Third part of an investigation of the background to the 1965 massacre of up to a million Communist Party supporters in Indonesia, described but not explained in Joshua Oppenheimer’s documentary The Act of Killing. (First part here, second part here, review of movie here).
The remnant of the Chinese Communist Party that survived the 1927 catastrophe undertook a long retreat to the Chinese hinterland, where it was able, at great cost, to regroup and survive beyond the reach of Chiang’s repression. China was still in turmoil. Japanese troops invaded Manchuria in 1931, re-igniting the resistance of Chinese workers and peasants. Japan’s occupation escalated into a full-scale invasion of China in 1937, and of a succession of British, French and Dutch colonies in Asia, including Indonesia, in the course of the World War. The human cost of the Japanese invasion of China was staggering: at least 20 million Chinese killed, mostly civilians, and 100 million refugees. At least one million Japanese soldiers also perished. Chiang Kai-shek’s weak and cowardly defence of China’s sovereignty against the Japanese invasion, while he pursued the military campaign against the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) forces, once again created space for the CCP.
The upheavals caused by Japan’s war of conquest, and its eventual failure, opened space for anti-colonial movements across Asia. Some welcomed the Japanese as allies in their fight to rid their countries of the old colonial masters, while others fought the Japanese occupation, and then renewed their independence agitation in the vacuum left after Japan’s defeat. In either case, the collapse of the Japanese military campaign in 1945 opened a more favourable period for the anti-colonial movements, and revolutionary opportunities developed across the region.
With the collapse of the Japanese occupation of China in 1945, the CCP attempted to collaborate with Chiang’s Kuomintang in the formation of a capitalist government; when Chiang insisted on unconditional surrender, the CCP had little choice but to fight. Chiang’s army melted away and his corrupt regime rapidly disintegrated. Between 1946 and 1953, the CCP moved further and faster than it ever intended, drove out Chiang, took power in its own name in 1949, and overthrew capitalist domination of the economy.
The victorious Chinese revolution had an impact in Asia comparable to the Russian revolution in 1917. Millions throughout the continent now looked to this example of successful resistance against the imperialist powers, among them the anti-colonial fighters in Indonesia – and above all, those of Chinese descent.
When in 1923 the Communist International reversed its earlier position and urged Communist parties in the colonial world to join bourgeois nationalist movements, it had little effect at first on the Communist Party in Indonesia, the PKI. The bourgeois forces in Indonesia were so weak and fragmented, there was no equivalent of the Kuomintang to join forces with. The first significant bourgeois independence party was founded in 1927, the Partai Nasional Indonesia of Sukarno. The PKI conformed to the Communist International instruction, and handed leadership of the anti-colonial struggle to Sukarno – with the exception of founding leader Tan Malaka, who refused to go along with this abdication, and broke with the PKI.
Japan invaded Indonesia in 1942, and the Dutch resistance collapsed quickly. Sukarno and Hatta, the two most prominent bourgeois independence leaders, cooperated with the Japanese, seeing the occupation as a step towards independence, and were decorated by the Japanese Emperor Hirohito. The PKI was advised by the Stalin leadership in Moscow to support the Dutch-led resistance to the Japanese occupation. With the collapse of the Japanese war, Sukarno declared Indonesian independence – while the Dutch and British sent troops to retake possession of their former colonies.
Despite huge rallies and demonstrations of support for the Republic, Sukarno refused to mobilise military defence of the Republic, instead entering into negotiations with the Dutch. The PKI followed this line of compromise. Tan Malaka, who in exile had witnessed the Japanese occupation of Shanghai, declared that there should be no negotiations until all foreign troops were withdrawn. He attempted to unite the activities of the many small guerrilla forces that had sprung up to resist the Dutch re-invasion. (While carrying out this line of struggle, he was captured and executed by a Republican unit in East Java in 1949.) For three years following the declaration of independence, the Sukarno-Hatta government worked to demobilise the popular guerrilla forces, while the Dutch military stranglehold tightened.
Caught in this tightening political and miltary noose, the PKI militias in Madiun refused the order to disband. The PKI leader Musso, who had led the premature PKI uprising in 1926, returned from exile in 1948 and launched an uprising in Madiun. This was quickly put down by the Republican forces led by Vice-President Hatta, at a cost of thousands of lives of party members and leaders, including Musso.
