first century.

For most of this period, Indonesia was important globally, but peripheral to Canadian policymakers’ perceptions of their country’s national interest. Their mental maps, their ways of picturing the world, placed the North Atlantic at the centre of the zone of ‘civilization,’ as Prime Minister Louis St. Laurent called it, with most of the world as periphery. This was the natural result of their upbringing in a Canada that was very much part of the British Empire. Lester Pearson considered that Canada could be most effective as ‘honest broker’ in areas on the periphery of cold war clashes. Examining a relationship peripheral to the imagined interests of Canadian governments permits a clearer look at the themes of Canadian foreign policy. The idea that Canada played the role of an idealistic ‘middle power’ has been debunked thoroughly by historians who have identified the importance of alliance politics. If there was indeed a strain of idealistic mediation running through Canadian foreign policy, it might be expected to be more visible in areas at the edge of the cold war, as Pearson suggested. In Indonesia – a land almost impossibly distant to many in Ottawa – it was not. Part of the reason was that Asia and the rest of the less developed world were seen as peripheral. Racialized perceptions underpinned and reinforced mental maps.

Many Canadians have spelled out their own diplomatic self-image of Canada as benevolent peacemaker and humanitarian internationalist power with respect to relations with the global South. In a 1960 Dominion Day speech delivered on Radio Indonesia, Newton offered as clear a statement of the Canadian sense of mission as any: ‘Canada is then more and more taking a world role in the interests of peace, in the development and the protection of the under-privileged, and in the fight against hunger, poverty and injustice… We aim to be considered honest brokers in world affairs. We wish to help the less developed and the less fortunate nations of the world toward a fuller life.’  A case study of Canadian policy towards Indonesia, however, shows that policymakers made decisions about Indonesia in ways that would serve the interests of Canada’s alliances and multilateral associations – the Commonwealth and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization above all. Over time, it increasingly meant serving the interests of Canadian capital by promoting trade and investment.

Eyeing the Indies full text.

Memory, truth and reconciliation in Southeast Asia

This fall’s major project is a workshop on Memory, Truth and Reconciliation in Southeast Asia, looking at conflict and conflict resolution in historical perspective in Timor-Leste (East Timor), Indonesia, and (West) Papua. The draft schedule is now posted. Undergraduate researchers at Bishop’s University have posted some valuable background material too, including an analysis of media coverage of the residential schools Truth and Reconciliation Commission here in Canada and an overview of past truth commissions in the Asia Pacific region for comparative purposes. The workshop aims to produce two products by combining academic and advocacy perspectives: a policy brief for the Canadian government and a book based on presentations made in Ottawa and other contributions from people who are not able to come.

Indonesia’s New Frontier: the Kennedy administration and the Indonesian annexation of West Papua

jfk-doll_convertedUnited States presidential elections still have the power to make some people wistful for the days when presidents got some respect. Barack Obama entered office on a wave of “hope” that was felt as much globally as within the United States itself. No president has been so revered globally since John F. Kennedy.

Kennedy is hailed for a firm hand in foreign policy, a willingness to change course and move towards peace where warranted, and nimble “crisis diplomacy.” One apparent success came in Kennedy administration mediation of the Indonesia-Netherlands dispute over control of West Papua (then known as West New Guinea, and later renamed Irian Jaya by its Indonesian rulers). Although the administration’s mediation efforts leading to Indonesian control of the colony are generally hailed as a success, they failed to address the roots of the conflict, which continues today.

Kennedy’s intervention arguably prevented an immediate explosion, but it did so at the cost of forty years of instability. If it prevented an immediate war, it permitted a simmering low-intensity war that cost thousands of lives. Here, as in so many of Kennedy’s initiatives, the New Frontiersmen concentrated on short-term crisis management. Their failure to consider local aspirations – a failure rooted in inability to see the “primitive” dark-skinned Papuans as legitimate international actors – created the conditions for an ongoing insurgency. Histories of the dispute have only been able to see it as a Kennedy success because they, too, have ignored the Papuans themselves

The Netherlands had retained West New Guinea as a colony when it recognized Indonesian independence in 1949; Indonesia demanded the territory be “returned to the fold of the motherland” and threatened an irredentist war. By pressuring both sides into an American-authored agreement, the Kennedy administration felt it had managed to avoid a Dutch-Indonesian clash, which would have benefited only the Soviet Union, and also hoped to maintain stability in Southeast Asia at a time when it was increasing American commitments in the region.

American involvement in the dispute ignored the local population entirely. Yet West New Guinea remains in dispute between the Indonesian government and a nationalist movement among the indigenous Papuan population, a conflict rooted in the aborted decolonization process. Apart from the removal of Dutch colonial rule, the dispute today remains similar to that in the years 1960–1962: should the territory be part of Indonesia, or an independent country? Kennedy’s intervention arguably prevented an immediate explosion, but it did so at the cost of forty years of instability. If it prevented an immediate war, it permitted a simmering low-intensity war that cost thousands of lives.

Fifty years after the 1955 Bandung Conference of 29 Asian and African governments, considered to be the birth of the “Third World,” the Indonesian government celebrated the anniversary of its first major international conference. Papuan nationalists delivered a letter to most foreign embassies in the Indonesian capital, calling their land’s struggle an issue of unresolved colonialism. There are regular Papuan suggestions that the US role in the Indonesian annexation of West Papua implies a responsibility for the outcome, half a century later.

In the attached article, originally published in the journal Diplomatic History in 2009, I explore the conflict from U.S., Indonesian and indigenous standpoints, and address background influences on Kennedy administration policy. These include the influence of mental maps derived from the cold war and colonial anthropology, perceptions of race that equated the inhabitants of West New Guinea with ideas of stone age primitivism, gendered perceptions that privileged vigorous action and crisis management, and modernization theory that defined stages and places of development.

David Webster, “Regimes in Motion: The Kennedy Administration and Indonesia’s New Frontier, 1960-1962,” Diplomatic History 33 no. 1 (January 2009): 92-123.