Indonesian killings of 1965–66

The Indonesian killings of 1965–66 were a violent anti-communist purge following an abortive coup in the Indonesian capital of Jakarta. The most widely accepted estimates are that over half a million people were killed. The purge was a pivotal event in the transition to the "New Order"; the Indonesian Communist Party was eliminated as a political force, and the upheavals led to the downfall of incumbent and Indonesian founding president Sukarno and to the commencement of Suharto's thirty-year presidency.

The failed coup released pent-up communal hatreds which were fanned by the army who quickly blamed the Indonesian Communist Party (PKI). Communists were purged from political, social, and military life, and the PKI itself was banned. The massacres began in October 1965 in the weeks following the coup attempt, and reached their peak over the remainder of the year before subsiding in the early months of 1966. They started in the capital Jakarta, spread to Central and East Java, and later Bali. Thousands of local vigilantes and army units killed actual and suspected PKI members. Although killings occurred across Indonesia, the worst were in PKI strongholds of Central Java, East Java, Bali, and northern Sumatra. It is possible that over 1 million people were imprisoned at one time or another.


Support for Sukarno's presidency under his Guided Democracy depended on his forced and unstable "Nasakom" coalition between the military, religious groups, and communists. The rise in influence and increasing militancy of the Indonesian Communist Party (PKI) and Sukarno's support for it, was a serious concern for Muslims and the military, and tension grew steadily in the early and mid 1960s. The third largest Communist party in the world, the PKI had approximately 300,000 cadres and a full membership of around two million. The party's assertive efforts to speed up land reform provoked existing landowners and threatened the social position of Islamic clerics.

On the evening of 30 September and 1 October 1965, six generals were killed by a group calling themselves the 30 September Movement. With much of Indonesia's top military leaders either dead or missing, one of the most senior surviving generals, Suharto (later Indonesian President) assumed control of the army the following morning. By 2 October he was firmly in control of the capital and announced that a coup attempt had failed. The military blamed the coup attempt on their arch enemies the PKI.On 5 October, the day of the dead generals' funeral procession, a military propaganda campaign began to sweep the country, successfully convincing both Indonesian and international audiences that it was a Communist coup, and that the murders were cowardly atrocities committed against Indonesian heroes. The PKI's denials of involvement had little effect. Pent-up tensions and hatreds that had built up over years were released.

Political purge

The army removed top civilian and military leaders it thought sympathetic to the PKI. The parliament and cabinet were purged of Sukarno loyalists. Leading PKI members were immediately arrested, some summarily executed. Army leaders organised demonstrations in Jakarta during which on 8 October, the PKI Jakarta headquarters was burned down. Anticommunist youth groups were formed, including the army-backed Indonesian Student's Action Front (KAMI), the Indonesian Youth and Students' Action Front (KAPPI), and the Indonesian Graduates Action Front (KASI). In Jakarta and West Java, over 10,000 PKI activists and leaders were arrested, including famed novelist Pramoedya.

The killings

The killings started in October 1965 in Jakarta, spread to Central and East Java and later to Bali, and smaller outbreaks occurred in parts of other islands, notably Sumatra. As the Sukarno presidency began to unravel and Suharto began to assert control following the coup attempt, the PKI's upper national leadership was hunted and arrested with some summarily executed; the airforce in particular was a target of the purge. PKI chairman, Aidit, had flown to Central Java in early October, and where the coup attempt had been supported by leftist officers in Yogyakarta, Salatiga, and Semarang. Njoto was shot around 6 November, Aidit on 22 November, and Lukman was killed shortly after.

The communal tensions and hatreds built up were played upon by the army leadership who demonised communists, and many ordinary Indonesians became killers. The worst massacres were in Central and East Java where PKI support was at its strongest. Large numbers of victims were also reported in northern Sumatra and Bali. The situation varied across the country and the role of the army has never been fully explained; in some areas the army organised, encouraged, trained, and supplied civilian to groups and local militias. In other areas, communal vigilante action preceded the army, although in most cases killings did not commence before military units had sanctioned violence by instruction or example. In some areas, civilian militia knew where to find known communists and sympathisers, while in others, the army demanded lists of communists from village heads. PKI membership was not disguised and most suspects were easily identified within communities. The American Embassy in Jakarta, supplied the Indonesian military with lists of up to 5,000 suspected communists.

