Remembering the Indonesian Peasants’ Front and Plantation Workers’ Union (1945 -1966)

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Remembering the Indonesian Peasants’ Front and Plantation Workers’ Union (1945 -1966)

by: Ben White

I should first explain the choice of topic. Earlier this year I have helped to organize two conferences on agrarian problems and conflicts in Southeast Asia: one in Manila, the second in Chiang Mai. These conferences included both researchers and representatives of peasant movements, and I was struck by the fact that compared to the strong peasant movements in Thailand or the Philippines, Indonesia’s tens of millions of peasants and agricultural workers – the country’s largest single occupational group – have no strong national movement or organisation or political party representing their interests. 50 years ago, in contrast, the Indonesian Peasants’ Front (BTI) and Plantation Workers’ Union (SARBUPRI) together claimed almost 8 million members, on the eve of their destruction in 1965-66.

In this talk I would like to reflect on the role of BTI and SARBUPRI in building a progressive democratic movement of peasants and workers. I will first outline the national and international context in which the BTI and SARBUPRI attained widespread popularity. Then I will very briefly summarize the events of 1 October 1965, which resulted in Major General Suharto’s accession to power and the subsequent reign of terror. And in the main part of this talk I will ask: what was the BTI and who were its cadres, members and sympathisers, who were hunted down, massacred and persecuted on grounds of having been involved in the “30 September Movement”?

Background: Indonesia in the Cold War, 1950 – 1965

In the cold war atmosphere of the 1950s Western powers, and some elements in the Indonesian military, were alarmed to see the emergence of the Indonesian Communist Party (PKI) as a powerful force. In the national elections of the mid-1950s the PKI emerged as the 2nd largest party, and if the 1959 elections had not been cancelled it was widely expected they would emerge as the strongest party. By 1965 the party claimed 3.5 million members, making it the biggest Communist Party in the world outside the communist bloc (Mortimer 1974, 11). President Sukarno meanwhile engaged in a political juggling act, invoking the concept of ‘Nasakom’ to combine the three forces of nationalism (Sukarnoism/marhaenism), religion (especially orthodox Islam) and communism, in uneasy tension.

It is important to remember that the Indonesian Communist Party was a legitimate party which since the early 1950s had opted for the parliamentary rather than the revolutionary road, and performed successfully within the rules of parliamentary democracy and (after 1959), the so-called ‘Guided Democracy’ introduced by President Sukarno, and earning a place in decision-making bodies from the national level(cabinet and parliament) to the village level (village councils).

Like all major political parties, the PKI had affiliated associations of particular occupational and interest groups: workers, women, youth, farmers, artists, students/intellectuals, etc.; some were ‘affiliated’, others ‘aligned’ to PKI. The most important were SOBSI (labour) and its sectoral branches (e.g. SARBUPRI for plantation workers), GERWANI (the Indonesian Women’s Movement), BTI (the Indonesian Peasant’s Front), LEKRA (the People’s Cultural Institute), CGMI (the Central Indonesian Students’ Movement), and Pemuda Rakyat (Youth). Altogether these organisations claimed about 20 million members; by mid-1963 the Peasants’ Front claimed 7.1 million members, having doubled in four years, and SARBUPRI 700,000. These affiliate organisations were also legitimate organisations, who did their work largely within the law and within the rules of the game. But they were vocal in campaigning for the realisation of the unfulfilled promises of the Indonesian revolution, in particular for economic and social justice.

Access to land was one of the burning political issues of the early post-independence years. The basic share-tenancy law (UUPBH) of 1959 and the basic agrarian law (UUPA) of 1960 basically reproduced the typical ‘anti-communist’ model of land reform – based on private ownership, maximum & minimum holdings limits, and regulation of tenancy – which had been applied with US backing in various Asian countries. The draft laws were originally opposed by the PKI and BTI since they were based on private ownership and did not embody the “land to the tiller” principle. Once they had been passed, however, the PKI and BTI campaigned for their implementation, and from 1963 onwards, when it became clear that implementation was being impeded by landlords and bureaucrats, supported some forceful seizures of land (aksi sepihak) by peasants. These incidents made them enemies among the landed rural elites.

Meanwhile SARBUPRI campaigned successfully for maintenance of standards of living of plantation workers, particularly by the inclusion of in-kind provision of basic needs (rice, cooking oil, cloth, sugar etc.) as part of the pay package. In North Sumatra, the BTI supported the squatter movement of ex-estate workers, land-poor locals, refugees and ex-soldiers occupying under-utilised plantation land to establish smallholder farms.

