Indonesian Massacre 1965

By Richard Tanter

In the aftermath of the Untung coup and the Suharto countercoup of September 30th and October 1st, 1965 between 100,000 and 1,000,000 Indonesians were killed by the Indonesian army or by civilians supported and encouraged by the army. This genocide was the foundation of Suharto’s three decades of power, and beyond that for the whole of post-Vietnam War Southeast Asia. The killings can be regarded as the constitutive terror of the New Order state. How was this genocide seen in Australia? What could Australians have learned from reading the press of the day?

In mid-1966, while the killings that had started in October the year before were continuing unabated, the Australian Prime Minister Harold Holt visited the United States. Speaking to the Australian-American Association at the River Club in New York, Holt expressed his satisfaction with the pro-Western shift of Indonesian foreign policy and economic policy under Suharto after March 1966. This was hardly a surprising position for a conservative politician, but the language that Holt chose to employ was startling:

‘With 500,000 to 1 million Communist sympathisers knocked off, I think it is safe to assume a reorientation has taken place.’

As a representation of genocide, the casual brutality of the first part of the politician’s sentence (a million people ‘knocked off’) is stunning. Surely this is what the American psychologist of state terror, Robert Lifton, calls ‘psychological numbing’ at work: an adjustment to the normality of mass murder. And yet the brutality of Holt’s throwaway line was enhanced for his listeners by the smug joke in the second part of the sentence: ‘I think it’s safe to assume a reorientation has taken place’. It is not hard to imagine the knowing smiles and even guffaws of the powerful and wealthy American audience.

Yet Holt’s slip in New York was significant not just in the brutal clarity of his manner of speaking. Holt’s remarks were reported the next day in the New York Times, but not, so far as I can discover, in any Australian newspaper. It is most implausible that no Australian US-based correspondents were present. The fact the remarks were not reported at home was not an accident. Even in the roughhouse atmosphere of Australian 1960s anti-communism, Holt had gone much further than would have been safe. Speaking to an invitation-only audience of powerful friends abroad, Holt relaxed his normal political guard and openly revealed the fundamental outlook of Australian anti-communism and racist perceptions of Indonesia. The Australian reporters touring with the Prime Minister or their editors protected their readers from the need to face the historical and moral reality of the genocide next door. (It was to be thirteen years before Holt’s remarks were brought to wider attention in Noam Chomsky and Edward Herman’s pathbreaking study of the systematic media differentiation of ‘constructive’ terror (Indonesia) and ‘nefarious’ terror (Cambodia) in their The Washington connection and Third World fascism.)

In Australia today there is very little awareness of the 1965 killings. In my own experience, apart from those with a close interest in Indonesian affairs, very few people have any knowledge of this set of massive crimes against humanity. While recent public opinion polls show a widespread negative image of New Order Indonesia in Australia, this is largely derived from perceptions of the Indonesian invasion of East Timor. And of course, most people who know nothing of the Indonesian killings in 1965-66 know a great deal about the Khmer Rouge killings a decade later.

This ignorance is not a matter of forgetting something once known. An Australian public opinion poll conducted in the early 1970s by the political scientist Rodney Tiffen showed that while more than half the respondents could identify President Suharto, not a single person mentioned the killings as part of their description of their image of Indonesia.

How can this ignorance or amnesia of genocide in the country nearest Australia be explained?

The first question is a simple question of fact: exactly what information about the killings in Indonesia was provided by the mainstream media of the time? The newspapers of the city of Melbourne Australia’s second largest city and the heartland of the old-monied conservative dominance epitomised by Holt make a reasonable sample of the press coverage of the day. I examined all issues between October 1, 1965 and August 30th, 1966 of Melbourne’s two daily morning newspapers. These together dominated the Melbourne market: the tabloid Sun News-Pictorial and the ‘quality broadsheet’ The Age. Both newspapers published many articles on Indonesian politics at the time at least one or more each day. This was almost as many as were published on Vietnam, and far more than at any other time in Australian media history. Most stories were given great prominence in the papers, appearing either on the front page or the principal foreign affairs page.

