Revolutionary Prospects for Indonesia

Against the Current, No. 71, November/December 1997

Malik Miah

THE NEW YORK TIMES Foreign Affairs correspondent Thomas L. Friedman wrote an interesting recent column (July 24, 1997) on Indonesia, titled “The Globalutionaries.”  When I saw that headline I thought to myself, “Even the august New York Times sees fundamental change coming to the fourth most populous country on the planet.”

I was in Jakarta during the May parliamentary elections and saw the anger and hostility toward the Suharto dictatorship especially among the young and urban poor. These are the future foot soldiers for fundamental democratic change.  Friedman, of course, had others leading the new revolution: “There is a fascinating revolution going on in Indonesia.  It’s not always visible, but if it succeeds it could save this country from the dead hand of the Suharto regime, which after 30 years in power is a spent force, without energy or ideas.”

Who are Friedman’s new agents for change?  The women workers at Nike?  The landless peasants?  The urban poor?  No: Most of them are the “educated and working in the private sector, ‘who want to get rich without having to be corrupt and who want to have democracy but don’t want to go out in the streets and get killed for it,'” according to a popular Jakarta talk show host, Wimar Witoelar, interviewed by Friedman.

“Their strategy, in short,” Friedman says, “is to Gulliverize the Suharto regime by globalizing Indonesian society”

Wishful Speculation

While in Jakarta there was a lot of speculation about how change would come about, if it comes about, in Indonesia after Suharto’s death.  The former general, now in his mid-70s, has been in effective power since October 1965, when the army high command took advantage of an aborted coup and pushed then-President Sukarno from power, setting in motion a murderous repression that marked a turning point in modern Indonesia’s history.

Most theories revolve around assumed differences in the army. Few liberal democrats believe that a mass movement or insurrection is possible that could topple the ruling group as occurred in the “people’s revolution” in the Philippines in the 1980s, or in Iran in 1979 where the U.S.-armed military was unable to intervene.  They hope a “progressive” wing of the military and sections of the business community will press for more democracy.

The main flaw in this analysis is that the ruling capitalists in Indonesia—the officers’ corps and large businesses like the Lippo group (now notorious for its clandestine campaign contributions to Clinton)—fear more what will follow Suharto and would rather play second fiddle to Suharto’s family and close cronies.

Big business, which is largely controlled by ethnic Chinese, have a big stake in maintaining continuity in Suharto’s rule. The army’s dominant role in government and the economy—since most generals have become leading businessmen—have no reason to support radical democratic change.

New Generation on the Move

There are, however, some important changes taking place in Indonesia that go beyond the country’s further integration into the world economy In spite of the current problems of debt and floating currencies in the Southeast Asian region, Indonesia is a wealthy country that major corporations have sought to exploit since its national independence in 1949.(1)

The winds of change center among the young generation on the 17,000-island archipelago.(2)  Some 100 million of the population of 200 million are under twenty, youth who do not remember 1965.  What they do know is the growing gap between rich and poor. The new middle class now comprises 20 million (ten percent of the population).  They have incomes of $30,000 and in addition there are many millionaires.  Yet the country has a per capita income somewhere between $650-$1000.

After twenty years of over six percent annual economic growth, the new generation wants a bigger piece of the pie and some real political freedoms.  The anticipated death of Suharto (although it could be several years) has galvanized the democratic opposition to press its demands and hope for some real improvements in democratic freedoms whoever takes over. Non-Governmental Organizations (NGOs), independent workers’ organizations and others are organizing.

The most significant formation leading the way politically is the now- banned People’s Democratic Party (PRD).(3)  It is useful, however, before discussing the PRD and the current situation, to discuss what happened in 1965-what led to it, and the lessons for today’s demo cratic movement and socialist activists.

There are two major turning points in modern Indonesian history.  The first was the August 17, 1945, decision by Sukarno and his closest supporters to declare Indonesia’s national independence two days after Japan’s surrender in World War II.

