Thayer Watkins
Silicon Valley
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The Attempted Coup d'Etat
in Indonesia
in October of 1965


The Reign of Sukarno 1949-1965

Although Sukarno was adept at language and rhetoric he was a miserable failure at economic policy. He had complete disdain for economics as ignoble "bean counting." Even worse he did not find or allow anyone else to properly treat economic and financial matters. While it was probably true that he was not literally a communist this is not because he saw anything wrong with communism. For him any systematic ideology would interfer with his governing by whim. He spent the limited funds Indonesia had for public monuments and buildings and for private luxuries for himself and his four wives. The problem was that Indonesia needed to repair its infrastructure devastated by a decade of war and rebellion. There was a great need for spare parts for equipment. Indonesia was not meeting its food needs and shortages were becoming serious. The Government was printing money and inflation began to surge into the hyperinflation range.

Sukarno did not concern himself with these economic problems. He instead devoted his time to political posturing. He played games in international politics flirting with the Soviets, the Chinese and West in turn. He verbally abused the West because he found this brought responses, not only from the West but also from the Soviets and Chinese. This balancing of opposition forces extended to internal politics. His avowed movement was called Nasakom, which stood for nationalism, religion and communism. He maintained close relations with the PKI, the Indonesian Communist Party, under the leadership of D.N. Aidit.

Sukarno and D.N. Aidit,
Head of PKI

It is a cliche that Indonesian leaders are like the dalang (the puppetmaster) of the Indonesian shadow puppets, but in fact Indonesia culture strongly encourages this role for leaders. Sukarno played outrageous games in international politics. Marshall Green, the U.S. ambassador to Indonesia from 1965 to 1968 says that Sukarno wanted U.S. Information Service libraries in Indonesia as targets for mobs who would burn the books. The pictures of these burning would gain worldwide attention, particularly of Western and Socialist bloc leaders. Sukarno wanted Indonesia to appear to be at the center of world events. But these games of manipulation ultimately would bring his downfall. Sukarno remained President of Indonesia until 1967 but his power was progressively diminished after the 1965 events.

Su Bandrio

In addition to the relationship Sukarno maintained with the PKI there were others in cabinet that strongly leaned to the left. One notable figure was Subandrio who was considered intellectually brilliant. He was found guilty of involvement in the coup attempt of October 1, 1965 and sentenced to death.

The Attempted Coup of October 1, 1965 and the Countercoup Which Followed

Some of the events of October 1, 1965 and the following months are clear but the explanations and involvements are now impossible to establish, lost in the murky world of Indonesian politics. What is clear is that seven high level military officers were assassinated on the night of September 30th, 1965. Later there was a massacre of Indonesian communists and ethnic Chinese among others. The death toll was upwards of one hundred thousand.

In order to understand the events some background is necessary. Sukarno, the charismatic leader of Indonesian independence, had ruled for more than a decade. He played a game of courting both the West and the Socialist bloc politically and kept the nature of his ideology ambiguous. Within Indonesia his ideological affiliations were likewise ambiguous. Often he appeared to have no ideology at all and seemed to devote his time to thinking up esoteric words for superficial concepts. For example, the name for his movement, Nasakom, stood for nationalism, religion and communism, was supposed to have some profound intellectual significance. His notion that coining names for ideologies was somehow really important was looked upon in the West as a peculiar mental abberation.

Indonesia at that time did have a strong Communist Party, known by its acronym PKI. It claimed a membership of three million which would have made it the third largest Communist Party in the world. The PKI generally supported Sukarno politically, but Sukarno, despite his past support of the idea of communism, did not appear to be a true communist. He was more of what might of been called a fellow traveler but was most fundamentally simply a power seeker.

Even as President for Life as a political leader of Indonesia Sukarno did not have sufficient power to be a dictator. The army and the political elite could limit his actions. Furthermore the army could carry out security measures on its own such as banning strikes, limiting demonstrations, closing newspapers and interrogating political figures such as the head of the PKI.

Sukarno did not have an organized political party and depended upon the PKI for political action. Sukarno had emphasized in the past that freedom from the Dutch would not be the end of the struggle. He talked from time to time of the need to move the revolution into the next stage. He left enough ambiguity in his statement that different listeners could envision the next stage as referring to quite different goals. The PKI could well interpret the next stage as socialism.

