Extraordinarily, only in the last few years has one of the most terrible mass killings of the last century come to light. In 2012 a documentary film, The Act of Killing, publicised for the first time the massacre of over half a million communists and others in Indonesia in late 1965 and early 1966. The director, Joshua Oppenheimer, focused largely on one member of the death squad, whom he filmed retelling how he had executed his victims. The Indonesian government was outraged, but the film became the toast of the festival circuit, winning a bucketful of awards and alerting Western audiences to the most savage act, probably, in Indonesia’s history and one of the worst atrocities of the Cold War. Some have called it a genocide.
But The Act of Killing was, of necessity, only a partial account. Now Geoffrey Robinson, formerly a researcher at Amnesty International and now a professor of history at UCLA, has written a full, academically rigorous account of the massacre. His book is, if anything, even more extraordinary and revealing than Oppenheimer’s brave film. Robinson’s work is painstakingly careful and deserves as wide a readership as possible. It is not only a study of a particular mass killing; it is also a timely reminder of how such killings can be effectively carried out and then covered up, buried from sight by a mound of lies and misinformation, and wilfully ignored and forgotten by those who do not wish to believe that their fellow countrymen could carry out such bestial acts in the first place.
The killings were precipitated by a supposed coup attempt against the government of President Sukarno. On 1 October 1965, six generals were abducted and killed by a shadowy group of junior officers called the 30 September Movement. Their insurrection, however, soon unravelled. Within a day, army forces led by General Suharto, who would eventually replace Sukarno as president, crushed the rebellion. Very quickly, Suharto and his fellow commanders blamed the Communist Party (PKI) for the failed coup and turned to eliminating it. What ensued was the massacre of hundreds of thousands of people. Robinson is in no doubt, however, that the failed coup of 1 October was merely the pretext for the bloodletting. Suharto and the army high command had been worried for some time that Sukarno was allowing the country to drift to the left. The uprising was their chance to stop that. Suharto might even have orchestrated the killing of the six generals; whether that is the case or not, Robinson is certain that the lethal campaign against the communists was founded on a ‘lie’.
Furthermore, Suharto and his allies were encouraged to carry out the killings by the Americans, principally, and also the British. The British had already clashed with Sukarno’s government over the formation of Malaysia in a dispute known as Konfrontasi. The Cold War, moreover, was at its height and the domino theory was in the ascendant. If Indonesia’s army seemed willing to kill communists, then it was to be encouraged to do so. Robinson documents American and British involvement in the killings in substantial detail. At the very least, the Indonesian army was given a big flashing green light to go about its work. The Americans may also have handed over weapons to help them. Importantly, the Western powers provided diplomatic and press cover for the killings too, feeding friendly journalists with Indonesia’s official version of events, namely that a few leftists had been legitimately rounded up in defence of the government.
Robinson also shows, in conclusive detail, that the massacres were not the result of spontaneous, popular anger against the Left. Far from it: the army was entirely responsible. These were ‘carefully organized summary executions’, involving a ‘significant measure of planning and organization’. He argues, for instance, that the numbers killed varied geographically across the country, depending on the local army commanders’ enthusiasm for such butchery. Local citizens in ‘death squads’ did most of the dirty work – hence the claims that this was merely an outburst of general violence – but Robinson demonstrates beyond doubt that the army mobilised them and provided them not only with weapons but also with the fleets of trucks that were used to ferry the victims to execution sites and subsequently to mass graves. ‘Without the army’s logistical and organizational leadership,’ Robinson writes, ‘it is safe to say that the mass killings could not have happened, or at least would not have been nearly as swift and widespread as they were.’
As well as those killed, hundreds of thousands more were incarcerated. Some of those were tortured or required to do forced labour; few were ever brought to trial for their alleged involvement in the supposed coup attempt. Many died in prison and those who were eventually released continued to be harassed by the authorities. The Carter administration bullied the Indonesian government into releasing some political prisoners during the 1970s, but others had to wait until the fall of Suharto in 1998 to see the light of day again.
To cover up what was happening, the army deployed a full range of psychological warfare tactics. ‘Mental information teams’ and ‘indoctrination teams’ worked to cultivate the army’s version of events through the media, helped by the Western allies. Myanmar’s army, for one, has been using exactly the same misinformation tactics in Rakhine State to mislead the Burmese people about the Rohingya, characterising them all as ‘terrorists’. The real importance of this book is that it exposes in meticulous detail a modern genocide from the inside out. Governments and politicians could learn from this to prevent genocides before they even happen. Equally, though, Robinson’s work shows that political self-interest will usually trump concerns about human rights, whichever government is concerned.