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


The Reign of Sukarno 1949-1965

The Javanese politician Karno was active in the independence movement against the Dutch before World War II and cooperated with the Japanese invasion force during the War. After World War II he was the dominant political figure in the rebellion against the Dutch. His name is usally written as Sukarno, but Su (and the older Dutch version Soe) is an honorific for Javanese men like mister or sir. Sometimes a different honorific Bung is used for him and he is referred to as Bung Karno. In the following often the honorific Su will be written separate from the family name of a person to emphasize what that person's family name really is.

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. In Jakarta 80 percent of the buses were not operating because of a need for spare parts.

The Government was printing money and inflation began to surge into the hyperinflation range. In 1965 the rate of inflation was over 500 percent.

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 to use U.S. Information Service libraries in Indonesia as targets for mobs who would burn the books. The pictures of these book burnings 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 sentence was never carried out and was commuted to life inprisonment at the request of Queen Elizabeth of the United Kingdom who had known him as an envoy from Indonesia to her government. After almost 30 years in prison Subarndrio was released.

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 full explanations and involvements are now impossible to establish, lost in the murky world of Indonesian politics. What is clear is that six high level military officers out of an intended seven were assassinated on the night of September 30th, 1965. (There had been an eighth general on the list but it was found that he was out of the country and so his name was removed.) Later there was a massacre of Indonesian communists which spread to ethnic Chinese among others. Some anti-communists were also massacred by communists. The death toll was upwards of one hundred thousand, most probably about 250,000. Many different figures are given for the death toll but they are all wild guesses. Here is John Hughes accessment of the various figures. Hughes was an American journalist who was in Indonesia immediately after the attempted coup. Foreign journalists were expelled from the country at the time and no new visas were being issued. Hughes happened to have a visa which he had acquired before the coup but had not utilized.

There is absolutely no way in which the exact death toll can be computed.

Estimates vary widely. The London Economist, basing its calculation on information from a team of Indonesian university graduates, suggested a million people may have lost their lives in the slaughter. It set the figure for Java at about 800,000, plus 100,000 in Bali, almost as many in Sumatra, and a few thousand in outlying islands. This one-million estimate, however, is the highest made by anybody and has not gained wide acceptance.

The Washington Post talked of half a million people killed, Life magazine of 400,000, and The New York Times said, "Best informed sources estimate 150,000 to 400,000, but concede that the total could be far more than 500,000."

At the end of 1965, an official nine-man investigating commission reported to President Sukarno that 78,000 people had lost their lives in the massacre following the October coup attempt. But when Sukarno publically announced the figure, he squinted through his spectables, got the first two figures transposed, and declared the toll was 87,000. Reporters present sent the 87,000 figure around the world.


What the commission had reported, however, was very different from what at least one of its members really believed.

This I was startled to discover when I talked with that particular commissioner a year later. Was he satisfied, I asked, with the accuracy of the 78,000 figure the commission had submitted?

He laughed merrily. "Oh, dear me, no," he said, "that was no where near the right figure."

What, then, did he believe to be the correct figure?

"My own view," he replied unblinkingly, "is that about ten times as many people as that were killled." […]"You mustn't forget that when we talked to officials and village headmen after the coup they were trying to downgrade the figures of people they's killed. On Bali they gave us a death figure of 10,000. I believe it was nearer 100,000. There was covering up elsewhere, too. So I calculate that about ten times as many people were killed as we actually reported." […]Mr. L.N. Pilar, now retired, but then Indonesia's Ambassador to Washington, told an American television audience a year after the coup that estimates of the death toll in his country had been exaggerated. His own view, he said, was that about 100,000 people had been killed.

Adam Malik, the Indonesian foureign minister, said sections of the foreign press had "greatly exaggerated" the number of killings. His own information, he said, indicated that between 100,000 and 200,000 people were killed. A few days later, he touched on the subject again, stating in an interview that he thought a "fair figure" for those killed would be about 160,000.

