Jakarta: Australian journalist Frank Palmos was one of the first foreigners in the world to witness the scale of the communist purge that started in Indonesia this month 50 years ago.
In a chilling account in The Sun News-Pictorial, then Melbourne’s largest newspaper, Dr Palmos put the number who died at “more than one million”.
“Once the killing started the youths were uncontrollable … Beheading was the most common form of killing, but for large scale executions shooting was normal.”
Dr Palmos was a rarity in the foreign press corp: he spoke fluent Indonesian and a reasonable amount of Javanese and Sundanese which gave him access to the countryside to which his desk-bound colleagues in Jakarta could only dream.
“(Canadian Broadcasting Corporation journalist) Don North and I were the first by far to go into Western and Central Java and see what was going on,” Dr Palmos, now 75, recalls from his Perth home.
Journalist Frank Palmos in Perth on October 1. Photo: Philip Gostelow
Dr Palmos initially estimated the dead at about 500,000 but calculated it was closer to a million (figures still used today) after being shocked at the extent of the bloodshed in Bali.
“They went on a rampage and tossed thousands off cliffs off Singaraja. Every time I went back I found there was more and more dead.”
Dr Palmos’ detailed report “So Indonesia counts its dead” was one of the few times the mass killing of suspected communists was mentioned in the Australian mass media in the year after the 1965 coup, according to University of Melbourne honorary professor Richard Tanter.
“Despite the power and gravity of Palmos’ … report there were no follow-ups, no commentaries and no editorials,” Professor Tanter wrote in the book 1965: Indonesia and the World.
The extent to which newspapers and foreign governments were complicit in downplaying the slaughter because they supported the overthrow of communism was explored in the 2001 documentary Shadow Play.
“I reported many interviews of catastrophic occurrences but a lot of them didn’t see the light of day in newspapers,” Dr Palmos said in the documentary.
Richard Woolcott, then public affairs officer for the Australian Department of External Affairs, wrote in a 1965 memo: “We are now in a position to influence the content of leaders in practically all major metropolitan newspapers”.
Cables reveal the Australian ambassador at the time Keith “Mick” Shann had recommended Radio Australia adopt a set of requests passed on to him from the Indonesian army, including that their coverage not focus too much on the army.
Dr Palmos said the ambassador never tried to influence his own reports.
“Mick would never have tried that on me. No one in the Australian Embassy knew as much as I did. Mick needed me as much as I needed Mick,” he said.
Dr Palmos believes it is important to put the time in context. He said Jakarta in 1965 was “pregnant with danger”. “It is hard to exaggerate the dangers for Europeans,” he said. The PKI made gruesome signboards depicting foreigners being bayoneted. China and the PKI were urging president Sukarno to allow workers and peasants to carry arms and become a fifth force. “It was a very tense time … it was very violent. Civil war was certain.”
Dr Palmos believes Australia was justified in supporting Suharto at the time.
“We were all so relieved, not so much that it was Suharto, but that it was a change. Indonesia was going to hell in a handcart, it was just such an awful place.”
But as Dr Palmos began to make forays into the country – first into east and central Java in October and November 1965 and then Surabaya in early 1966 – he realised the extent of the carnage.
“A lot of people turned on the PKI and PKI followers … these followers didn’t deserve to die,” he said.
Monash University research assistant Marlene Millott, who wrote her Masters thesis on Australia’s role in the 1965-66 atrocities, says the biggest role Australia played in the massacres was through broadcasting and supporting Indonesian army propaganda.
“Australia’s actions as an accomplice to the killings should not be exaggerated,” she writes. “The massacres of the PKI took part in a backdrop of years of tension between the Army and the PKI, in a complex internal political environment that would have seen the killings take place regardless of any role Australia might have played.”
Source ” Sidney Morning Herald, October 3 2015