Survivors and descendants of those massacred in Indonesia’s anti-communist purge of 1965-1966 are urging the UK government to apologise for its role in what was described in a secret CIA report as “one of the worst mass murders of the 20th century”.
Last week the Observer published evidence that Britain played a part in inciting the killings. It is estimated that at least 500,000 people were murdered between 1965 and 1966 by the Indonesian army, militias and vigilantes.
Declassified documents highlight how the Foreign Office’s cold war propaganda arm, the Information Research Department (IRD), took advantage of the aftermath of a failed coup by a leftwing palace guard officers on 30 September, 1965. Blaming the Indonesian Communist party (PKI) and the ethnic Chinese for the coup, British officials aimed incendiary newsletters and radio broadcasts at Indonesian anti-communists including rightwing army generals and called for “the PKI and all communist organisations” to “be eliminated”. The black propaganda purported to be written by exiled “Indonesian patriots” but was actually written by British operatives in Singapore. There is no evidence that the PKI had any involvement in the failed coup.
The killings also paved the way for General Suharto to seize power from left-leaning President Sukarno and establish a corrupt dictatorship that lasted 32 years. Bedjo Untung, 73, now head of the Indonesian Institute for the Study of the 1965/66 Massacre (YPKP65), yesterday demanded an apology and full explanation from the UK government.
“We, as the victims, are angry. Reconciliation is impossible without truth, so please reveal the truth.”
Just 17, Bedjo had joined a student organisation that shared the same “anti-imperialist, socialist-leaning” ideology as Sukarno. His father was a respected teacher in his village in Pemalang, Central Java. Neither Bedjo nor his father had ever been PKI members, he said. However, his father was imprisoned for 11 years.
Bedjo was later arrested and imprisoned as a political prisoner for nine years by the Suharto regime. During this time, he was tortured, subjected to electric shocks and beatings, and forced to labour on plantations. He blames the mass murders on the imperial powers in supporting Suharto out of their own self-interest:
“I urge UK, USA, Australia and other countries who took advantage of the mass killing of innocent Indonesian people, members of Indonesian Communist party and the followers of Sukarno, to admit responsibility.”
Soe Tjen Marching’s father was also tortured and imprisoned for two and a half years because the military suspected him of being a member of the PKI. Soe Tjen, 50, a lecturer at Soas University of London, says her father had been about to be installed as one of the stewards of the PKI’s Surabaya branch, but the chaos after the failed coup prevented the notification of his appointment from reaching the party’s headquarters in Jakarta.
“That is why my father was not beheaded. The military did not know who he was,” she said. She too calls for the UK to apologise. “The impacts are still huge on the survivors as well as their members of families.”
The UK government has always denied involvement, but the declassified documents tell a different story. In 2020, Dutch King Willem-Alexander apologised for the “excessive violence” inflicted on Indonesia during his country’s colonial rule, which ended in 1949.