In response to British plans to create an independent state of Malaysia out of its colonial possessions, Indonesia’s left-leaning President Sukarno launched “Konfrontasi”, or Confrontation, an undeclared war that included military incursions over the border into East Malaysia. Sukarno, like many Indonesians, including the PKI, believed the creation of a Malaysian federation was unwarranted regional interference by the British to maintain their colonial dominance. The British were forced to dedicate huge military and intelligence resources to help the emergent Malaysia counter these Konfrontasi intrusions. British policy was to bring an end to the conflict. But the UK’s objectives did not end there.
Like its US and Australian allies, Britain feared a communist Indonesia. The PKI had three million members and was close to Mao’s China. In Washington, the fall of the Indonesia “domino” into the communist camp was seen as a greater threat than the potential loss of Vietnam.
Sukarno’s non-aligned nationalism, anti-colonialism and growing ties to China were viewed as a threat, one that would be lessened if the president and his foreign minister Subandrio were removed from their posts and the PKI’s influence in Indonesia diminished – most plausibly through the actions of the largely anti-communist Indonesian army. In mid-1965 the opportunity arrived. A secret leftwing group, later called the “30 September movement”, coalesced in Indonesia, convinced, with some justification, that the army was planning to overthrow Sukarno and suppress the PKI.
It is estimated that at least 500,000 people (some estimates go to three million) linked to the Indonesia Communist party (PKI) were eliminated between 1965 and 1966 in one of the most brutal massacres of the post-war 20th century. The campaign of mass murder, now known to have been orchestrated by the Indonesian army, was later described by the CIA as one of the worst mass murders of the century.
Recently declassified Foreign Office documents show British officials secretly deployed black propaganda in the 1960s to urge prominent Indonesians, including army generals, to “cut out” the “communist cancer”. As the massacres started in October 1965 British officials called for “the PKI and all communist organisations” to “be eliminated”. The nation, they warned, would be in danger “as long as the communist leaders are at large and their rank and file are allowed to go unpunished”. In 1965 specialist propagandists from the Foreign Office’s information research department (IRD) were sent to Singapore to produce black propaganda to undermine Sukarno’s regime. It produced a newsletter purporting to be produced by Indonesian émigrés and targeted at prominent and influential individuals, including army generals. It also operated a radio station broadcasting into Indonesia.
The propaganda advised that “procrastination and half-hearted measures can only lead to… our ultimate and complete destruction”. Over the following weeks, massacres of alleged PKI members, few if any with any involvement in the attempted coup, and other leftists spread across the archipelago. There can be little doubt that British diplomats became aware of what was happening. Not only could GCHQ intercept and read Indonesian government communications, but its Chai Keng monitoring station in Singapore enabled the British to trace the progress of army units involved in suppressing the PKI.
It was policy “to conceal the fact that the butcheries have taken place with the encouragement of the generals”, in the hope that the generals “will do us better than the old gang”.
The then “coordinator of political warfare”, a Foreign Office propaganda specialist called Norman Reddaway, considered the downfall of Sukarno to be one of Britain’s greatest propaganda victories. In a letter written years later he said “the discrediting of Sukarno was quickly successful. His Confrontasi was costing us about £250,000,000 a year. It was countered and abolished at minimal cost by IRD research and techniques in six months.”
The outcome of the turmoil was a brutal and corrupt 32-year military dictatorship whose legacy shapes Indonesia to this day.