The catastrophe in Indonesia in 1965

Available now at Smashwords and Amazon:  China, class collaboration, and the killing fields of Indonesia in 1965, my new ebook on the 1965 Indonesian catastrophe described in the documentary The Act of Killing.  Approximately 30 pages in pdf format, including illustrations, the book is available in MOBI (Kindle), EPUB (Kobo) and other formats.  $0.99


New Ebook available NOW for download

Some excerpts…

The documentary film by Joshua Oppenheimer, The Act of Killing, released in 2012, provides a chillingly intimate portrait of some aging thugs who, nearly fifty years ago, took part in one of the greatest acts of mass murder of the last century: the 1965-66 slaughter in Indonesia. The principal targets of this act of terror were the workers and peasants of Indonesia, especially those who supported the Partai Komunis Indonesia (PKI,) the Beijing-oriented Indonesian Communist Party. The mass killing was orchestrated by the Indonesian military forces, led by the rightist general Suharto who seized power in a coup in October 1965. Many of the murders were actually carried out by rightist gangs working alongside the military. The frenzy of killing spread to include Indonesians of Chinese descent, teachers and other educated layers, and, as the film shows, the rightist thugs also took the opportunity to carry out personal vendettas…

How is it that this Communist Party of several million members was liquidated without a fight? is to the origins, evolution and political character of the Indonesian Communist Party that we have to look to answer this question. In doing so, we will find some remarkable parallels with events earlier in the century in China….


Delegates to 1922 Congress of Communist International, including Tan Malaka (Dutch East Indes), M N Roy (India), Ho Chi Minh (Indochina).

The Russian revolution of 1905 sent tremors throughout the world; the revolution of 1917 shook it to its foundations. Across the globe the working class and oppressed nations awoke to fight for their liberation, and the peasant nations of China, India, Indochina, and Indonesia were no exception. Communist parties were founded in even the most economically and socially backward nations, formed by revolutionary forces drawn to the example of the Bolsheviks in Russia…

…But by the late 1920s the consequences of the deepening Stalinist counter-revolution in Soviet Russia had made the situation far less favourable. As early as 1924 the rising Stalin leadership had reversed the Communist International’s policy of maintaining the independence of the Communist parties from the bourgeois nationalist forces. In China, to comply with this reversal, members of the Communist Party effectively dissolved their independent organisation and joined the Kuomintang, the bourgeois nationalist party of Chiang Kai-shek…

ChiangsTroopsExecute Worker1927

Shanghai 1927. Chiang’s troops execute worker

…Unknown to Chen and Peng, the policy of CCP members joining the Kuomintang was also opposed by Trotsky in the Soviet Union. Trotsky wrote in 1926: “The leftward movement of the masses of Chinese workers is as certain a fact as the rightward movement of the Chinese bourgeoisie. Insofar as the Kuomintang has been based on the political and organizational union of the workers and the bourgeoisie, it must now be torn apart by the centrifugal forces of the class struggle.” Torn apart it soon was, and the initiative came from Chiang Kai-shek. Beginning in March 1927 Chiang organised a series of coups in which his forces systematically disarmed, suppressed, and dispersed the organisations of the working class. … By the end of 1927, the defeat was complete, and tens of thousands of fighting workers and peasants lay dead…

The Communist Party of China was not totally annihilated. A crippled remnant remained, cut off from the proletarian centres, and with a leadership imbued with a deep distrust of the working class. Stalin scapegoated Chen for the defeat. He was expelled and replaced by a more compliant leader, Mao Zedong, at the head of the CCP. Mao, in turn, became a key influence on the Indonesian Communist party, helping to develop its policy of support to the Indonesian bourgeois nationalist leadership of Sukarno.



The first significant bourgeois independence party was founded in 1927, the Partai Nasional Indonesia founded by Sukarno. The PKI, operating in illegality and badly weakened by the 1926 arrests of its leadership, conformed to the Communist International instruction, and bound itself politically to Sukarno – with the exception of founding leader Tan Malaka, who refused to go along with this abdication, and broke with the PKI. Thus began the relationship of dependence of the Indonesian Communist Party on the bourgeois nationalist leader Sukarno that endured, almost uninterrupted, throughout the turbulent events of the next forty years – right to the Party’s last breath.

