The documentaries “The Act of Killing” and “The Look of Silence” have brought greater attention to the massacres and the impunity their perpetrators enjoy. But Indonesian forces are not solely responsible for what happened.
As I explore in a forthcoming book chapter based on declassified government documents, U.S. officials were accessories to this mass murder. The United States helped create the conditions for the killings. It supported, rather than restraining or condemning, the perpetrators. The United States was not alone; British and Australian officials also supported the killings.
In the early 1960s, Indonesia had a left-wing president, Sukarno, and the third-largest communist party in the world, the PKI. The U.S. government believed that Sukarno and the PKI were threatening to make Indonesia the “next China,” endangering U.S. strategic and commercial interests. The United States took covert action against Sukarno in the 1950s and restricted aid in the 1960s, primarily funding military assistance programs. U.S. officials cultivated relationships with anti-Sukarno leaders. In February 1965, as tensions were rising in Indonesia, the United States approved a covert action plan to “chip away at the PKI” through “black letter operations” and support for anti-communist groups.
The political situation exploded Sept. 30, 1965, when a group of junior military officers killed six top generals. By the next day, the army, under the command of Suharto, had crushed the officers. There is no evidence that the Sept. 30 attack was organized by the PKI or part of a larger plot, yet Suharto moved quickly to smear the PKI and leftist organizations and painted the events as a communist coup attempt. The military sidelined Sukarno and immediately launched a campaign with student and Muslim organizations to “crush” the PKI.
In a January 1966 speech, Sen. Robert Kennedy said, “We have spoken out against inhuman slaughters perpetrated by the Nazis and the Communists. But will we speak out also against the inhuman slaughter in Indonesia, where over 100,000 alleged Communists have been not perpetrators but victims?” Kennedy argued that the United States must speak out against all mass killings. If the United States explicitly acknowledged and atoned for its role in the violence that engulfed Indonesia in the 1960s, it could help Indonesia confront its past and move toward justice and reconciliation.
If the United States were to pressure the Indonesian government and military to follow international law, it could help minimize or even prevent contemporary abuses in West Papua and elsewhere in the country. Sen. Tom Udall (D-N.M.) has twice proposed a ‘Sense of the Senate’ resolution seeking both a truth and reconciliation commission in Indonesia and further clarity on the U.S. role in the massacres, though this has not spurred further legislative or executive action. U.S. acceptance of responsibility for its own role in the massacres could reinforce American human rights rhetoric and bolster the claims of survivors and victims’ families in Indonesia.
Kai Thaler is a PhD candidate in the department of government at Harvard University, studying civil wars, political violence, and state building, and is on Twitter @KaiMThaler.