The events of 1 October 1965 and the subsequent reign of terror

Early in the morning of 1 October 1965 six senior members of the military high command were kidnapped from their homes and a few hours later the national radio announced the formation of a ‘Revolutionary Council’, which claimed to have saved President Sukarno and the nation from a right-wing military coup by a CIA-backed ‘Council of Generals’ led by the six kidnapped generals and general Nasution (who managed to escape). It remains a mystery why they did not also kidnap or otherwise sideline Major General Suharto. Anyway, with nearly all his military rivals out of the way, — something that has prompted endless speculation about whether and how much he may have known in advance of the events – Suharto took control of the army, launched a counter-attack, and by the morning of the following day all the rebel troops had either been captured or had fled. The ‘movement’ thus collapsed the day after it had started; a total of 12 people (including the six generals) were killed, and most Indonesians, both in Jakarta and in the regions, including the PKI and BTI members and sympathisers, had no idea what had happened.

But in the following days and weeks Suharto and his army colleagues organized a nationwide terror campaign against the PKI, with support from foreign governments, while worming his way into the Presidency. He accused the (entire) Communist Party, and its affiliates, improbably, of master-minding the “30 September Movement”, and promoted the image of the PKI and its affiliates as wild beasts capable of the most inhuman actions, with stories of sadistic torture committed on the kidnapped generals, including genital mutilation, by Gerwani women while dancing naked. This story, which we know to be completely false,1 became part of New Order political culture. As historian Hilmar Farid observed: ‘The communists were dehumanized so that the public would not see the communists as fellow citizens, but only as demons bent on spreading atheism and sadism’.

On 16 October Suharto ordered paratrooper units under the command of Colonel Sarwo Edhie, to crush the “30th September Movement”, starting in Central Java. The chronology of mass killings followed the eastward progress of Sarwo Edhie’s troops, who organised civilian militia groups, gave them training, weapons and promises of immunity; in Sarwo Edhie’s own words, “we gave them two or three days’ training, then sent them out to kill the communists”. On his return from this three-month long orgy of slaughter in Central and East Java and Bali in January 1966, Sarwo Edhie was welcomed as a hero in Jakarta. Most estimates of the numbers killed fall between 500,000 and 1,000,000. Sarwo Edhie himself however, not long before he died, confided to his friend Permadi: “Mr Permadi, three million were killed. Most of them on my orders”. Countless family members of those who disappeared have no idea, until today, where the bodies lie.

What kind of movement was the BTI, and what kinds of activities were they involved in at local level? How did they identify priorities in working with the peasants, and how did they learn about the situation and problems in rural areas ? On the last question, the BTI were pioneers in what is now called ‘participatory action research’.

The BTI and ‘participatory action research’
The PKI and BTI carried out three rounds of village-level research in 1959, 1964 and 1965. These studies (which received government support) abandoned the conventional questionnaire-based methods which had characterised previous research on agrarian problems. Engaged academics trained the PKI/BTI cadres on how to practice the ‘three togethers’, the ‘four don’ts’ and the ‘four musts’. The ‘three togethers’ (tiga sama) were: work together, eat together and sleep together with the poor peasants and landless workers; the ‘four don’ts’ (empat jangan) were: don’t sleep in houses of village elites, don’t lecture the peasants, don’t be the causes of material losses to your host families or the peasants, and don’t take notes in front of the peasants; and the ‘four musts’ (empat harus) were: practice the ‘three togethers’; be modest, polite and ready to learn from the peasants; know and respect the local language and customs, and help to solve the problems of the host family, the peasants and the local Party (Aidit 1964,18). These were a remarkable forerunner of the ‘participatory action research’ strategies now so popular among the NGO community and in mainstream development organizations such as the World Bank.

The results of the first study included the identification of the tujuh setan desa, the ‘seven village devils who suck the blood of the peasants’: landlords, usurers, advance purchasers of crops, middlemen, bureaucratic capitalists (those who use government resources to pressure peasants to sell their products to state enterprises at low prices), village bandits (local strongmen who commit crimes to defend the interests of exploiting classes) and evil village officials.2

The third and last study was carried out in five provinces in February and March 1965, under the sponsorship of the Ministry of Science and Research and the Aliarcham Academy of Social Sciences. The aim of this research was to study the conditions and problems of small-scale food production, an urgent problem given Indonesia’s position as chronic importer of rice and other staples, and the low harvests of the early 1960s due to problems of drought and pest attacks. It involved periods of about two weeks of participatory fieldwork in each of the chosen villages. The importance of women’s participation in research was stressed, reflecting also the gender-mixed membership of the BTI. The results were quickly written up but never published, being taken over by the cataclysmic events of October 1965. These reports show clearly that the PKI and BTI were open to adapting received theories and concepts to Indonesian realities as revealed in field research; the ‘seven village devils’ discourse for example underlined that Indonesia’s rural poor were exploited in complex ways, based not only on land rent and extraction of surplus value from wage labour, but on a much richer combination of economic, political and ideological mechanisms which differed from one village to another (Slamet 1988, 31).