The second was October 1, 1965, when a group of reactionary army generals organized a coup d’etat against the country’s first president, Sukarno, using an “aborted coup and then orchestrating a massacre of hundreds of thousands of Indonesians-the largest slaughter of the left in a capitalist country since Hitler’s rise to power in Germany.(4)

Independence Day

Sukarno’s nationalist forces declared independence even though they were unprepared for it. A skeleton constitution was drafted and a cabinet chosen.  They used the interlude between Japan’s surrender and the planned reoccupation by the Dutch to win popular and international support for Indonesian self-determination.

The imperialist alliance that won the war, the Allies, of course sided with the Dutch to take back their colony Only the determined resistance of the Indonesian people, in the sweep of a new anti-colonial sentiment around the world, led the U.S. and the European powers to finally concede formal political independence by 1949.

The ideology of the new Indonesia was spelled out by Sukarno a few weeks prior to independence.  He laid out the basic beliefs that would unite all Indonesians, despite their other cultural and ideological differences, as pancasila, five principles for nationhood: “Belief in God, National Unity, Humanitarianism, People’s Sovereignty, Social Justice and Prosperity.”  Under Suharto’s post-1965 New Order regime, pancasila would be institutionalized as the ideological basis to suppress opponents.

Sukarno’s concept of nationhood meant an alliance of the key social forces in the country: nationalists (the intellectuals, civil servants, landowners and businessmen), communists (the PKI, Indonesian Communist Party) who had wide support in the small urban working class, other leftists, and Islamists (broadly speaking) and other religious believers.

The Indonesian army was created during the four-year revolutionary struggle against the Dutch.  But it was during Sukarno’s rule that the idea of dwifungsi (dual function of the army, defined as the right and duty of the military to oversee the state-meaning direct military involvement in politics and running of the government) first surfaced.(5)

Pancasila for Sukarno, however, was a method to maintain “unity with diversity.”  Sukarno saw himself as a figure above politics—a Bonaparte standing above social forces, who resolved the differences between Islamists, communists and nationalists in society, including within the military In the 1950s Sukarno dissolved parliament and established the anti-democratic regime he called Guided Democracy, saying the new government would be based on NASAKOM (Nationalism, Religion, Communism).(6)

Role and Policy of the PKI

There are disputes about what actually led up to October 1-2, 1965, who was responsible, and what role Sukarno played in the failed “coup to defend Sukarno.”(7)  But there is no dispute as to what transpired after General Suharto took command: White terror was launched by the army against the population.

By midday October 2 the army and its vigilante supporters had launched a massive purge and witch-hunt.  It led to at least a half million deaths, hundreds of thousands arrested and a population so traumatized that only in the last ten years has a new generation arose ready to fight the dictatorship.

What lessons can we draw from this horrific period of Indonesian history?  The most important one concerns the policy followed before October by the Indonesian Communist Party (PKI), a mass party (the largest in the capitalist world) with upwards of three million members (including tens of thousands of cadre), and with 10 million supporters in mass organizations and unions its members led or in fluenced.(8)

A review of the PKI’s politics shows that it was not politically possible for the PKI leadership (openly or covertly) to organize a coup by “progressive officers” against the “reactionary generals,” as Suharto and his friends claim to justify their white terror campaign.  The real question is: Why was the PKI unprepared even though for years, including weeks before October l. their leaders talked about the possibility of a coup against0 Sukarno by the military high command?

The year 1965 was a period of marches and rallies organized by the PKI and its supporters against “imperialism” targeting Western embassies, including the U.S. Embassy Leader after leader warned about the “reactionary generals” and the need to fight them. PKI Chairman D.N. Aidit called rhetorically for the Indonesian people to move in a “bold” manner against the generals.(9)

Carmel Budiardjo, the leader of the Indonesian human rights campaign TAPOL in Britain, was a former supporter of the PKI. She writes in her excellent memoirs of her three-year imprisonment: “By 1965, many in PKI circles were confident that the Party was edging towards power by peaceful means.  The idea that the Party might be plunged into a period of clandestine functioning was far removed from people’s thoughts.”  (Surviving Indonesia’s Gulag: A Western Woman Tells Her Story, 40)

There was no preparation to back up Aidit’s and other leaders’ propaganda.  The PKI expected Sukarno to protect them and crush the pro-Western generals in the army.

