Indonesia: how British spies helped destroy the Communist Party

In 1965, reactionary military generals in Indonesia began an anti-communist massacre, slaughtering up to two million members and supporters of the Indonesian Communist Party (PKI) in one of the twentieth century’s worst mass murders. This year – after six decades of cover up – documents have been released that show the pivotal role played by the British secret services in moulding public opinion in preparation for the slaughter, through a series of propaganda leaflets disguised as the writings of concerned Indonesian emigres.

Threatened by the growth of communist sentiments in the colonial world, MI6 teamed up with reactionary army generals and Islamist militias to carry out this atrocity, plunging the country into decades of brutal dictatorship.

In the early 1960’s the PKI claimed three million members; one in ten Indonesians were either members of the party or were involved in their affiliated organisations for women, trade unionists and other groups. Even within the military, despite the reactionary officer caste, the PKI claimed the allegiance of 40% of the army. The PKI was the third largest communist party in the world (rivalled only by the parties in China and the Soviet Union), in the fourth largest country by population. It isn’t hard to see why the British ruling class threw itself behind the effort to destroy the PKI.

Rise and fall of the PKI

In the years following the Second World War and the defeat of fascism by the Soviet Union, the authority that Communism commanded – particularly in the former colonial world – reached new heights. In Indonesia, this expressed itself in enormous enthusiasm for the PKI, which despite having faced two crushing defeats in the first half of the twentieth century (first by Dutch colonial forces in the 1920s and then by petty-bourgeois nationalists in the 1940s) grew by the 1960s to once again become the dominant force among the working class.

pki Image public domainIn the early 1960’s the PKI claimed three million members; one in ten Indonesians were either members of the party or were involved in their affiliated organisations / Image: public domain

Due to the numerical weight and authority of the PKI among the workers and peasants of Indonesia, the unstable post-independence regime under President Sukarno demagogically balanced between the classes. It superficially appealed to PKI supporters, and made hollow proclamations of support for socialism. While Sukarno was in no way a Marxist, the fact that he depended on the support of the PKI and that his Bonapartist regime was so fragile alarmed the ruling classes in Britain and the United States.

CIA reports from 1965 give detailed accounts of the perceived threat that the communist movement in Indonesia posed for European and North American capitalism in this period of the Cold War:

“Sukarno’s Indonesia already acts in important respects like a Communist state and is more openly hostile to the U.S. than most Communist nations… Indonesia’s formal accession to communism would have a heavy impact on world politics. It would be seen as a major change in the international balance of political forces and would inject new life into the thesis that communism is the wave of the future.”

If the fact that the wobbling Bonapartist regime of Sukarno leaned for support on a mass communist party struck fear into the hearts of the British capitalists, Sukarno’s opposition to European interests and particularly the creation of Malaysia in 1963 only stoked those fears further. As British imperialism began the process of turning its colonial possessions into the ‘independent’ state of Malaysia, Sukarno launched a series of military assaults (known as the ‘Konfrontasi’ - Confrontation), which were aimed at undermining British domination of the region and at consolidating his own authority. Under the guise of a fight against colonialism and imperialism, Sukarno appealed to the PKI for support. While Sukarno’s ‘anti-imperialist’ adventurism posed little direct threat to Britain, it cemented the belief among ruling circles in Britain that regime change in Indonesia was necessary.

Alarmed both at growing support for the PKI and the hostility of the Sukarno regime, British imperialism sought to kill two birds with one stone. In 1963, the Information Research Department (the Cold War propaganda arm of MI6) set up its South East Asia Monitoring Unit (SEAMU), which was based in Singapore and produced articles and pamphlets, supposedly written by anti-communist Indonesians abroad. This ‘black propaganda’, in fact written by British MI6 agents, was then smuggled into Indonesia and widely circulated to military officers, reactionary newspapers and government officials.