…as the Japanese occupation of Indonesia started to disintegrate from 1944, pro-independence militias sprang up, many under PKI leadership. In the power vacuum that followed the Japanese collapse, Sukarno and Hatta – somewhat reluctantly, by most accounts – declared the independence of the Indonesian Republic. The Dutch, supported by Britain, immediately sent troops to push back the militias and 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, returning from exile, declared that there should be no negotiations until all foreign troops were withdrawn. He led a demonstration of 200,000 in Jakarta to support this demand, and attempted to unite the activities of the many small guerrilla forces that had sprung up to resist the Dutch re-invasion…


Javanese revolutionary militias 1946

…caught in this tightening political and military noose, some PKI-led militias in Madiun refused the order to disband in 1948. The PKI leader Musso  travelled to Madiun and identified the PKI with the rebellion. Sukarno forced a showdown, delivering a speech to the nation declaring Musso and the PKI to be traitors to the Republic. The Madiun rebellion was short-lived. It was quickly put down by the republican forces led by Vice-President Hatta.

Madiun was a turning point in the independence struggle. The United States at this time was rapidly expanding its role in the region as the Japanese, Dutch, British and French empires collapsed. The US took the crushing of the Madiun rebellion as evidence that the Hatta forces were their most reliable allies as they endeavoured to contain and push back the struggles of the Indonesian workers and peasants. The United States pressured the Dutch to recognise Indonesian independence and at the same time, developed close links with Hatta and actively supported his efforts to consolidate the Republican military forces under bourgeois leadership. They reaped an early reward when the guerrilla force led by Tan Malaka in eastern Java was surrounded. Tan Malaka was captured and executed by Republican forces loyal to Hatta in 1949.

100,00 People in a Stadium

Giant portrait of Sukarno dominates PKI rally, 1965

Meanwhile the PKI, still reeling from the Madiun defeat, was regrouping. In the disarray caused by the failure of the Madiun rebellion, the new PKI leadership clung ever more tightly to the line of looking to Sukarno for protection and support… However, the PKI’s slavish support for the ‘left’ bourgeois Sukarno did not put a halt to the mounting clash of class forces 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 1927, and had a similarly disastrous outcome. The key issue, in Indonesia as in China forty years earlier, 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. Throughout 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 in 1964 and 1965. Sukarno gave the command to halt the land-reform campaign, the PKI complied, and it was halted.

…the Sukarno regime increasingly took on the character of a classical Bonapartist dictatorship. The immense personal popularity Sukarno enjoyed in this period is due to this Bonapartist role he played as arbiter in the conflict, defender of order, suppressor of civil war…

The PKI’s agitation became increasingly shrill and provocative. During September there were frequent protests and some physical attacks on British and US diplomatic posts. Demonstrations by PKI-supporting groups called for mass action against “corruptors, capitalist bureaucrats, pilferers and charlatans.” They should be “dragged to the gallows” or “shot in public,” a statement by the PKI-aligned Front Pemuda said. The language of these protests borrowed heavily from the Communist Party of China; but unlike China, in Indonesia the forces of the state were still in the hands of these very ‘capitalist bureaucrats.’

Rightist mob ransacks Chinese embassy

Rightist mob ransacks Chinese embassy

…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 the attempted coup of September 30 1965 by leftist officers against most of the top military generals, the remaining bourgeois military leadership led by General Suharto staged a counter-coup. Placing the blame for the coup of September 30 squarely on the PKI, Suharto set in motion the great bloodletting. Sukarno was not deposed; on the contrary, it suited the rightists better to retain him as the President.

The PKI was thrown into disarray; its entire orientation towards dependence on Sukarno left it completely paralysed in this situation. Even after the slaughter was well under way, the PKI leadership issued no instruction for armed self-defence, counselling that “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. On October 10, ten days after the slaughter had begun, PKI leader Njoto issued a directive that all party members should “fully support the directives of President Sukarno and pledge themselves to implement these without reserve.” Njoto added: “Our party is making every effort in its power to prevent a civil war.”