I would like to take the example of the reports by two young researcher–activists, Sujati and Sulasto, from two villages in the extremely poor upland region of Purwodadi district (Central Java). One village (G) had a communist lurah and more than 90 per cent had voted for PKI in the 1959 elections; the other village (T) had a PNI village head and largely PNI administration, but still 75 per cent of the peasants had joined the BTI, the Pemuda Rakyat and/or the PKI. I am going to give some details which some will find boring, but later I will explain why.

The first point to note is how seriously the researchers took the principles of the ‘three togethers’. In the village (G), Sujati stayed in the house of a poor peasant, where she swept the yard and house and looked after their young child while her host went to the market. Every day she helped with housework, pounding maize, picking vegetables, fetching water from the neighbour’s well, and sometimes helping to weed in the fields. Sulasto went to the fields with his host in the morning and helped with weeding; in the afternoon he collected firewood, and helped hoeing the home-garden, using the hosts’s second hoe ‘which was rather broken’. They both ate with their host families: two meals per day of steamed maize with whatever leafy vegetables could be found in the tiny house-gardens, and plain water from the neighbour’s well to drink. They listed their host families’ meagre possessions: (Suyati in village T.); “three plates, four cups, one glass, two sickles, a hoe, a borrowed plough, three chickens, one cow” (which they did not own, and which was kept inside the house as there was no stable) (Sulasto in village G): ‘the house is fairly large, but there’s nothing in it. […]They have only two plates and one bowl; they have no cups and all the time I stayed there I never drank coffee or tea […] They own only the one set of clothes which they wear every day. (he told me that he had pawned his good clothes to buy food)’. There was no toilet or closed place for them to bathe.
Sulasti listened to her hostess (in village G.) talking about problems of indebtedness (to merchants who charged 40% interest on three-month loans of maize) , and was surprised that she did not see this as an exploitative relationship.

Yields of the major crops in both villages were low at the best of times (in good years less than one ton of paddy or soya per ha, and 1.5 tons of maize – nowadays one would expect to get around five times that much). With farm sizes around one-third of a ha this meant that peasants could only eat rice for 1-2 months in the year. In 1962 and 1963 there had been serious problems of drought and rat infestation, with some peasants losing their entire harvest and others getting only 10-20% of the normal yield.

In neither of the villages did they find landowners with holdings above the maximum permitted under the agrarian reform law. There were however owners who share-cropped out their land with agreements which contravened the basic share tenancy law. In village G. there were 8 better-off farmers who owned between 1.4 – 2.1 ha of (rainfed) sawah, ‘but they worked on their own farms like the middle and poor peasants’. There was however one absentee landlord, a civil servant resident in the sub-district town, who had bought up 41 plots of land (altogether about 14 ha.) in 1962 and 1963 when crop failures had led to many distress sales of land, at very low prices. The land was then parcelled out to local farmers in share tenancies, but under conditions contravening the UUPBH. There was also a Chinese merchant in the same town who made loans of maize to peasants, to be paid back in cash after harvest at 30-40 per cent above the market rate.

In village T. there was only one rich farmer who employed wage workers and was also a trader and moneylender. There were five Chinese merchants who made loans of maize at high interest rates. Labour relations in this village were more ‘feudal’ than in Village G.; landless workers were hired by the year and given only food and tobacco, plus one calf (men) or young goat (women) at the end of the year. Schoolchildren hired to graze livestock would be paid with one calf at the end of three years’ work.
In both villages child marriages (of girls under 15 years of age) were frequent, and Suyati gave a thoughtful account of the combination of economic and social factors behind this. As under-15 marriage was illegal, corrupt religious officials charged 10 times the normal fee to perform the marriage. They also noted problems of gambling and prostitution.

In considering how to confront these problems, Suyati and Sulasto expressed concern at the urgent need for village democratization (which already existed on paper) to be implemented. The Bamudes (Village Consultative Boards) had been appointed on the Gotong-Royong principles, representing all major parties and mass organisations including BTI and PKI, but neither of the village heads had called a Bamudes meeting. Although membership of BTI, Gerwani and Pemuda Rakyat was high in both villages, the leaders were largely ineffective.

They found the peasants’ political consciousness and their awareness of exploitation to be quite high, although their organisation was weak. They were also conscious of improved agricultural practices and ‘fertilizer minded’, but could not afford modern chemical fertilizers, while many had no livestock and therefore no manure.
Besides the need to establish the land reform committees to deal with problems of tenancy and absentee ownership, and to ‘re-tool’ corrupt village heads and officials, they underlined the urgency of addressing the peasants’ practical problems: improvement of irrigation, Germet (mass rat extermination campaigns, Gerakan Membasmi Tikus) and the Mutual Help Teams (Regu Saling Bantu) which should have been key pillars of the BTI’s local efforts, based on the principle that problems can best be solved by working together rather than individually.