Sukarno had successfully beaten the PKI in a confrontation in 1948. The PKI however had been notably successful in the elections of 1955 and Sukarno may well have thought that communism was the wave of the future for Indonesia. The Communists had built up large trade unions and peasant organizations.

Sukarno had required government employees to study his Nasakom principles and Marxist theory. After a meeting with Chinese Communist leader Zhou En-lai, Sukarno decided to create a militia, a Fifth Force, outside of the military forces of the army, navy, air force and police. He ordered 100,000 rifles from China to equip this Fifth Force.

During a speech in August of 1964 he declared that he favored revolutionary groups whether they were nationalist, religious or communist stating "I am a friend of the Communists, because the Communists are revolutionary people." In April of 1965 Sukarno said at an anniversary ceremony of the PKI, "I love the PKI as my brother, and if it dies I shall feel it as the loss of a dear relative."

Sukarno instigated a military confrontation with Malaysia over territorial claims and even sent guerillas to fight in Malaysia. In 1964 Sukarno began to denounce the United States and American economic aid was cut drastically. In January 1965 Sukarno withdrew Indonesia from the United Nation in response for the seating of Malaysia on the U.N. Security Council. In August of 1965 Sukarno publically announced his intentions of creating a Fifth Force for service in the confrontation with Malaysia.

Economic conditions in Indonesia were terrible in the days preceding the coup. Times seemed desperate. Sukarno was suffering poor health and there was worry that Sukarno would die and leave the leftists exposed to the wrath of the military.

The attempted coup was set for the early hours of October 1st. The rebels set up a base at Halim Air Force Base near Jakarta. The commander of the rebels was Lieutenant-Colonel Untung who was the commander of one of the three battalions of Sukarno's palace guard. The rebels divided into seven squads to capture and bring back to the air base seven top generals. Three generals were shot and killed in the attempt to take them prisoner. Three other generals were taken to the Halim air base. One general, Nasution, perhaps the most important, escaped capture. Nasution had been the commander in charge of the army but Sukarno promoted him to a cabinet-level post of minister of defense where he had more prestige but no direct control over the army. Nasution was replaced by General Yani. One of Untung's squads came to Yani's home after midnight and told Yani that President Sukarno wanted to see him immediately. Yani said he would have to put on his uniform but the squad leader said there was not time for that. Yani struck the squad leader in the face for his insolence and turned to go back to his bedroom. The squad shot him in the back. His body was thrown in the waiting vehicle.

Nasution's escape was dramatic and the exact details are uncertain. Apparently Nasution's wife suspected the motives of the squad that came to the house in the middle of the night and she barred the door. While the squad was getting the door open she urged her husband to escape out the window. He climbed over the back fence and dropped into the neighbor's yard breaking his ankle. Meanwhile in the Nasution house an aide of Nasution, a lieutenant, put on Nasution's uniform and hat. The squad mistook the lieutenant for Nasution and took him away. On the way to Halim air base they discovered the subterfuge and killed the lieutenant and went back to Nasution's house. In the shooting Nasution's young daughter was shoot and she died a few days later.

The three prisoners which were taken to the air base were then killed and their bodies mutilated by members of a women's Communist group at Halim. Their bodies along with the bodies of the other three generals and the brave lieutenant who were killed were thrown into a well near the air base.

Sukarno, Aidit and Bandrio were at Halim air base during the early morning hours of October 1st. The conspirators had not bargained the swift recovery of the army under the command of General Suharto. Nasution suffering from his injury and the loss of his child was not prepared to take control. Suharto was not one of the generals targeted by the conspirators. He characterized himself as a simple soldier but the events revealed he had a great talent as an administrator and politician.

Su Harto

Suharto had been born on June 8, 1921 in Yogyakarta. When he finished school he worked for a short time as a clerk in bank before entering the Dutch training school for officers in the colonial army. After the Japanese invasion he served in the Japanese-sponsored home defense force. Later he distinguished himself as a commander of the Indonesian force in the fight against the Dutch. After independence he pursued a career in the army. He was noted as a very competent officer and essentially non-political. In 1963 he was made commander of the army's strategic command, a force kept on constant alert to respond to emergencies. The conspirators of October 1st overlooked him in their hit list of generals. He was a highly competent officer in command of a ready strike force, exactly someone who could smash their attempt to destroy the Army.

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