…As the slaughter unfolded across the Indonesian archipelago, there were a few instances of actual resistance, although they were rare… Those resisting generally lacked weapons with which to fight, but more importantly, they were politically disarmed in face of the murderous onslaught. The multi-million-strong Indonesian Communist Party, resting on the political guidance of the Chinese Communist Party, turned out to be a hollow shell, rotted away by decades of class-collaborationist practice, incapable of lifting a finger to save itself. The response to the catastrophe from China was a deafening silence…

The general editorial stance taken by the world’s mainstream news media, taking their cue from imperialist politicians worldwide, was one of delighted satisfaction with the turn of events. In July 1966, the Australian Prime Minister Harold Holt declared: “With 500,000 to 1 million communist sympathisers knocked off … I think it is safe to assume a reorientation has taken place.” Thus began the forty years of silence.

First consequence was a massive escalation of the US war in Vietnam

First consequence was a massive escalation of the US war in Vietnam

By 1965 the axis of the anti-colonial revolution in Asia was the war in Vietnam. The overthrow of the Sukarno regime and the annihilation of the PKI gave the United States one thing it desperately needed in Asia: a government of one of the most populous countries wholly allied to the US, on which it could depend as it pressed its military and diplomatic interests. The most immediate repercussion of the defeat in Indonesia, therefore, was a massive escalation of the war in Vietnam. The US government continued its unwavering support of the Suharto regime when, a decade later, Indonesia invaded East Timor…

Despite the lack of any attempt by the Chinese Communist Party to account for its role in the defeat, the Indonesian debacle also had major and immediate effects in China… In May 1966, six months after the Indonesian catastrophe, under the slogan of the ‘Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution,’ the Mao Zedong leadership swerved from an opportunist to an ultraleft political course, and simultaneously carried out a sweeping purge of the Chinese Communist Party. This decade-long upheaval, involving public humiliations, arbitrary imprisonments and forced relocations, and widespread repressions, largely brought to an end the active participation of the masses of Chinese workers and peasants in the political life of China for decades to come…

Since 1965, the same process of migration to the urban centres and the growth of industrial capitalism that has transformed Indonesia has, in varying degrees, taken place in all the other countries of the Asian region. Asia is now a major centre of world manufacturing, and powerful new working class forces have emerged not just in Indonesia, but in Vietnam and Cambodia, Korea, Pakistan, Bangladesh and India, and of course, in China. In all of these countries the working class is entering on the political stage once again, under different circumstances, with a much more favourable relationship of forces than that which prevailed in the 1960s. The catastrophe that occurred in Indonesia in 1965-66 is not just a question of historical interest…

Read the full story – download the book for $0.99 from Smashwords or Amazon.  Available NOW

7 responses to “The catastrophe in Indonesia in 1965

  1. Pingback: China, class collaboration, and the Indonesian killing fields | A communist at large·

  2. Pingback: China 1927: precursor to the slaughter in Indonesia | A communist at large·

  3. Pingback: The fatal course of the Communist Party of Indonesia – Part 1 | A communist at large·

  4. Pingback: The strength and weakness of ‘The Act of Killing’ | A communist at large·

  5. Pingback: Documentary The Look of Silence and Indonesian history – The World The People·

  6. Interesting write up. I was unaware that the coup/killings/debacle of 65-66 in Indonesia had an effect on China – as in it was a catalyst for the Cultural Revolution. Do you have a source for that? Best wishes, Frank

    • No source, it’s just my own observation. The Mao regime had built its entire foreign policy on the class-collaborationist line adopted in Indonesia, and staked its prestige on the ‘success’ of Indonesia in particular. It was taken by surprise by the Suharto coup as much as was the Indonesian party itself, and being unable to discuss and correct its own mistakes, it could only lurch off in the opposite direction. It was very similar to the way the disaster in China in 1927-28, the product of Stalin’s class-collaborationist policy, precipitated the ultraleft zigzag in Stalin’s policy, along with a new round of domestic repressions.

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