Although some PKI branches organised resistance and reprisal killings, most went passively to their deaths. Not all victims were PKI members; often the label "PKI" was used to include anyone to the left of the Indonesian National Party, in other cases victims were suspected or simply alleged Communists. Local Chinese were killed in some areas, and their properties looted and burned as a result of anti-Chinese racism on the excuse that Aidit had brought the PKI closer to China. In the predominantly Christan islands of Nusa Tenggara, Christian clergy and teachers suffered at the hands of Muslim youth. In West Kalimantan, approximately eighteen months after the worst of the killings in Java, indigenous Dayaks expelled 45,000 ethnic Chinese out of rural areas, in which hundreds, or perhaps thousands were killed. Methods of killing included gun shot and beheading with Japanese-style Samurai swords. Corpses were often thrown into rivers and at one point, officials complained to the army that the rivers running into the city of Surabaya were clogged with bodies. In areas such as Kediri in East Java, Nahdlatul Ulama youth wing (Ansor) members lined up Communists, cut their throats and disposed of the bodies in rivers. The killings left whole sections of villages empty, the houses of victims or the interned were looted and often handed over to the military.

Although there were occasional and isolated flare ups until 1969, the killings largely ended by March 1966, until either there were no more suspects, or authorities intervened. Many of the bodies had been dumped in rivers, so much so that in parts they became clogged with corpses. Solo residents said that exceptionally high flooding of the mystical Solo River in March 1966 signaled the end of the killings.


In Java, much of the killing was along aliran (cultural stream) loyalties; the army encouraged santri (more devout and orthodox Muslims) amongst the Javanese to seek out PKI members amongst the abangan Javanese. The killings extended to more than PKI members; in Java many considered 'left PNI' were killed, others killed were just suspects and other killings were simply the settling of old grievances with little or no political motive.

Conflict that had broken out in 1963 between Muslim party Nahdlatul Ulama (NU) and the PKI became slaughter in the second week of October Muslim group, Muhammadiyah proclaimed in early November 1965 that the extermination of "Gestapu/PKI" constituted Holy War ("Gestapu" being the military's name for the '30 September Movement'), a position that was supported by other Islamic groups in Java and Sumatra. For many youths, killing Communists became a religious duty. Roman Catholic students in the Yogyakarta region, would leave their hostels at night to join in the execution of truckloads of arrested communists.

In mid-October, Suharto sent in paracommando troops he trusted as loyal into Central Java, a region with strong communist allegiances, while troops of whose loyalty he was suspicious, were ordered out. Anti-communist killings were then instigated with youths assisted by the army to find Communists.

Where there had been communist centres in Central and East Java, Muslim groups portraying themselves as victims of communist aggression justified the killings by evoking the Madiun Affair of 1948.

Although, for most of the country, the killings subsided in the first months of 1966, in parts of East Java, the killings went on for years. In Blitar, guerrilla action was maintained by surviving PKI members until they were defeated in 1967 and 1968. A mystical teacher, Mbah Suro, and his devotees of his Communist ideas mixed with traditional mysticism built an army, but Suro and eighty of his followers were killed in a war of resistance against the army.


Mirroring the widening of social divisions across Indonesia in the 1950s and early 1960s, the island of Bali saw conflict between supporters of the traditional caste system, and those rejecting these traditional values. Government jobs, funds, business advantage and other spoils of office had gone to Communists during the final years of Sukarno's presidency. Disputes over land and tenant's rights became land seizures and killings when the PKI promoted "unilateral action". As Suharto was gaining the upper hand in Java, Sukarno's choice of governor was pushed from office in Bali. Communists were publicly accused of working towards the destruction of the island's culture, religion, and character, and the Balinese, like the Javanese were urged to destroy the PKI. As Indonesia's only Hindu-dominated island, Bali did not have the Islamic forces involved in Java, and upper-caste PNI landlords instigated the elimination of PKI members. High Hindu priests called for sacrifices to satisfy spirits angered by past sacrilege and social disruption. Balinese Hindu leader, Ida Bagus Oka, told Hindus: "There can be no doubt [that] the enemies of our revolution are also the cruelest enemies of religion, and must be eliminated and destroyed down to the roots".

Like parts of East Java, Bali experienced a state of near civil war as Communists regrouped. The balance of power was shifted in favour of anti-Communists in December 1965, when the Army Paracommando Regiment and Brawijaya units arrived in Bali after having carried out killings in Java. Javanese military commanders permitted Balinese squads to kill until reined in. In contrast to Central Java where the army encouraged people to kill the "Gestapu", on Bali eagerness to kill was so great and spontaneous, that having provided logistic support, the army had to step in to prevent anarchy. A series of killings similar to those in Central and East Java were led by black-shirted PNI youth. For several months, militia death squads went through villages capturing suspects and taking them away. Between December 1965 and early 1966, an estimated 80,000 Balinese were killed, equivalent to 5% of the island's population at the time, and proportionally more than anywhere else in Indonesia.


PKI-organised squatters' movements and campaigns against foreign businesses in Sumatra's plantations, provoked quick reprisals against communists following the Jakarta coup attempt. In Aceh as many as 40,000 were killed around the plantations, part of possibly 200,000 deaths across Sumatra. The regional revolts of the late 1950s complicated events in Sumatra as many former rebels were forced to affiliate themselves with Communist bodies to prove their loyalty to the Indonesian Republic. The quelling of the 1950s revolts and 1965 killings were seen by most Sumatrans as a "Javanese occupation". In Lampung, another factor in the killings seems to have been Javanese immigration.