After operating for two years, and with limited apparent success, in 1965, British imperialism’s long-awaited opportunity arrived. On 30 September, a small group of left-wing army officers kidnapped and executed six reactionary generals. They subsequently declared themselves the ‘30 September Movement’ (G30S), and claimed – not without justification – that they had acted in order to prevent a planned right-wing coup by these same military officers. The next morning, arch-reactionary Major-General Suharto declared that the G30S were PKI plotters, and began one of the most brutal waves of anti-communist slaughter that history has known. Suharto’s campaign against the PKI grew to become so bloody that even bourgeois historians have described his use of G30S as “a pretext for mass murder”. Even the CIA declared it to be “one of the worst mass murders of the 20th century”.

The ‘campaign to eradicate communism’

When Suharto began his anti-communist purge, SEAMU and MI6 leapt into action, producing more propaganda of an increasingly loathsome nature:

“We do not cry out for violence [!], but we demand in the name of all patriotic people that this communist cancer be cut out of the body of the state. [The PKI] is now a wounded snake […] Now is the time to kill it before it has a chance to recover.”

Self-proclaimed ‘democratic Britain’, the ruling class of which waxes lyrical about human rights abuses and the dangers of ‘Marxist authoritarianism’, was more than happy not only to defend a bloody massacre of their political enemies, but to incite further violence.

In the autumn of 1965, as Suharto’s military continued to hunt down and murder anyone remotely linked to the PKI, SEAMU propagandists wrote:

“Unless we maintain a vigorous campaign to eradicate communism […] the red menace will envelop us again. We are fighting for our lives and the very existence of Indonesia and we must never forget that. THE CATS ARE WAITING TO POUNCE! [...] Communism must be abolished in all its forms. The work started by the army must be carried on and intensified”.

Noticeably, SEAMU pamphlets in Indonesia never went into the gory details of the “work started by the army”, the kidnappings, torture, mutilation and murder that they were encouraging. The methods of MI6’s erstwhile allies in Suharto’s army are a far cry from the fantastic image of its secret service as a corp of James Bond-style ‘gentleman spies’ that the British ruling class tries to project to the world.

Newspaper reports by visiting journalists at the time paint a chilling picture of the army leaning on local youth militias to intentionally terrorise PKI members before killing them:

“Most of the killing was by militant youth groups, often appointed by military or village authorities. [...] Once the killing started, the youths were uncontrollable. Scores of champion killers were found. One boy interviewed killed 135, then “lost count”. Beheading was the most common form of killing, but for large scale executions shooting was normal.”

While these genuine atrocities were being committed, SEAMU propaganda produced fabricated stories to smear the PKI and encourage violent reprisals against communists. MI6 agents spread rumours of a ‘torture room’ supposedly constructed by the PKI for their imagined prisoners. Other pamphlets warned of PKI women who would capture men before “mutilating their genitals”. One document even provides the text of an entirely fictional interview with a 15-year-old girl linked to the PKI’s women’s organisation, who supposedly said: “Our platoon leader ordered us to beat the prisoner and then cut his private parts with the small knives.”

While MI6 used stories of these imagined crimes to whip up the anti-communist sentiments among the generals and the Indonesian ruling class into a frenzy, the real extent of the brutality against suspected communists was unprecedented. Another journalist from the time wrote:

“We saw four villages where every adult male had been killed. We saw trucks of villagers returning to the hills after making trips to the compound where they were given a ration of Communists to kill. We saw mass graves in each of which up to 10 Communist men and women had been packed after being stabbed to death. We saw literally hundreds of houses which had been burned to the ground.”

Anti PKI Literature Davidelit Wikimedia CommonsPropaganda was fabricated to smear the PKI and encourage violent reprisals against communists / Image: Literature Davidelit, Wikimedia Commons

As well as the direct involvement of the military, anti-communist civilian militias also played a key part in some of the bloodiest murders. Islamic fundamentalism was used as a tool to agitate religious communities to commit horrific acts of violence against the ‘godless’ communists. Journalists’ reports from the time describe religious militias acting as “death squads, often parading victims’ heads round on spikes.”