Both Mr. Pilar and Mr. Malik conceded that some non-Communists and innocent people had been killed.

Among foreign diplomats in Indonesia there is a school of thought which holds that initial reports of the number of killings were exaggerated by the Indonesians themselves. One diplomat has even scaled down his own estimate of the total number of deaths to 60,000.


My own conclusions is that the death toll during the three last months of 1965 probably was in the region of the upper figure set by Foreign Minister Malik--about 200,000. Killing certainly continued into 1966, although on nothing like the scale of the months previous, so it is possible that the total number of lives lost in the whole purge may have reached 250,000.

Source: John Hughes, The End of Sukarno, pp. 184-189.


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. 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 personal 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 effectively 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 political 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 militarily the communists in a confrontation in 1948 when they carried out an insurrection in the East Javanese city of Madium. 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 small arms 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. Indonesia was not producing enough rice to meet the population's need and foreign credits were needed to purchase rice in the international market. But Sukarno had put Indonesia so heavily in debt to international lenders that its export earning were not sufficient to service the interest and repayments of that debt. The Indonesian government resorted to printing money and in 1965 the rate of inflation was over 500 percent per year.

There was also the complicating factor that Sukarno was suffering poor health and there was worry that Sukarno would die and leave the leftists exposed to the wrath of the military leadership.

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 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 and an officer who was mistaken for one of the target generals, General Nasution, were taken to the Halim air base. One general, Nasution, perhaps the most important one, 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.

The Kidnappings and Assassinations
at 4 A.M. October 1st, 1965

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 a squad that came to their house in the middle of the night and she barred the door. Nasution insisted upon opening that door and when he did a soldier shot at him. Nasution was not hit and dropped to the floor. His wife then again 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 five-year-old daughter was shot and she died a few days later.

The three generals who were captured were taken to the air base were then killed and their bodies supposedly 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 at a place known as Crocodile Hole.

Here are pictures of five of the victimns of the plot.

Lieutenant-General Yani

Brigadier-General Pandjaitan

Brigadier-General Su Tojo

Major-General Harjono

Major-General Parman

Sukarno, Aidit and Bandrio were at Halim air base during the early morning hours of the day of October 1st. This was a very significant fact relating to the relationship between Sukarno and the Communists.

The conspirators had not bargained the swift recovery of the army under the command of General Su Harto. Nasution suffering from his injury and the loss of his child was not prepared to take control. Su Harto 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

Su Harto 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 political opposition of the Army.

The stories of the attempted coup tend to focus on the kidnapping and execution of the top generals of the army, but there was far more to the insurrection than those assassinations. On October 1, 1965 unidentified troops occupied the National Monument (Monas), the Presidential Palace, the Republic of Indonesia Radio (RRI), and the telecommunications building in the vicinity of Merdeka Square. The insurrectionist broadcast a statement to the effect that they were the September 30th Movement and they were saving Indonesia from a takeover by a Council of Generals. They wanted to maintain Su Karno as president. They named a Revolutionary Council to assist Su Karno in governing Indonesia. This Revolutionary Council included Sarwo Edhie (also spelled Edhy) was the commander of the paracommandos, an elite military group identifiable by their red berets. On the morning of October 1st Edhie was visited by two representatives of the insurrectionists who asked him to join with them. He refused and told them that he sided with Su Harto.

At 11 the instruction of the Su Harto forces Edhie was given the assignment of taking control at 6 P.M of the RRI (Indonesian Radio) and the Telecommunications Building. The insurrectionists had been given 6 P.M. as the deadline for surrender. During the day many of the insurrectionists fled to Halim Air Base and at 6 P.M. the paracommandos took over the radio and telecommunications builidings with little resistance. Elsewhere Su Harto's forces put down the insurrection with little or no resistance.