The Sun

Coverage of the killings in both papers was extremely limited, and grossly distorted. The Sun, the more popular paper, while publishing almost daily major reports on Indonesia, published only five articles in eleven months that even mentioned killings of communists.

Two minor articles in November 1965 reported small numbers of PKI members killed in Java.

The execution of D N Aidit, the PKI leader, was reported in December.

President Sukarno’s statement in January 1966 that 87,000 had been killed was reported on two occasions, but in a manner that suggested it was an unreliable report by an irrational politician.

On March 9th 1966, the political columnist Douglas Wilkie discussed Jakarta students as ‘rioting in a good cause’ (ie. anti-Sukarno), but then went on to make an extremely intriguing statement:

‘Many of the students are tools of the Moslem extremists who butchered some 300,000 of their Communist countrymen with kris and club after the September 30 revolt.’

Two aspects of the way this single sentence is written are important. Firstly, in March 1966, the columnist is referring to the mass killings in a way that suggests they are common knowledge already: he sees no need to explain the reference to his readers. Yet those readers would not have been able to find that information in The Sun.

Secondly, Wilkie’s allusions to killings by ‘kris and club’ and to ‘Moslem extremists’ are characteristic of contemporary Australian (and US) references to both the killings and to Indonesian politics as a whole. ‘Indonesia’ is a different world from ‘here’ (Australia), one characterised by immaturity (‘It’s children’s hour in Jakarta’), and by unknowable and irrational causation (‘Moslem extremists’), with connotations of racially informed separateness (Indonesians kill with ‘kris and club’).

Apart from these tiny allusions and reports, nothing appeared in this newspaper until early August of 1966, by which time most of the killings had stopped. On August 5, The Sun’s prolific Jakarta correspondent Frank Palmos published a powerful and detailed report beginning: ‘More than one million people died in the massacres triggered by the attempted coup in Indonesia on October 1 last year.’ The graphic detail in the full-page report came from army participants in the killings, and from a military research report carried out in part by university students. Palmos’ report also emphasised the irrational ‘blood lust’ and ‘constant semi-amok’ behaviour of young Islamic men.

In sum then, the largest newspaper in Melbourne barely mentioned the killings in the ten months while they were in full sway, and then allowed only a single detailed report to be published. There were no follow-up articles after Palmos’ report. The limited information that did appear represented Indonesians as irrational and unknowable racial others.

The Age

Coverage of Indonesia in The Age was even greater than in its popular rival, and coverage of the killings was more extensive. Despite this, The Age’s coverage was equally limited and distorting. Like The Sun, The Age published several minor reports of communists killed in fighting in late 1965. It also reported President Sukarno’s January pleading for an end to the killings, though in a less hostile manner. In the remainder of 1966, The Age published three articles reporting the killings in some detail. Two of these were somewhat detailed reports by New York Times senior correspondents C L Sulzberger in April and Seymour Topping in August.

The flavour of Sulzberger’s report, which did emphasise the genocidal quality and scale of the killings, can be guessed from its original title in the New York Times: ‘When a nation goes amok’. Topping’s article in August was a much more sober and more detailed account, based on extensive travel in Java, Bali and Eastern Indonesia. There was no editorial comment on Topping’s report, nor any follow-up by any of The Age’s own writers. When I asked one journalist who wrote extensively on Indonesia that year for The Age why he and his colleagues did not cover the genocide story, he answered, ‘Well it’s easy to criticise now, Richard. But in those days it was near impossible to get out of Jakarta.’ When I put this to Seymour Topping, who like other New York Times correspondents travelled widely and reported in depth on the genocide, he replied, ‘That was simply untrue. You could do it if you wanted to.’

Yet in January 1966, much earlier in the period of the killings, The Age published a detailed eyewitness account of the killings by one of its own reporters, Robert Macklin. In 500 words Macklin provided a graphic and convincing account of mass murder that could have left no reader in doubt of what was happening in Indonesia. In journalistic terms, it was a world scoop. Yet, given both its importance and its virtually unique status, Macklin�s article was published deep in the newspaper, well away from both the front page and the foreign affairs section, next to the daily cattle market price reports. Short of not publishing it at all, there could have been no better way of ensuring it went unnoticed.