Sujati’s report includes a “self-criticism”: she had found it difficult to adjust to bathing and going to the toilet in the open under the bamboo tree, and drinking unboiled water, and sleeping with the cow and chickens in the house, and because Gerwani was not yet well organised in the villages, she had found it difficult to learn about problems facing women. And on what she was able to give back to her hosts, she regretted that:

I did not succeed in making a toilet for my hosts, since I did not have the materials and also could not have done the work of digging and carpentry;
I grew too close to my hosts’s little children, so that they cried when I left to go home […];
I did not bring enough medicines [quinine and aspirin] for those who needed them.

Many of you will find these trivial details boring. But this is just the point: the activists and members of the Peasant’s Front were not concerned with plots to kidnap generals or set up revolutionary councils in Jakarta, they were concerned to understand the mundane, everyday causes of rural poverty and underproductivity, poor diets, child marriage, corrupt officials and so on and to work together with peasant men and women to find practical ways to overcome them. They were aware, as we are today, that these problems had both technical, social and political causes. And these are the kind of people who were hunted down, rounded up and massacred in late 1965 and 1966, in Purwodadi and other regions, on grounds of their supposed involvement in the ’30 September Movement’ .


After 1966 agrarian reform implementation was abandoned and became a taboo subject for many years ; the Agrarian Reform Courts and Committees were formally dissolved in 1970. The BTI and all other peasant organisations (including those linked to NU and PNI) were dissolved and replaced with a single, state-sponsored monolith organisation, the ‘Indonesia Farmers’ Harmony Association’ (HKTI). This organization has not been active in support of small-scale farmers, and has been completely silent in the face of the massive forced expulsion of local peasants from millions of hectares of land for corporate agriculture (especially oil palm). The HKTI has for some years been locked in a leadership struggle between Suharto’s former son-in-law Prabowo Subianto and the businessman Oesman Sapta Odang. The two rival HKTIs continue to claim legitimacy, and as can be seen from their two competing web sites, neither has any vision of agrarian renewal.3 The losers are the millions of peasants and farm workers whose interests the HKTI is formally mandated to defend. The independent Indonesian Peasants’ Union (SPI, formerly the Federation of Indonesian Peasant Unions FSPI), set up immediately after the fall of Suharto has adopted the slogan ‘land to the tiller!’ (which as we saw above was also the PKI and BTI position) and mounted various local campaigns, but has not achieved any broad national following remotely approaching the BTI’s more than 7 million members.

Finally, we should note the continuing problems in confronting the history of 1965-66. Indonesian and other historians have provided more than enough evidence to demolish the official version. But more than 15 years after the fall of Suharto, books that challenge the official version have been banned; history text books continue to be doctored, and those involved in exhumations of mass graves are attacked by thugs and goons.

Since the fall of Suharto in 1998, various national leaders have stated that the history of this period will be revised, but nothing has been done. In 2012 the National Commission on Human Rights report on the 1965 Crimes against Humanity recommended follow-up investigations by the Office of the Attorney General, and the establishment of a human rights court as well as a non-judicial truth and reconciliation commission, but the report was rejected by the Indonesian State and the Office of the Attorney General. Meanwhile, each year on 1 October, Indonesia’s successive post-Suharto presidents have led the ceremony at the Lubang Buaya memorial and visited the museum which perpetuates the government version. 50 years after the massacres the countless victims of the killings, their families and descendants, and also new generations of Indonesians growing up with an imposed, distorted version of their own society’s past, deserve a more accurate history than this; as Gerry van Klinken observed some years ago, the “battle for history after Suharto” continues.

Faced with the state’s continued failure to live up to its international obligations, a new International People’s Tribunal has been launched this year, assembling documentation and drafting an indictment which will hold the Indonesian State responsible for genocide, as well as nine forms of “crime against humanity” as these are defined in international law. As a people’s initiative, the Tribunal will have no legal power to enforce its judgments, but hopes to carry the moral authority to promote their acceptance by the international community. Supported by prosecutors from Indonesia and volunteer judges from the International Criminal Court, the Tribunal will be held on 10-13 November 2015 in The Hague. For those who are interested, details are available at

1 The official autopsy on the generals’ bodies, by a team appointed by Suharto, states clearly that no other wounds or evidence of mutilation were found on the general’s bodies except the gunshot wounds which had killed them.

2 2“Tuan-tanah jahat, lintahdarat, tukang-ijon, kapitalis birokrat, tengkulak jahat, bandit desa dan penguasa jahat”.


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