Not only did MI6 propaganda encourage further violence, it actively sought to cover up and obscure the horrors that were ongoing. An internal SEAMU report from December 1965 (three months into the killing) said that propagandists should “do nothing to embarrass the generals” and instead should promote “continued attacks on the guilty men [communists]… and indirect support for the clean up and control by the generals”. This ‘clean up and control’, as we have seen, was the mass murder of innocent civilians, sanctioned and incited by the British government.

The hypocrisy of ‘liberal’, ‘democratic’ Britain is nauseating. In their eagerness to crush the PKI and advance their own imperialist interests, the British ruling class abandoned any pretence of ‘democracy’ or ‘tolerance’. Any and all the supposed principles and rights that are preached by the defenders of capitalism were immediately, and even gleefully thrown out the window, when imperialist domination and the profit motive were threatened.

Crisis of leadership

While the responsibility for these atrocities lies squarely with Suharto and his imperialist backers, it is important to note the utter bankruptcy of the PKI leadership, which time and again played into the hands of the enemies of the working class. The Stalinist distortions of Marxism, promoted in the PKI particularly by its chairman, D.N. Aidit, sowed the illusion that the ruling class would be won over to the cause of socialism by friendly discussion. He thus encouraged collaboration between the PKI and the party’s future executioners.

In 1964, one year before the slaughter of the PKI, in an interview with the Far Eastern Economic Review, Aidit said:

“When we complete the first stage of our revolution, which is now in progress, we can enter into friendly consultation with other progressive elements in our society and, without an armed struggle, lead the country towards Socialist Revolution. After all, the national capitalists in our country are both weak and disorganised. At present, in our national democratic revolution, we are siding with them and fighting a common battle of expelling foreign economic domination from this soil”.

This argument is completely confused. If the national capitalist class was weak and disorganised… why would the PKI need an alliance with them for a “common battle” against foreign imperialism? In fact, the weak capitalist class in Indonesia was tied to foreign imperialism, and to everything backward in Indonesian society. Only by abolishing capitalism could foreign economic domination be ended. But the working class was held back from this task by the illusory notion of chasing after an alliance with the ‘progressive national capitalist class’. Aidit’s Stalinist rhetoric, which created an imaginary ‘progressive national bourgeoisie’, could only confuse and distract the working class from the need for an independent struggle. The notion of a progressive layer of capitalists, who would help democratise the country, before peacefully handing power to the workers who would then build socialism, had no concrete basis in Indonesia or anywhere in the world, at this time or since.

Aidit public domainsWhile the responsibility for these atrocities lies squarely with Suharto and his imperialist backers, it is important to note the utter bankruptcy of the PKI leadership, which time and again played into the hands of the enemies of the working class / Image: public domains

On the other hand, the very real forces of reaction in Indonesia were neither ‘weak’ nor ‘disorganised’ at this time. There is ample evidence that Aidit knew both the threat posed by the army and the risk of intervention by the British, long before the events of 1965. The PKI leadership’s insistence on ‘friendly consultation’ with the ruling class, rather than any form of struggle against them, was an abandonment of the goal of socialism in Indonesia. By promoting a naive pacifism, Aidit preemptively disarmed and isolated the PKI membership, leaving them utterly unprepared for Suharto’s campaign of terror.

With Stalinists around the world promoting so-called ‘peaceful coexistence’ with capitalism during the Cold War, the PKI leadership sought to demobilise and pacify the working class in Indonesia. In a period of rising class tensions and instability, in which Communism commanded the respect of millions of Indonesian workers and the potential existed for the masses to seize power, Aidit blurred class lines and encouraged cooperation with the people who would later execute him and countless others. This played directly into the hands of Suharto and the British propagandists, neutering any possibility of an organised resistance by the workers.