The so-called October 1 anti-reactionary generals’ coup was over in less than forty-eight hours.  The “30 September Movement,” as the coup leaders called themselves, had kidnapped and killed three top-ranking anti-communist generals.  These were the first political assas sinations since the 1940s.(10)

The killings were used by then-Major-General Suharto (head of KOSTRAD, Army Strategic Reserve Command) to move against the PKI, other left-wing groups and Sukarno.  By October 3 Suharto (who was not on the kidnap list because the 30 September Movement leaders thought he would remain neutral; many had once served under him) was “appointed” by Sukarno to restore order, which he used to justify the PKI round-ups and massacres.

Anti-communist student groups were mobilized to lead the attacks.  Estimates are that from 500,000 to 2,000,000 people were killed.  Almost 20,000 people were jailed for up to fifteen years.  Some are still imprisoned or under house arrest.(11)

On October 14 Sukarno “appointed” Suharto commander of the army. He had no choice since the army decided everything.  By March 11, 1966, Suharto’s generals pressured a defenseless Sukarno to sign over all power to Suharto.  A June 1966 national parliament meeting voted the de facto end of Sukarno’s rule: endorsing the infamous “March 11 letter” turning over power to Suharto, revoking Sukarno’s title as President-for-Life and banning him from issuing presidential decrees.

It wasn’t until March 1967 that Sukarno lost his formal title as president.  Suharto was named Acting President, and Sukarno was placed under house arrest until his death in June 1970.(12)

Role of the CIA and Washington

While the U.S. Embassy State Department and CIA at the time said they were unaware of plans for the army’s counter-coup and claimed ignorance of the unfolding events, ample information has since shown their dirty hands were at work.

Washington’s stance was not a surprise.  Remember, 1965 marked the height of the Cold War and anti-communist campaigns against China, the Soviet Union, Cuba and Eastern Europe.  Talk of dominoes falling across Asia was regular CIA jargon.  The loss of Asia to communism, after China’s victory in 1949, with the escalation of the Vietnam war was their top concern.

So the smashing of the largest communist party in the capitalist world brought glee to the White House.  It led to immediate cheers in the mass big business media.  Time magazine, for its July 8, 1966 issue, ran a front-page story hailing the victory over communism calling it “the West’s best news for years in Asia.”  The front cover trumpeted “Indonesia: the Land the Communists Lost.”

The U.S. government had never trusted Sukarno even though he was not a communist.  Sukarno was a nationalist who had collaborated with the Japanese against the Dutch during World War II. He did anything that he thought would speed the independence of his homeland.  But he also leaned on the communists (domestically and internationally) when necessary He helped found the Non-Aligned Movement in 1955.(13)

Sukarno, however, maintained a friendly stance toward the West. He wasn’t anti-capitalist.  He was a classic Third World bourgeois- nationalist who was pro-West but didn’t like to be pushed around by the Europeans and Americans.

Paul F. Gardner, a retired U.S. Foreign Service Officer who lived in Indonesia for ten years, in his book presents the pro-Suharto view that the PKI top leadership was behind the 30 September Movement coup. He covers up for Suharto’s role too, claiming: “Most likely Suharto was omitted from the assassination list [of the 30 September Movement] because few if any Indonesians considered him to be a major political player.”  (Shared Hopes, Separate Fears: Fifty Years of U.S.-Indonesian Relations, 216)

