History: Fortieth anniversary of massacre of Indonesian left

One million slaughtered by CIA-backed counter-revolution

This month marks the 40th anniversary of the counter-revolution in Indonesia, one of the world’s worst bloodbaths post-World War Two.

Between October 1, 1965 and April to May, 1966, the right wing regime of Generals Nasution and Suharto seized power and established its grip in Indonesia. In those short seven months, as many as one million people were slaughtered, including the cream of the working class.

Before October 1965, Indonesia had the largest communist party outside the Soviet Union and the other Stalinist states. It had over three million members and between 15 and 20 million active supporters. The PKI (Indonesian Communist Party) had huge influence amongst the working class and poor and could have taken power on a number of occasions.

Tragically, PKI leaders followed a policy of class collaborationism, including relying on a so-called ‘progressive section’ of the ruling class, instead of following an independent class policy in a struggle to overthrow capitalism and to build a socialist society. The PKI leaders leaned on President Sukarno, the nationalist, radical leader, against the most reactionary parts of the ruling elite and army, rather than mobilise the working class.

This mistaken policy proved fatal. The reactionary ruling class bided its time and in 1965 Suharto and the military moved against the PKI militants, claiming they were acting to stop a “communist coup”. Suharto was covertly aided and abetted by US imperialism, which feared the PKI coming to power and other Asian countries “falling to the communists”.

In early October 1965, Suharto and a group of army officers took advantage of political instability to launch a massacre. Much of the killing was done by Islamic-led mobs, that were mobilised by the military against the ‘godless’ communists.

The US was not the only imperialist power glad of the outcome. Sir Andrew Gilchrist, the British Ambassador to Indonesia, informed the Foreign Office, on 5 October 1965, “I have never concealed from you my belief that a little shooting in Indonesia would be an essential preliminary to effective change,” (quoted in the article, ‘Covert support of violence will return to haunt us’, by Mark Curtis, Guardian 6 October 2005).

Unsurprisingly, on the 40th anniversary of the destruction of the third largest communist party in the world, and of countless workers and youth, you will not hear Tony Blair or George Bush condemn “Islamic terror” in relation to Indonesia in 1965-66.

But the ruling class policy of using Islamic organisations against the working class has had a “long-term blowback”. The recent Bali bombings, and other terrorist attacks over the last few years in Indonesia, were carried out by right wing Islamic groups that were nurtured for years by Suharto and the military.

Working class recovers

The scale of the 1965-66 counter revolution meant that Suharto remained in power until the late 1990s. The general was a close ally of US imperialism and Indonesia was used as an early laboratory for globalisation and neo-liberal policies.

Suharto was finally overthrown in 1998 by a magnificent mass movement of students, urban poor and workers. This shows the ability of the working masses, after a 30 year nightmare, to recover from even the worst bloody defeats and to take to mass struggle once more. Courageous youth and students from Left organisations, like the PRD (People’s Democratic Party), played an important role in this revolt.

During this period, the left had an opportunity to build a powerful position in society, based on independent class policies. Unfortunately, all the mistakes of the PKI were not learned and leaders of left parties, like the PRD, sowed illusions in “progressive”, “democratic” capitalist leaders, like the former presidents, Abdurrahman Wahid and Megawatti Sukarnoputri, a leader of the Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle, and the daughter of former president Sukarno. Wahid and Megawatti did not represent a threat to the rule of capitalism or the army. In fact, they represented sections of the ruling class and continued the rule of the big capitalists and the power of the armed forces. Under Megawatti the army increased its repression in areas like Aceh. No serious effort has been made to bring Suharto and his cronies to justice.

Nevertheless, the Indonesian ruling class remains weary of the power of masses, which have shown they will fight to stop attacks on the precious democratic rights they have won and for better living conditions. Under pressure from the masses, the Indonesian army has had to retreat from direct involvement in political life, although it remains a powerful force.

Growing disillusionment in the failure of the mass movement to bring about fundamental change, the experience of falling living standards under a series of crisis ridden pro-capitalist presidents, and the absence of a mass socialist left, with clear policies, has created a political vacuum which right wing political Islam is exploiting. The recent horrific bombings in Bali are a stark warning to the Indonesian working class about the dangers of inter-religious and inter-ethnic conflict. In conditions of conflict, plunging living standards, and mass disillusionment, the army can try to move centre stage again, attacking the rights and conditions of the working class and national minorities.

The way forward for the working class can be seen in the recent widespread demonstrations against President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono’s government’s announcement of a steep rise in petrol and kerosene prices. Over the last couple of weeks, hundreds and thousands of people protested in Jakarta and dozens of other towns and cities.

Social struggles such as these can be springboard by which to build a mass party that represents the interests of the working class, the urban and rural poor, and which brings with it the middle classes.

As part of the struggle to create a mass workers’ party that successfully struggles for power, it is vital to learn all the lessons of 1965-1966. Readers are invited to read the excellent pamphlet, A Short History of the Indonesian Communist Party, by Craig Bowen, which was first published by Militant International Publications (former publishing name of the Socialist Party (CWI) in Australia), in September 1990, and later reprinted, in 1998, in the CWI pamphlet, Indonesia – An Unfinished Revolution.

A Short History of the Indonesian Communist Party, by Craig Bowen.

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October 2005