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Why we can’t see Indonesia’s military and communist party in black and white in the 1965 tragedy

A victim of the tragedy of 1965-1966, Umar Anwar, protests at the National Human Rights Commission’s office to demand the Indonesian government announce the result of investigations into the tragedy.

Discussions on an “attempted coup” that killed seven army officers and led to Indonesia’s darkest past known as the 1965 tragedy, in which hundreds of thousands of innocent civilians were murdered on the presumption they were communists, always narrow down to the existence of three powerful parties, which senior Indonesian journalist Rosihan Anwar described as a “triangle of power”. They are Sukarno, the country’s president at that time, the military and the Indonesian Communist Party.

The common public narrative always pits the military against the Communist Party, which the former accused of masterminding the coup. And people always describe Sukarno as the president who chose the wrong side as he allied with the Communist Party and had to resign in the end.

The above description only simplifies discussions on the 1965 tragedy and hinders efforts to analyse the event objectively. The common understanding is that each of Sukarno, the military and the party is either a victim or a culprit; they can’t be both.

However, as each actor engages with different interests, we shouldn’t see them in black or white.

American political expert John Muller, in his article The Banality of “Ethnic War”, implicitly discusses a logical fallacy in attributing ethnic hatred to a certain group, known as the “fallacy of composition”.

For example, when we said “Japan attacked Pearl Harbor (the US)” it does not mean, as Mueller noted, “the entire population of Japan, or even a major portion of it, directly participated in the assault”. Rather, it was only a part of its military force, which was ordered by its government to launch an attack.

However, that kind of generalisation occurs when we are discussing the three parties engaged in the 1965 tragedy.

First, Sukarno

People always sees Sukarno as the lovable founding father of Indonesia. Only a few analyses describe him as a whole.

Like many other politicians, Sukarno was a figure who was hungry for power and always concerned about political rivals who threatened his power.

Sukarno’s close relationship with the Indonesian Communist Party needs to be reviewed as past documents prove Sukarno and the party’s leaders had complicated relationships.

Sukarno was indeed close with the party’s deputy chairman, Njoto, but the president didn’t like its senior leader, D.N. Aidit, who was regarded as too ambitious.

Sukarno’s dislike of Aidit is mentioned in Dutch historian Antonie C.A. Dake’s book, In the Spirit of Red Banteng, as well as in the diary of Ganis Harsono, an Indonesian diplomat who was close to Subandrio, the minister for foreign affairs in the Sukarno era.

Sukarno was close to the Communist Party because he needed the party for three reasons.

First, Sukarno did not have a political organisation with a strong following. The members of his supporting party, Partai National Indonesia, were elites who lacked strong grassroots followers.

Second, Sukarno needed a party that could help him to balance the strength of the army, which already had obtained political power with the issuance of the 1959 Presidential Decree. The decree ended the constitutional democracy, putting more power in the president’s hands and giving the military significant representation in the parliament.

Third, Sukarno needed the Communist Party to give the impression to the US that Indonesia was ready to turn to communism. Sukarno hoped the fear that Indonesia would become a communist nation would eventually lead the US to help Indonesia in its fight against the formation of Malaysia.

These three reasons explained Sukarno’s close affiliation with the Communist Party, even though the man himself was always cautious with the party.

As proof, even though Sukarno gave position to the party’s members in his administration, they were not given any power. Njoto, who held a ministerial position, confirmed this.

Second, TNI

Many people believe there is only one army in the 1965 tragedy. Little do people know that the army was divided over Sukarno’s Crush Malaysia campaign.

One part of the military was against the campaign because they knew Malaysia, with support from the UK, was too strong for Indonesia.

Army leaders General Ahmad Yani and A.H. Nasution were behind this group. They were not sure Indonesia would win against Malaysia. And if they lost, it would only benefit the Communist Party.

On a different side was a group who supported Sukarno’s plan to attack Malaysia.

For this group, the army leaders and their supporters behind the anti-Crush Malaysia campaign stabbed them in the back. They thought the army generals wanted to weaken them by sending them on the front line of the battle with Malaysia. This group was believed to have staged the coup.

Third, Indonesian Communist Party

Back then, the Indonesian Communist Party was the biggest party in the country with 3 million followers.

The party was considered a people’s party due to its popularity among poor people. Its programs helped poor people who had huge debts. Therefore, a majority of followers joined the party due to economic reasons and not because they adhered to communist ideology.

Some of the members also joined because of Sukarno’s support for the party.

In one version of history, the party was regarded as the huge enemy of the army. The military always accused the party of staging the coup and the killings of the army officers.

This version may have some truth in it: indeed back then, the relationship between the party and the army was very bad because of conflicts of interests.

The party itself, via its “special bureau”, provided assistance to a group who kidnapped and killed the army officers.

However, historical documents showed that even though the party’s role was important in the coup, it didn’t mastermind the killings of the generals. One of the party’s leaders, Sudisman, said military figures who supported Sukarno asked the party to help them kidnap and kill the high-ranking officers.

The description above shows the dynamics of Indonesia’s politics back then were very complex.

It’s important for us to pay attention to the dynamics of politics at that time to give a complete analysis, which must include Indonesia’s conflict with Malaysia and the important roles of Sukarno and the Communist Party.

Ignatius Raditya Nugraha has translated this article from Indonesian language.

This article was originally published in Indonesian

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