The Atlantic Report: Indonesia

A failed Communist coup leads to bloody military reprisals and to the rise of Suharto

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THE residual strength of the now shattered Indonesian Communist Party, the deplorable state of the country's economy, the lack of effective civil leadership, and the widespread xenophobia and general anti-Westernism all demand the utmost caution in assessing future prospects in the strategically important and revolution-shaken republic of Indonesia. Yet no future developments, wherever they may lead this sadly mismanaged country, can diminish the importance of the events that occurred on September 30 and October 1, and, in less dramatic form, have been going on ever since.

That Indonesia did not become an annex to Peking, fully embraced in a military and political relationship which would have invalidated the best American and British efforts in Vietnam and Malaysia, bordered on the miraculous. Two things prevented China from seizing a stranglehold on Indonesia: General Suharto, then commander of the strategic reserve, spent the night at the hospital with his fever-stricken daughter and escaped assassination; and Defense Minister Abdul Haris Nasution's young aide, in the last minutes of his life, stalled the assassins in their pre-dawn call at the Nasution home by appearing in the general's coat and cap while the pajama-clad Nasution escaped over the wall of the Iraqi Embassy.

There were other contributing factors, including President Sukarno's decision not to identify himself with the September 30 movement when it first announced its coup d'etat, and his subsequent refusal, under pressure from second Deputy Prime Minister Johannes Leimena, to accompany Communist leader D. N. Aidit and the collaborating air force chief, Air Marshal Omar Dhani, to central Java. These were significant but peripheral, since Sukarno's actions were not motivated by any sense of disapproval of the coup but only by its failures.

Suharto, even more than Nasution, was the key, and if there is an Indonesian strong man today, it is he. Little known to most Westerners in Djakarta -- he was the only general on the assassins' original list who had not had training or long experience in a Western country -- Suharto is regarded by Indonesians who know him well as incorruptible. Even more important, on the morning of October 1, he alone, as commander of the strategic reserve, had immediate access to and control of substantial military forces. He could act unilaterally, and his elimination, even if Nasution had survived, might well have meant inaction in the early, critical hours of the coup.

In crushing the coup, Suharto moved quickly and effectively. Later he made difficult political decisions without consultation with or advice from outsiders. In attacking the Communists, he was not acting as a Western puppet, which he is not; he was doing simply what he believed to be best for Indonesia.

It was Suharto's decision, for example, that he needed Sukarno to identify himself, however indirectly, with the forces that had opposed the coup. Jogjakarta had fallen to the rebels, and there was a real risk that the revolt might spread through all of central and eastern Java and to some of the outlying regions also. Even among some of the military leaders who had helped to put down the coup and were openly anti-Communist, Sukarno's charisma was important.

Made to order for revolt

AGAINST this background, Suharto decided he had to go on using the president. There were times in October when the policy seemed likely to slip into reverse, with Suharto becoming the used and Sukarno the user. Sukarno had no intention of becoming a figurehead, and said so. While conceding to the president the right to find a political solution to the chaos created by the September 30 coup, however, Suharto quietly brought about a situation in which any solution truly acceptable to Sukarno would be impossible. His principal support came from the Indonesian people. To many observers it had seemed that the Communist Party's greatest strength before the coup had grown out of its refusal to participate fully in a NASAKOM (nationalist, Communist, and religious) government. It had escaped identification, it was said, with the misrule, the corruption, and the scandalous incompetence of government that had turned the world's third richest country in known natural resources into a giant slum in which men were forced to lie and steal and cheat just to get enough food to eat.

In principle, the situation was made to order for revolt, especially for Communist revolt; but the revolt, as the Communists quickly discovered, was anti-Communist. It was also bitter, and but for the army, would have been bloody. It began slowly but gathered momentum as the people tested and quickly found the limits of their new freedom. Here was a quasi-Communist country, heavily indoctrinated, fundamentally anti-Western, which suddenly spurned everything the Communists had to offer. Initially, the army guided; before very long, there was danger it might be led.

For months past, the Indonesian news bulletin Antara had distributed undisguised Communist propaganda. Hsinhua, the New China News Agency, was its principal source of foreign news. The army now closed Antara temporarily, retooled its staff, and then allowed it to publish again. The results were substantially less than satisfactory. Hsinhua was back in its old familiar place; Communist propaganda was back in local items. This time the army moved more drastically and with the arrest of twenty-five Communists on its staff, Antara began to publish the sort of news most Indonesians had never expected to read again.

A crop of new newspapers authorized by the army hit the streets, while the Communist presses, which had dominated the scene, closed down. For publishing a report that the mob had wrecked Aidit's home and discovered a billion rupiah with masses of incriminating documents and evidence that the Communist leader had been enjoying a life of luxury, the new press came in for some bitter criticism from Sukarno. Aidit's home had not been touched, Sukarno declared. Next day Muslim youth groups made amends, and while the army stood guard, looted the official ministerial residence and burned the contents on the front lawn.

In the course of these operations the army was now permissive rather than directive. It openly encouraged the destruction of Communist bookstores, universities, and offices. It prevented any attack on the Chinese Embassy, and it managed to discourage racially biased attacks on the Chinese community, which, to survive in recent years, had to give the appearance at least of being fervently pro-Communist.

Against this assault Communist Party resistance wilted. It had no contingency plans to cope with this situation, and it was clearly less formidable than many observers had expected. In part, this could be attributed to the circumstances in which it had achieved its too spectacular growth.