There was no follow-up either by Macklin or the paper’s Southeast Asian correspondent. Macklin himself wondered at the time whether editors of the paper who he even then knew to have close relationships with Australian security organisations had effectively spiked the story.

The choice of words with which The Age discussed Indonesian affairs in themselves carried powerful effects. As in The Sun, paternalistic and racialist assumptions of irrationality and immaturity were common. The day that Sulzberger’s April article with its emphasis on amok and kris appeared, The Age editorial discussed Indonesia, without mentioning the killings, expressing the hope for a new direction in condescending but revealing terms:

‘It is too much to hope that the new Indonesian regime will be logical; our best hope is that it will be practical.’

Yet there was a far more effective rhetorical device used by the Australian media to deal with the delicate problem of both acknowledging and denying the fact of genocide at the same time. The Southeast Asian correspondent of The Age, a senior journalist and academic political scientist named Creighton Burns, published a great many articles on Indonesian politics in this period. However, only one sentence in many hundreds actually mentioned the killings:

‘Djakarta virtually escaped the violence which swept Indonesia in the wake of the October coup, and which resulted in the death of thousands, perhaps hundreds of thousands, mostly Communist supporters and sympathisers.’

Burns here provides an early example of a formulation that was to become widely employed in the years to come in western writing on the killings. As George Orwell might have noted, the key to the political effect of the passage lies in the grammar: there is no agent of violent death here. Abstract and disembodied violence ‘sweeps Indonesia’, resulting in Communist death. In other versions, which were to be repeated during the East Timor crisis of 1999, the phrasing is even more telling: ‘X number of Communists died in the wave of violence…’

The agent-less and passive voice was appropriate for what was needed in 1966, and was repeatedly used. Because of the report by Macklin (and later by Sulzberger, Topping, and other sources such as Palmos), it was impossible to deny the holocaust directly. Equally, it was politically highly undesirable that the agency of the army and its instigation of Islamic groups be emphasised.

Wherever possible The Age avoided direct reference to the killings, and effectively suppressed its own inconvenient world scoop by Macklin. When reference to genocide was unavoidable, the highly effective solution was to use the rhetoric of the passive voice. Writing about mass murder in the passive voice provided a remarkably effective complement to simple avoidance and suppression via a form of words that allowed both knowledge of genocide and denial of genocide at the same time. Denial – in the psychoanalytic sense – always involves a process of actively repressing knowledge.


‘Witness’ has a double meaning in English. There is firstly the person who takes the role of ‘witness’ in relation to an event, the person who says ‘this is what happened’. My first question then is, where were the Australian witnesses? In what way did Australian newspapers report the Indonesian killings of 1965-66? What did Australian political figures say at that time? What was said in the Australian community at that time?

But there is a second meaning of the word ‘witness’ in English, a sense captured in the phrase ‘to bear witness’, meaning to speak of what has been seen, to speak actively of what has happened, and to not be silent. The Australian media and political response to the Indonesian genocide was a matter of ‘witness denied’ in this sense as well. This is significant not just in the real-politik world, but in the moral sense that many people assume flows from Auschwitz onwards: a responsibility to bear witness to holocaust and genocide. Unlike in Indonesia itself, in 1960s Australia, speaking truth to power required no great risk. Yet, witness was systematically denied.

I began this work trying to answer what seemed to me to be an odd puzzle: why didn’t people my age and older in Australia know about the killings? That simple puzzle has led to somewhat more complicated puzzles, bearing a great deal of moral and intellectual weight. It has been a saddening study, particularly tracing back through the intellectual history of the study of Indonesian politics and history in Australia.

All of our work is an act of representation, but we have paid astonishingly little attention to our own intellectual history. The story of the representation of the Indonesian genocide is the point where anti-communism, the demands of the national security state, and in the Australian case at least, a deep measure of racism, fused to smother and then sever the connection to a shared humanity and moral responsibility.

Richard Tanter , teaches at Kyoto Seika University in Japan. 

Source : Inside Indonesia 71: Jul – Sep 2002