It was a turning point in the independence struggle. The United States, which was expanding its role in the region as Japanese, Dutch, British and French empires collapsed, took the crushing of the Madiun rebellion as evidence that the Hatta forces were their most reliable allies in holding back the struggles of workers and peasants. The United States pressured the Dutch to recognise Indonesian independence and withdraw its military forces. At the same time, it developed close links with Hatta and actively supported his efforts to consolidate the Republican military forces under bourgeois leadership.
Reeling from the Madiun defeat, the PKI clung ever more tightly to the line of looking to Sukarno for protection and support. In doing so, they were supported by the Stalinist leaderships in both Moscow and Beijing. Visiting Beijing in 1963, PKI leader Dipa Nusantara Aidit said, “We have now collaborated with the Indonesian bourgeoisie for nearly ten years, and the revolutionary forces have continually developed rather than grown fewer during this time, whereas the reactionary forces have experienced failure after failure…President Sukarno has played an important role in the struggle against Communophobia and for national unity.”
The Chinese Communist Party of Mao Zedong had never abandoned the policy of collaboration with bourgeois forces, even when their own self-defence had compelled them to step beyond it. By 1963 China had broken with the Soviet regime, and was isolated diplomatically. The Chinese government valued their friendly relations with the Sukarno government in Indonesia.
The PKI’s slavish support for the ‘left’ bourgeois Sukarno did not put a halt to the mounting class struggle in the independent Indonesia. A situation developed that was uncannily similar to the Chinese CP’s support for the ‘left’ Kuomintang leader Wang Jingwei in 1928, and had a similarly disastrous outcome. The key issue, in Indonesia as in China, was land reform.
In 1960 Sukarno introduced a land reform law, under pressure of the mass of land-hungry peasants. This aroused strong opposition especially from the Islamic clergy, many of whom were large landowners themselves and lived by the exploitation of the peasants. In 1964, peasants demanding land held demonstrations involving hundreds of thousands, and unilateral actions to take over land belonging to the big landlords spread, supported by the PKI. This developed into a near-revolutionary crisis, with many clashes between the peasants and the reactionary forces. Sukarno gave the command to halt the land-reform campaign, and it was halted. Trotsky’s urgent warning to the Chinese CP on the eve of the 1927 disaster is worth repeating: “The agrarian revolution is a serious thing. Politicians of the Wang Jingwei type, under difficult conditions, will unite ten times with Chiang Kai-shek against the workers and peasants.”
The impending clash between the PKI-led workers and peasants and their supporters in the military on one hand and the rightist military leadership and the Islamic clergy on the other was increasingly clear, and rumours of a coup by one side or the other were rife. The PKI had grown to three million members, as well as another ten million in supporting organisations of women, youth, peasants, as well as trade unions; it had many sympathisers in the armed forces, and appeared to superficial observers to be in a strong position.
When the blow was struck, it was clear that the rightist forces had read the political situation much more accurately, and were better prepared politically and militarily for the inevitable clash than was the PKI. Taking as their pretext an attempted coup against rightist military leaders, the remaining rightist military leadership led by General Suharto began the great bloodletting targetting PKI members and sympathisers in October 1965. Sukarno was not deposed; on the contrary, it suited the rightists better to retain him as the President.
The PKI was thrown into disarray. Even as the slaughter was under way, the PKI leadership issued no instruction for armed self-defence, because “Sukarno is still at the top” and “pro-people elements are still in the government.” Some PKI leaders in fact sought refuge in Sukarno’s palace. No help was forthcoming from Sukarno. He remained ‘at the top,’ while Suharto and the rightist generals called the shots, and in March 1966 signed a Presidential Order authorising Suharto to ‘undertake all measures considered necessary to guarantee security, calm and stability of the government.” He was finally dismissed 18 months after the coup.
In Bali the murders did not begin until a month later than in Java, yet even there many militants had no idea what was going on until they were slaughtered. The multi-million-strong Indonesian Communist Party, resting on the political support of the Chinese Communist Party, turned out to be a hollow shell, rotted away by decades of a class-collaborationist orientation, incapable of lifting a finger to save itself. The response to the catastrophe from China was a deafening silence.
(The main source for this article is a series of three articles written by a PKI supporter who managed to escape the massacre, and whose analysis of the causes of the defeat were published in the Militant soon after the event, in 1966. These articles are available on line here, here, and here.)
Coming soon: my new Ebook on the Indonesian catastrophe of 1965
China, class collaboration and the killing fields of Indonesia in 1965