David T. Johnson wrote a report in 1976 pushing for a congressional investigation.  It was privately circulated but never published and gives a different interpretation of what occurred.  The report was reprinted on the internet in 1995 by Johnson after reading a new declassified quotation from then-U.S. Ambassador to Indonesia, Howard Jones.  Dated March 10, 1965 (seven months before the “coup”), it said: “From our viewpoint, of course, an unsuccessful coup attempt by the PKI might be the most effective development to start a reversal of political trends in Indonesia.”(14)

Further proof of a CIA connection was reported by Kathy Kadane working for State News Service.  In a May 21, 1990, Washington Post, “U.S. Officials’ Lists Aided Indonesian Bloodbath in ’60s,” she reported that an U.S. Embassy employee, with full knowledge of higher ups, provided the army with its own list of Communist members and sympathizers.  As they were arrested, jailed and/or executed the scorecard was updated.(15)

Was the CIA behind Suharto and the army actions?  Suharto knows, and probably someone high up in the State Department.

Indonesia’s foreign policy shifted sharply.  It ended its “confrontation” with former British colony, Malaysia, and moved rapidly toward Washington.  U.S. aid increased and Jakarta helped set up the pro-imperialist ASEAN (Association of Southeast Asian nations) group in 1967.(16)  Washington-Jakarta relations have been very good for three decades, as U.S. corporations reap super profits from the low-paid work force and vast natural wealth (oil, mining, etc.)

Washington’s concern today, and the reason it mildly criticizes Suharto over human rights, is because ferment is growing.  It worries that the lack of a plan for “transition” from Suharto to someone else could lead to instability and chaos.

[The second half of this essay explores the further consequences of the coup, Suharto’s regime and the growth of a new movement.]


  1. A concise history is contained in Modern Indonesia: A History Since 1945, by Rober Cribb and Colin Brown (Longman, 1995).  A sympathetic account of Suharto and U.S. relations is Shared Hopes, Shared Fears: Fifty Years of U.S.-Indonesian Relations, by Paul F. Gardner (Westview Press, 1997).  Gardner, a retired U.S. foreign service officer, wrote the book under sponsorship of the Suharto apologists United States-Indonesian Society, a private group formed in February 1994 as international criticism of the regime increased.

    A Nation in Waiting: Indonesian in the 1990s, by Adam Swartz (Westview Press, l994) is also a valuable summary.  Swartz is a staff correspondent with the Far Eastern Economic Review.  For an explicitly pro-democracy perspective see Surviving Indonesia’s Gulag: A Western Woman Tells Her Story by Carmel Budiardjo (Cassell, 1996).  Budiardjo was a supporter of the PKI (Indonesian Communist Party) and was imprisoned for three years (1968-71).  Upon her release and deportation back to Britain, she’s devoted her activities to freeing the political prisoners (tapols) and defending human rights.

  2. How many islands are there?  An Indonesian Embassy report in the U.S. says over 17,000 islands.  The well-respected Lonely Planet Travel Guide says 13,000-plus.  Most are not inhabited.  More than half the population of 200 million, however, live on one island: Java, the center of politics in the country.  While there are over 300 ethnic groups and languages and dialects, Javanese are by far the largest group.
  3. The PRD was formed in April, 1996-its predecessor the Peoples Democratic Union (PDU) was formed in a 9 and blamed by Suharto for protests outside the Indonesian Democratic Party (PDI) headquarters July 27, 1996.  The PDI is one of three legal parties.  The ruling party is called Golkar (for functional groups) and the United Development Party (PPP), a forced merger of Moslem-oriented parties.  The PRD was labeled “communist” and its public leaders arrested.
  4. How Hitler took power in 1933 has always been a major lesson for anti-fascists and socialists.  The mass Communist Party refused to join in a united front with the social democrats and others.  They also refused to take militant action as Hitler’s Brown Shirts car- ried out violent attacks.  The result was the biggest defeat for the communist and left movements until 1965.
  5. Dwifungsi ideology is actively promoted by the military.  The high command says it is the army that won independence and is the only force able to safeguard the nation, thus justifying its political role in society.  See Modern Indonesia, 139-141.
  6. Sukarno became sufficiently deluded by his own rhetoric that he sought to continue to play this role even after he lost all real political power in October 1965.
  7. All sources cited in Note (1) give a similar account of October 1-2.  They differ over why and who to blame.
  8. In an article “Lessons From a Defeat,” T. Soedarso, a member of the PKI who escaped the country, notes that the majority of members were not cadre: “In 1952 the membership was only 10,000.  At the national conference held that year, it was decided “to expand the membership from 10,000 to 100,000 within six months.”  And after the implementation of the first “Three Year Plan” [1956-59], the member ship increased to 1,500,000.  At the mid year 1965 it was reported in the press to have reached 3,000,000.”  (World Outlook, September 16, 1966).

