Propaganda, porn and Cold War politics: How the West destabilised Indonesia

Recently declassified documents have revealed that British propagandists incited one of the worst mass murders of the twentieth century. Officials from the British Foreign Office secretly deployed “black” propaganda in the 1960s, urging Indonesians to “cut out” the country’s “communist cancer” – referring to the Indonesian Communist Party (PKI).

Indonesia’s PKI-backed President Sukarno had shown hostility toward British plans to create an independent state out of its colonial possessions in Malaya. From 1963, Sukarno’s forces launched the “Konfrontasi”, an undeclared war in which Indonesian forces made armed incursions into East Malaysia. 

These incursions, along with fears that Indonesia would fall to communism, prompted a disinformation campaign in which Singapore-based specialists from the British Foreign Office’s Information Research Department (IRD) produced material to undermine Sukarno’s regime. Pamphlets and radio broadcasts designed to look like they were produced by Indonesian patriots targeted high profile figures and army generals. 

The scope of the operation changed in mid-1965 following an attempted coup by left-wing Indonesian Army officers. The rebellion was swiftly crushed by the impetuous General Suharto, who then set about gradually seizing power from Sukarno. With Sukarno deposed, newsletters and radio broadcasts secretly produced by the British called for “the PKI and all it stands for” to be “eliminated for all time.”  

“The British called for the PKI and all it stands for to be eliminated.”

The propaganda had the desired effect. Between 1965 and 1966 the Indonesian Army orchestrated anti-communists in murdering at least 500,000 people linked to the PKI, the vast majority of whom had no connection to the 1965 coup. The CIA later described the campaign as one of the worst mass murders of the last century.

Britain wasn’t the only foreign power meddling in Indonesian affairs at the time. As ever in the second half of the twentieth century, London’s friends across the pond played a key role. As Dutch power waned in the East Indies following the Second World War, Washington feared that the vast territory of what would become Indonesia would fall to communism. These fears were only confirmed in American eyes when Sukarno visited the Soviet Union in 1956. 

In an attempt to destabilise Sukarno’s rule, the CIA supported regional elements of the Indonesian military in demanding greater autonomy from Jakarta. Operating out of operational bases in the Philippines, the CIA financed and supplied weapons to rebel military forces in Sumatra and Sulawesi. They also bankrolled anti-Sukarno radio broadcasts, and even went so far as to produce a pornographic film – starring a man in a Sukarno mask – in an attempt to discredit him. 

In 1958, US citizen and CIA bomber Al Pope was downed while attacking an Indonesian naval fleet in Ambon bay. US involvement in Indonesian affairs was exposed, and the Eisenhower administration was humiliated. Despite the embarrassment, the US was determined to prevent Indonesia from taking the “wrong” side in the Cold War. They helped Suharto seize power from Sukarno by supplying communications equipment that was used to blame the PKI for the left-wing revolt in 1965.

US officials went on to play a crucial role in enabling the slaughter of communists at scale. Former US embassy staff member Robert J Martens admitted that he had handed over a list of communists to the Indonesian military. “It really was a big help to the army,” he said. “They probably killed a lot of people, and I probably have a lot of blood on my hands.”

“I probably have a lot of blood on my hands.”

US embassy staff member Robert J Martens

For both the British and the Americans the mission was the same: bring Indonesia into the Western sphere of influence while denying any involvement in the resulting violence. In 1966, British propaganda specialist and “coordinator of political warfare” in Indonesia Norman Reddaway wrote to the British ambassador in Jakarta explaining that his aim was to “conceal the fact that butcheries had taken place with the encouragement of the generals.” It was hoped that the new generals would “do us better than the old gang”, in reference to General Sukarno.

For the US the killings were acceptable as part of the broader fight against communism. Its forces had already obliterated much of Korea, Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos as part of the same post-war struggle. The mission was seen as a success: Washington had halted a local communist movement without risking American lives. The so-called “Jakarta method” inspired similar actions across Latin America in the subsequent decades. 

Suharto ruled Indonesia for 32 years, his reign based on repression, cronyism and manipulation. The military controlled every echelon of society, intimidating and surveying any potential threats to the regime. Only three political parties were permitted – all closely controlled by Suharto – and the media severely restricted. 

US President Gerald Ford and his Secretary of State Henry Kissinger were in Jakarta on the day Indonesian forces invaded East Timor.

His impact was felt beyond Indonesia, too. In 1975, Indonesian forces invaded and occupied the former Portuguese colony of East Timor. A 25-year occupation followed, in which 100,000-180,000 soldiers and civilians are estimated to have been killed or starved to death. Once again, this was done with covert Western support. In his book The Trial of Henry Kissinger, Christopher Hitchens argues that Kissinger and US President Gerald Ford – who were in Jakarta the day the invasion began – had given Suharto the go-ahead. “Suharto was given the green light to do what he did,” writes Hitchens. “Without continued heavy US military support the Indonesians might not have been able to pull it off.”

Suharto’s rule finally came to an end in 1998, but his shadow still hangs over modern Indonesia. Many senior figures from his regime survived his fall and continue to occupy the corridors of power. His children are influential business figures. Much of Indonesia’s political elite continue to rely upon Suharto’s version of history – which lands blame for the violence of the 1960s on the communists – for their legitimacy. 

Nobody has ever been tried for what happened in 1965. Indonesia has refused to make any of its records on the event public, and its modern military leaders resist any investigations that could lead back to them. Neither Britain or the US have formally acknowledged or apologised for their role in the massacre. 

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