Indonesia and the absent witness of 1965

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Why is it seen as appropriate for Australia to support and celebrate the perpetrators of one of the great mass killings of the 20th Century — before, during and after the event, asks Dr Adam Hughes Henry.

'In terms of the numbers killed, the anti-PKI massacres in Indonesia rank as one of the worst mass murders of the twentieth century, along with the Soviet purges of the 1930s, the Nazi mass murders during the Second World War, and the Maoist bloodbath of the early 1950s. In this regard, the Indonesian coup is certainly one of the most significant events of the twentieth century, far more significant than many other events that have received much more publicity.'

~ Central Intelligence Agency, 'Indonesia 1965: The Coup that Backfired', U.S. Government, Washington, 1968. p71.

On the 11th of September, the conference '1965 and the Indonesian Coup: Fifty Years On' was held at the Australian National University. The conference was held under the auspices of the Australian Institute of International Affairs, Australian National University and the Australian Department of Foreign Affairs (DFAT). In the wake of this "coup", the Indonesian army under authority of General Suharto systematically killed between 500,000 to a million people in a ruthless anti-Communist purge. With the anniversary of 1 October past and with precious little in the Australian mainstream press to acknowledge its significance, a refection is offered.

The 11 September conference conference assembled some fine scholars and various diplomatic and journalistic "eyewitnesses" to their experiences of Indonesia 1965. Some of these scholars and witnesses are known to myself through my own research on (Sir) Keith Shann (Australian Ambassador to Indonesia) during the period. I had the pleasure to discuss the event with Baskara Wardaya, a distinguished Indonesian visitor to this conference.

Imagine, for a moment, that 50 years ago there was a witness to a grave crime, that the witness has intimate knowledge of the crime, its gruesome details, its motivations, even the identity of the murderer. Then, 50 years later, this witness, along with some associates, helps to sponsor an event that invites experts and others to "share" their expertise and knowledge regarding the original murder for the benefit of its "anniversary". Despite all the excellent information provided by the event there is vital context omitted — namely the actions and knowledge of the witness.

Imagine, for a moment, that the "witness", who saw and heard the crime, had actually done nothing to prevent it, nothing to publicise what they had seen or heard and did nothing to even condemn the crime. Then, let us imagine, that our "witness" had done more than "nothing" — they had, in fact, been supportive toward the perpetrator, had in reality despised the victim and even hoped to benefit from the outcome of the crime itself. It was unfortunate that someone had been murdered, but our "witness", looked forward to a working relationship with the perpetrator, in fact our "witness" did forge such a relationship.

Mick Shann was also comfortable excusing Indonesia for the murders of Australian journalists in 1975 (Canberra Times, Wednesday 14 October 1981)

We do not need to imagine this scenario, because in Indonesia during 1965-1966, this actually occurred, except on a massive scale.

The "witness" absent from the conference was, of course, the late (Sir) Keith 'Mick' Shann himself. Yet a treasure trove of documents outlining Shann's role in Indonesia in 1965 have long been available at the National Archives of Australia. No analysis of Australian diplomatic engagement with Indonesia is complete without examining Shann's actions during 1965. 

In the days following 1 October 1965, Shann oversaw a propaganda campaign from Jakarta. In this campaign, Shann aimed to blacken the name of the PKI and undermine Sukarno. The information provided by Shann was designed to be used by Radio Australia and for broadcast into Indonesia. Shann also coordinated Australian propaganda efforts with his British and American colleagues, with some of the information provided in Shann's guidance to the Department of External Affairs (DEA, the forerunner of DFAT) came directly from the Indonesian army. In a 5 November 1965 cable to Canberra outlining specific propaganda guidance, Shann noted:

“I can live with most of this, even if we have to be a bit dishonest for a while.” 

With knowledge of army responsibility for the mass killings, the methods used and even the potential scale, Shann continued his propaganda campaign during the killings (handled at the Australian end by the first Public Information Officer, of the DEA, Richard Woolcott who later became Australian Ambassador to Indonesia during the Indonesian invasion of East Timor), and looked forward to a "new" Indonesia — a new anti-Communist Indonesia. 