    The article is in an excellent pamphlet published in 1966 by Merit Publishers: “The Catastrophe in Indonesia.”  It includes an analysis by Marxist economist Ernest Mandel and a statement by the United Secretariat of the Fourth International.

  9. See United Secretariat statement which quotes Aidit telling a conference of plantation workers trade unions September 25, 1965, that workers and peasants should be armed and the masses should seize imperialist properties.  The party’s paper of September 27 added: “Therefore the Indonesian working class should adopt the following attitude: Boldness, boldness and boldness again! Take over, take over and take over again! Act, act and act again!” Yet there was no preparation for a general strike or other mass actions to stop the generals once they acted.
  10. The so-called “Mediun incidents” in 1948 led to the arrest and deaths of leading PKI members who had sought to push the revolution to its “socialist stage.”  The future PKI leaders self-criticized their actions as “adventurous” and “leftist.”  The conclusion was to openly reject use of arms to overthrow the state.  See “Modern Indonesia”, 31 and T. Soedarso article, op. cit.
  11. What Swartz calls “the mysterious coup” (A Nation in Waiting, 19) was so short that the facts are pretty well known as far as what actually happened-not who rea y was behind it. One of the leaders of the “30 September Movement’ is still alive and in prison, Col. Latief.  Even Suharto’s foreign supporters such as the CIA admit that the PKI did not launch the coup. Suharto sticks to the then-stated position that the PKI was behind it. Max Lane, Australian leader of Asiet and translator of Indonesia’s most famous novelist Pramoedya Ananta Toer’s four-volume This Earth is Mankind, adds: “The PKI attempted a last ditch relaunch of the party via guerrillas struggle in 1968 but this too was crushed.  Sections of the PKI also produced different self-criticisms after this tragedy but the party has not been able to play any significant role in Indonesian political developments since then.”  (“Winning Democracy in Indonesia,” Links magazine, issue 2, July-September, 21)
  12. Sukarno was carefully removed because of his popularity especially among the poor. The Javanese tradition is to never show public disrespect to a “king.”  Today the International Airport in Jakarta is named for the country’s first president and vice-president: Sukarno-Hatta.
  13. The Movement’s founding conference occurred in Bandung, ln donesia.  “The Bandung Conference attracted a crowd of distinguished visitors: Nasser [Egypt], Nehru [India] Zhou Enlai [China], Tito [Yugoslavia].” (Modern Indonesia, 67)
  14. David T. Johnson gave his e-mail as  He titled the transmission as “Covert Operations: Indonesia 1965.”  It was written October 20, 1995.
  15. Johnson’s transmission, “Indonesian Bloodbath 1965: The role of the U.S. Embassy” was written December 5, 1995.
  16. The anti-communist bloc was formed in August 1967.  Representatives came from Singapore, Thailand, Malaysia (which Indonesia had recently “confronted” under Sukarno), Thailand and the Philippines.  (Gardner, Shared Hopes, Separate Fears, 264).

Malik Miah is the co-editor of the new quarterly newsletter IndonesiaAlert!  He is also an advisory editor of Against the Current and chair of the human rights committee of his Machinists local.

ATC 71, November-December 1997