Deaths and imprisonment

Although the general outline of events is known, much is unknown about the killings, and an accurate and verified count of the dead is unlikely to be ever known. There were few western journalists or academics in Indonesia at the time, the military was one of the few sources of information, travel was difficult and dangerous, and the regime that approved and oversaw the killings remained in power for the three decades since. The Indonesian media at the time had been undermined by restrictions under Guided Democracy and by the "New Order's" take over in October 1966. With the killings occurring at the height of Western fears over the Cold War, there was little investigation internationally, which would have risked complicating the West's preference for Suharto and the "New Order" over the PKI and the "Old Order"

In the first 20 years following the killings, thirty-nine serious estimates of the death toll were attempted. Before the killings had finished, the army estimated 78,500 had died while another early estimate by the traumatised Communists put the figure at 2 million. The army later estimated the number killed at a possibly exaggerated 1 million. In 1966, Benedict Anderson estimated the deaths at 200,000 and by 1985 had offered a range of 500,000 to 1 million. Most scholars agree that at least half a million were killed, more than any other event in Indonesian history. An armed forces security command estimate from December 1976 put the number at between 450,000 and 500,000.

Arrests and imprisonment continued for 10 years after the purge. A 1977 Amnesty International report suggested "about one million" PKI cadres and others identified or suspected of party involvement were detained. Between 1981 and 1990, the Indonesian Government estimated that there were between 1.6 and 1.8 million former prisoners "at large" in society. It is possible that in the mid 1970s, 100,000 were still imprisoned without trial. It is thought that as many as 1.5m were imprisoned at one stage or another. Those PKI members not killed or imprisoned went into hiding while others tried to hide their past. Those arrested included leading politicians, artists and writers such as Pramoedya, and peasants and soldiers. Many did not survive this first period of detention, dying from malnutrition and beatings. As people revealed the names of underground Communists, often at the hands of torture, the numbers imprisoned rose from 1966–68. As many as 1.5 million may have been imprisoned. Those released were often placed under house arrest, had to regularly report to the military, or were banned from Government employment, as did their children.


Sukarno's balancing act of "Nasakom" (nationalism, religion, communism) had been unraveled. His most significant pillar of support, the PKI, had been effectively eliminated by the other two pillars—the army and political Islam; and the army was on the way to unchallenged power. Many muslims were no longer trusting of Sukarno, and by early 1966, Suharto began to openly defy Sukarno, a policy which had previously been avoided by army leaders. Sukarno attempted to cling to power and mitigate the new found influence of the army, although he could not bring himself to blame the PKI for the coup as demanded by Suharto. On February 1 1966, Sukarno promoted Suharto to the rank of Lieutenant General. The Supersemar decree of 11 March 1966 transferred much of Sukarno's power over the parliament and army to Suharto, ostensibly allowing Suharto to do whatever was needed to restore order. On March 12 1967 Sukarno was stripped of his remaining power by Indonesia's provisional Parliament, and Suharto named Acting President. On 21 March 1968, the Provisional Peoples Representative Assembly formally elected Suharto as president.

The killings are skipped over in most Indonesian histories, and have received little introspection by Indonesians and comparatively little international attention. However, following Suharto's forced resignation in 1998, and his death in 2008, some level of openess about what had really happened has emerged in public discourse in subsequent years. A hesitant search for mass graves by survivors and family members began after 1998, although little has been found. Over three decades later, great enmity remains in Indonesian society over the events. The film Year of Living Dangerously based on events surrounding the killings was not able to be shown in Indonesia until 1999.

Satisfactory explanations for the scale and frenzy of the violence have challenged scholars from all idealogical perspectives. One view attributes the communal hatreds behind the killings to the forcing of parliamentary democracy onto Indonesian society, claiming that such changes were culturally unsuitable and unnecessarily disruptive in the post-independence 1950s. A contrasting view is that when Sukarno and the military replaced the democratic process with authoritarianism, competing interests—i.e., the army, political Islam, and Communism—could not be openly debated, rather they were suppressed and could only be expressed through violence. Conflict resolution methods have broken down, and Muslim groups and the military adopted an "us or them attitude", and that when the killings were over, many Indonesians dismissed as something the communists had deserved. The possibility of a return to similar upheavals is cited as a factor in the "New Order" administrations political conservatism and tight control of the political system. Vigilance against a Communist threat remained a hallmark of Suharto's thirty-year presidency. Internationally, the killings and purges were seen as a victory over Communism at the height of the Cold War. Western governments and much of the West's media preferred Suharto and the "New Order" to the PKI to the increasingly leftist "Old Order".



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