Like his U.S. and UK counterparts, the Australians were extremely pleased with the political outcome of 1965-1966, in fact, they were ready to do business with a new and improved Indonesia — an Indonesia cleansed of the PKI. The rise of Suharto was welcomed as an overwhelmingly positive development.

While Shann did not instigate the massacres, like his U.S. and UK counterparts, he did nothing to distance himself or the Australian government from the Indonesian army (the perpetrator), he did nothing to question or condemn the massacres, and he (like his UK and U.S. counterparts) looked forward to forging a new diplomatic relationship with an ascendant Indonesian army — an army that, under Suharto's authority, was guilty of one of the great mass killings of the 20th Century. 

Such is the nature of anti-Communism and the Cold War itself that Suharto could (and in some circles is) still be presented as some kind of saviour rather than one of the world's greatest mass murderers. Indeed, one of the presenters at the aforementioned conference, Geoffrey Miller AO, posted to the Australian Embassy on 1 October, presents a point in case. No doubt Miller is an amicable and nice man well respected by his peers, yet in writing a pre-conference reflection on 1965 for the Australian Institute of International Affairs (AIIA) he excuses Suharto.

He writes at one point:

'The great blemish on his government, and the New Order, was of course the anti-PKI campaign...'

The only blemish?

Not the treatment of West Papua? Not its brutal invasion and occupation of East Timor? Not the massive industry of corruption sponsored and made possible by Suharto? Not the climate of fear, intimidation and exploitation created under Suharto? 

Miller also writes:

'The retribution [of 1965] was clearly terrible. Set against it must be the great improvements made by the Suharto regime in the lives of most Indonesians .... It was a privilege to be present for part – a most dramatic part – of these historic events."

So yes, there were terrible killings, but we must weigh this against against the fact that the "perpetrators" of these crimes against humanity increased GDP and standards of living.

One of the most extraordinary academic examples of this sheer tragedy of intellectual and ethical analysis from the ANU’s Indonesia Project can be read HERE — the human costs and rampant corruption being seen as no barrier to applauding Suharto’s economic legacy. George Orwell could only be amazed by such sophistry.

Still resonating, it seems, is Orwell’s maxim:

Political language — and with variations this is true of all political parties, from Conservatives to Anarchists — is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind.’

(Click on the image to read the full article on the ANU website)

We might pause here.

Another corrupt and brutal dictator greatly favoured by the West was far more successful than Suharto in regards to "modernisation". His name was Saddam Hussein. Must we "set" Mr. Hussein's horrid crimes "against" rising Iraqi living standards when Iraq was a Western ally? Would any Australian academic, journalist or commentator dare make that argument as brazenly as some do for Suharto?

It is perhaps not surprising that a conference organised with the assistance of the Australian Department of Foreign Affairs that the role of Australian diplomacy in Indonesia in 1965 – particularly the rich pickings available on Shann – are not of any particular interest as a matter of philosophical concern. If it were, we may indeed ask why it was appropriate to support and celebrate the perpetrators of one of the great mass killings of the 20th Century, before, during and after the event.

Despite being one of the traumatic events in Indonesia's independent history, and according to the CIA official history of 1965 one of the greatest slaughters of the 20th century, for Miller, it was a 'privilege' to be in Indonesia in 1965. In the mainstream of Australia, as the recent anniversary suggests, it is of little historical interest. Yet growing ongoing efforts in the U.S. and elsewhere – including Australia – mean the secrets of 1965 are slowly being revealed. And what is being revealed is not pretty.

This blind spot is a tremendous shame, because with omission we lessen context and, as such, lessen our understanding of a truly terrible crime against humanity, where Australia ultimately favoured mass murderers as the preferred Indonesian government.

Dr Adam Hughes Henry is a visiting fellow at the School of Culture, History and Language at the Australian National University.

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