The ‘New Order’

The end of the six-month-long massacre saw the PKI utterly destroyed. Sukarno was forced to resign, and Suharto took over as president-for-life. His so-called ‘New Order’ regime ushered in over thirty years of repressive dictatorship in Indonesia. As we have written elsewhere, the destruction of the communist movement in Indonesia was intended as a multi-generational trauma, the horrors of which would take decades to exorcise from the consciousness of the working class.

Suharto Image public domainThe corrupt New Order regime drew huge amounts of wealth from the sweat and blood of the Indonesian people / Image: public domain

British agents were over the moon with these results. Norman Reddaway, an agent of the British Foreign Office sent to SEAMU by infamous arch-reactionary Lord Mountbatten, wrote in a personal letter: “I am delighted that a good number of communists have been disposed of, but their killers are predominantly military and Muslim.” Later he wrote: “I cannot see how in the short term things could have gone any better [...] I know that the Indonesians under their new management are not going to be easy bedfellows, but I cannot avoid a little (unattributable) Te Deum over the change in the situation.”

In the coming years, the corrupt New Order regime drew huge amounts of wealth from the sweat and blood of the Indonesian people. The corruption watchdog Transparency International lists Suharto as one of, if not the most corrupt leader of modern times, showing that he personally embezzled as much as $35 billion from the Indonesian economy in his thirty years of rule. When Suharto was finally deposed in 1998, it was found that Suharto's family owned around 3.6 million hectares of real estate in the country, an area larger than Belgium, including 40% of all land in East Timor. Even today, Suharto’s family remains one of the richest in Indonesia. Suharto's three children were each listed in Globe Asia’s list of the 150 richest Asians in 2016.

Partners in crime

The years following his rise to power saw Suharto generously reward British capitalists for their clandestine assistance. After seizing power, the New Order regime immediately gave significant handouts to Western companies, including a number of British ones. These included large tax concessions and the selling-off of vast quantities of Indonesia’s natural resources to European and North American businesses.

For example, in 2021 British Petroleum (BP) celebrated 55 years of operations in Indonesia, openly boasting that it is one of the country’s largest foreign investors. Conveniently, this anniversary also marks the end of the PKI killings and Suharto’s embrace of imperialist powers into the Indonesian economy. A number of major British banks including HSBC and Standard Chartered are also major players in Indonesia today, and all date their current operations in the country back to the early years of the New Order regime. This is imperialism in its purest form. British capitalists waited desperately for Suharto to seize power so they could get rich by extracting wealth from the Indonesian masses.

Indonesia’s potential value to British imperialism was not lost on the capitalist class. As Michael Stewart expressed it in 1965 to Prime Minister Harold Wilson in the British parliament:

“It is only the economic chaos of Indonesia which prevents that country from offering great potential opportunities to British exporters [...] I think we ought to take an active part and try to secure a slice of the cake ourselves.”

While in public the British government ignored the crimes of Suharto and denied all involvement in the killings of 1965, in the City of London and in Westminster, British capitalism greedily reaped the results of the work it had carried out through SEAMU.

The exact number of Indonesians who died as a result of Suharto’s killings may never be known. Estimates put the death toll at up to two million, but the systematic nature of the massacre, as well as its use of informal militias, means that we will likely never be sure about the true extent of the lives lost.

While preaching that it was defending ‘freedom’ and ‘liberty’ in the midst of the Cold War, British imperialism soaked its hands in the blood of millions of people in the colonial nations that were striving to throw off the yoke of imperialism.

Today, six decades after the massacre of the PKI and over two decades after the fall of the New Order, the situation in Britain and Indonesia has not fundamentally changed. As long as the profit motive drives society, the lies, secrecy and the horrors of capitalism will continue. What is needed is the transformation of society and the building of a genuine Marxist tendency, in Britain, in Indonesia, and around the world, not based on Stalinist distortions, but on the ideas of Marx, Engels, Lenin, and Trotsky.

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