The Communist line

UNLIKE most other Communist parties, the Indonesian Communist Party, which Aidit had nurtured for thirteen years, had set its sights during the mid-fifties on a take-over by constitutional democratic methods. With the idea that he could win Indonesia with the ballot box instead of bullets, Aidit eschewed the doctrinaire emphasis on small, tightly knit cadres and concentrated on growth.

By the middle of 1965, though a take-over by electoral processes was no longer possible in Sukarno's guided democracy, the Party had grown into the third largest Communist Party in the world, with three and a half million members and candidate members, and eleven million camp followers in Front organizations. Inevitably, ideological purity suffered, and it was not unusual in central Java, where the Party had its greatest numerical and administrative strength, to find a devout Muslim working as a devoted Party organizer.

Aidit's plans for taking power now depended on the success of two essentially complementary but different approaches: the acquisition of guns by the creation of a People's Army and the penetration of the armed forces at the lower levels, coupled with the subversion of the higher levels of the government, and possible, of the military. On both levels he achieved some success.

In the weeks immediately preceding the September coup, both Sukarno and Dr. Subandrio -- first Deputy Prime Minister and generally regarded at that time as the front-runner among the heirs apparent -- were pushing the Communist line against the generals, with whom Aidit had had no success. Despite the army's understandable objections to the creation of a People's Army of some twenty million, guns were coming in clandestinely from China for both the Communist Youth and the Communist Women. Both groups were also receiving military training through Air Marshal Omar Dhani.

Given time, these tactics alone might have proved sufficient. But as Aidit was well aware, time was working against him. Since the failure of attempts to persuade the army leaders that an ultimate post-Sukarno ideological accommodation based on NASAKOM could be reached between the non-Communist army and the Communists, the revolutionary processes had to be speeded up. With Sukarno's blessing, therefore, the Communists opened an undeclared war on the army, charging the generals with having become "capitalist bureaucrats." The intention was to precipitate an early showdown in which Sukarno, with his great authority and prestige, would be the final factor in the Communist victory.

The plan in its initial stages worked well. September saw a rapid intensification in the campaign against the "capitalist bureaucrats." In speech after speech Sukarno, Subandrio, and Aidit created the climate for revolt. When the generals took counsel among themselves, it was inevitable that they should be accused of planning a coup d'etat, and perhaps inevitable, also, in the context of existing Indonesian-American relationships, that the hand of the Central Intelligence Agency should have been seen in this plot.

To prevent the generals' coup there had to be a coup to save Sukarno. It failed more by ill luck than by mismanagement, but its brutality sowed a whirlwind. When Djakarta's television viewers saw the dismembered bodies of the vilely treated generals and the medieval instruments of torture that were found cached in Communist Party headquarters, the slide was suddenly reversed, and Indonesia, far from slipping rapidly into the Communist camp, suddenly began to slide rapidly in the opposite direction.

Anti-Red is not pro-Western
THE West has no seat at the end of this seesaw, however. Peking and the Indonesian Communist Party have suffered their worst reverse ever. The Djakarta-Peking axis as an effective military alliance died with the discovery that Peking had advance information about the planned coup, had supplied the guns with which the assassins were armed, and by refusing to lower its embassy flag to half-mast, had showed only contempt for the murdered generals. But the antithesis of Communist is anti-Communist, not pro-Western. While much of Sukarno's papier-maché ideology had collapsed in ruin, here and there a pillar or two of the past remained. One was the fear that Indonesia was being encircled by imperialist colonialist and neocolonialist powers intent on its ruin.

It was a time when the West, with the best of intentions, could help most by not helping at all. To be pro-Western was almost as damaging as to be pro-Communist. This need for restraint was widely understood, and nowhere better than in the U.S. Embassy.

Marshall Green arrived to take over as ambassador from the now sadly disillusioned Howard P. Jones in the pre-coup fury of anti-Americanism with the instruction and intention of being firm. He was. When the American consulates in East Java and Sumatra were threatened by Communist mobs and Sukarno's administration appeared determined to close them down, Green spoke to Subandrio in terms that he was not accustomed to hear from an American ambassador. If the United States were pushed in this way, it would reserve the right to push right back, he told Subandrio. The pushing quickly ceased.

In the new situation, Green could have erred by open encouragement of the anti-Communist forces. Instead, and perhaps reflecting too little confidence in the new regime to hold Sukarno and the Communists in check, Green approved the State Department decision to withdraw the dependents of American officials.

Needed: a hard new look

IN the not too distant future, however, the United States and its allies will have to consider urgently what, if anything, they can do to help Indonesia through its mounting, and potentially catastrophic, economic problems. "In the words of Johnny Walker, we are still going strong," said Sukarno in his first speech after the coup. But Indonesia is not going strong: it is scarcely going at all.

Money in circulation is increasing at the rate of fifty billion rupiah month, but the presses cannot cope with the demand. Measured by the yardstick of the black market, a senior government official now earns about fifty cents a month and a coolie about five. Project development has all but ceased, and such industry as is in existence is starved for spare parts and raw materials. Some factories have ceased operations; others, the most fortunate, may be working at 50 percent of capacity. In conditions such as these the opportunity for a long-term Communist comeback is real and demonstrable.

To find a way of helping Indonesia in this phase of xenophobic ultranationalism will not be easy. Moreover, the external requirements in the way of aid for basic industries could easily run as high as a billion dollars, for this is not a case of merely priming the pump, but of building a new machine. And in between the need and the help are not only foreign inhibitions and the obvious difficulty in finding such a sum but the deep-rooted Indonesian fear of encirclement. To remove those barriers will require a level of understanding and statesmanship on the part of both Indonesia and the West that has not been apparent in the past.

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http://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/1966/01/the-atlantic-report-indonesia/306660/