The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

In Indonesia, the ‘fake news’ that fueled a Cold War massacre is still potent five decades later

Members of the youth wing of the Indonesian Communist Party are taken to prison in Jakarta on Oct. 30, 1965. Historians estimate that beginning in 1965, between 500,000 and 1 million Indonesians were killed in Gen. Suharto's bloody rise to power, the worst mass slaughter in Southeast Asia's modern history after the Khmer Rouge killing fields in Cambodia. (AP Photo)
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JAKARTA, Indonesia — Early on the morning of Oct. 1, 1965, members of Indonesia's armed forces kidnapped and killed six high-ranking generals in Jakarta. To this day, it's not entirely clear who was involved in planning the operation or what the “30th September Movement” hoped to achieve.

But the military's swift reaction and the mass killings that followed have entered history as one of the Cold War's darkest chapters. Gen. Suharto, then the head of the army's strategic reserve command and relying on support from the CIA, accused the powerful Communist Party of orchestrating a coup attempt and took over as the military's de facto leader. Over the next few months, his forces oversaw the systematic execution of at least 500,000 Indonesians, and historians say they may have killed up to 1 million. The massacre decimated the world's third-largest Communist Party (behind those of the Soviet Union and China), and untold numbers were tortured and killed simply for allegedly associating with communists.

The military dictatorship that formed afterward, led by Suharto, made wildly inaccurate anti-communist propaganda a cornerstone of its legitimacy and ruled Indonesia with U.S.  support until 1998.

More than 50 years after the events of 1965 — and as documents continue to emerge pointing to Washington's support for the killings — the topic is still an inflammatory one in the world's largest Muslim-majority country. Recently, conservative and Islamist activists, armed with Suharto's version of events, have sought to suppress investigations into the events of 1965 and have used the communist boogeyman to attack moderate President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo.

“There are two tools that cynical operators can use for political gain in Indonesia — religion and communism,” said Baskara T. Wardaya, a professor at Sanata Dharma University in Yogyakarta who studies the role of the Cold War in Indonesian history. “And the myth of an ever-present, dangerous communist threat was created by Suharto in October 1965. It was ingrained into the minds of the people.”

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In 1965, the Indonesian Communist Party (PKI) was a legal party of unarmed civilians operating in the open, not a rebel or clandestine organization. Even if the party's high command did know about or helped form the 30th September Movement, there is no evidence that any rank-and-file members had knowledge of its plans.

But simply for their political beliefs, they were subjected to mass slaughter. Across the country, one by one, Indonesians were shot, stabbed, decapitated or thrown off cliffs into rivers to be washed into the ocean. The carnage was mostly over by the end of 1965, but violence and discrimination continued for decades. Relatives of victims or accused communists were banned from participating in many facets of public life.

A member of the U.S. Embassy staff in Jakarta later admitted that he had handed over a list of communists — compiled by U.S. officials — to Indonesian authorities as the massacre was underway.

“It really was a big help to the army,” Robert J. Martens, a former member of the embassy's political section, told The Washington Post in 1990. “They probably killed a lot of people, and I probably have a lot of blood on my hands, but that's not all bad.”

The National Declassification Center recently processed thousands of the Jakarta embassy's files from this period and is working with Brad Simpson, a historian at the University of Connecticut, and the National Security Archive to digitize them and make them public.

In an email Friday, Simpson said preliminary work indicated that the documents should “confirm in additional detail that US officials were aware of the Army-led mass-killings of alleged PKI supporters and members and actively encouraged them” and could be released later this year. He added of the officials, “They knew the Army was carrying out a campaign of extermination against overwhelmingly unarmed civilians who were unaware of and had no involvement in the September 30th Movement.”

But Indonesia still suffers from “dangerous anti-communist paranoia,” in the words of a recent Human Rights Watch publication. The organization was condemning an attack on the offices of the Legal Aid Institute in Jakarta earlier in September.

The institute had planned to host a small conference about the events of 1965, but conservatives circulated social-media messages falsely alleging that the event was actually a meeting to revive the PKI, which is still illegal. Demonstrations on Sept. 16 forced the cancellation of the planned talk. When supporters of the groups involved returned to the building the next day for a cultural event, they were trapped inside by an “anti-communist” mob until early the next morning.

Participants, including students and young human rights activists, told stories of their panic that night as they heard the group outside shout repeatedly “Kill PKI!” and “Allahu akbar!” Witnesses said many of the demonstrators belonged to the same Islamist groups that led a successful campaign for the imprisonment of a former governor of Jakarta, a Christian of Chinese descent, on charges of committing blasphemy against Islam.

“We were the victims of a hoax,” said Citra Referandum, a lawyer at the Legal Aid Institute, using a Bahasa Indonesia term sometimes translated as “fake news.” She said, “Our event on September 17th was only about supporting democracy in Indonesia.”

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The anti-communists remain active. On Friday, a few thousand protesters gathered in Jakarta to warn the country about the alleged dangers of a PKI resurgence in the government. Many analysts think this line of attack may be used against Widodo in next year's election.

“Many powerful people are invested in maintaining the false narrative put forward by the propaganda and brainwashing under Suharto, because they don't want to see themselves or their predecessors turned from heroes into villains,” said Andreas Harsono, a researcher with Human Rights Watch in Indonesia, after Friday's protest. “And even though communism is practically nonexistent here, the fears they created can still be used against Jokowi. He's Javanese [Indonesia's largest ethnic group] and Muslim, so they can't attack him for his race or religion. So they try to attack him for being a communist.”

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