However Su Harto and the army did not know what other actions the insurrectionists were capable of, including the assassination squads. Su Harto and the other army leaders did not sleep at home for a few nights. The paranoia associated with this uncertainty led to the effort to wipe out the Communist Party of Indonesia (PKI). . .

After the insurrection was put down Su Harto's forces wondered what people and organization were behind it and what were their goals. First of all it was not strictly speaking a coup d'Etat. Su Karno was not to be replaced but the Communists were to have a bigger role in government. Communists alrleady had some role in the government but wanted a bigger one. What the Communists wanted was a Su Karno-Communist alliance governing Indonesia without their actions being constrained by the leadership of the Indonesian Army.

A key leader of the insurrection was the commander of the palace guard assigned to protecting Su Karno. His name was Untung.

Lieutenant-Colonel Untung

Another was Brigadier-General Su Pardjo.

Brigadier-General Su Pardjo

It was well known that Su Pardjo was ideologically a communist. For that reason he was assigned a command in Borneo (Kalimantan) that would keep him away from Jakarta. He left his command without the knowledge or permission of his commanding officer and arrived in Jakarta September 28, 1965. While in Jakarta he arranged for the paracommandos, a unit notoriously anti-communist, to be taken away from the Jakarta area on October first. When the insurrection broke out the commander of that paracommandos canceled the transfer and worked with Su Harto to put down the insurrection.

The head of the Indonesian Air Force, Djani, was a collaborator with the insurrectionists. He made facilities, equipment and weapons available to the insurrections rather than committing the Air Force to directly supporting the insurrection.

Air Marshal Dhani

Although Dhani was a leftist his alliance with the insurrectionists was probably driven by the possibility of personal gain as a result of being on the winning side.

While the kidnappings were taking place, groups of unidentified troops under the command of officers of known communist sympathies occupied the National Monument (Monas), the Presidential Palace, the Republic of Indonesia Radio (RRI), and the telecommunications building all in the vicinity of Merdeka Square.

Sarwo Edhie and his paracommando RPKAD troops were at the RPKAD headquarters at Cijantung in Jakarta. They were awaiting transport to Kalimantan (Borneo) to support the war Su Karno had declared against Malaysia. A Colonel Herman Sarens Su Diro arrived and announced that he had an important message from the Kostrad headquarters. Su Diro explained the situation in Jakarta and that Major General Su Harto, the Commander of Kostrad, had assumed, with the approval of other leading officers of the Army, the leadership of the Army. Sarwo Edhie told Su Diro that he too approved the leadership of Major General Su Harto.

After Su Diro left, Brigadier General Sabur, the Commander of the Cakrabirawa (Presidential Bodyguards) came to see Sarwo Edhie. Sabur asked Sarwo Edhie to join the insurrection but Sarwo Edhie refused and told Sabur that he was going to follow the commands of Su Harto.

Sarwo Edhie then went to the Kostrad headquarters, arriving at 11 A.M. There he was told to retake the RRI and Telecommunication buildings at 6 P.M. The troops occupying those facilities has been given a deadline of 6 P.M. by which time they had to surrender or face an armed assault by the Indonesian Army and be charged with treason if they survived. Su Harto recognized that most of the soldiers involved in the insurrection did not support it but were simply following the orders of their commanding officiers. At 6 P.M. Sarwo Edhie ordered his troops to take control of the buildings which had been occupied. There was little resistance, in part because the troops that had been there had evacuated to Halim Air Base.

With the sites in downtown Jakarta secured, Su Harto then turned his attention to Halim Air Base. Su Harto ordered Sarwo Edhie and his para-commandos to take control of the Air Base. They started their attack at 2 A.M. on October 2nd. Sarwo Edhie's para-commandos had the Air Base under their control by 6 A.M.

After taking Halim Air Base, Sarwo Edhie and Su Harto were summoned by President Su Karno to meet with him at his palace at Bogor about 40 miles south of Jakarta. Su Karno berated Su Harto for ignoring his orders. Sarwo Edhie was shocked at Su Karno's unconcern with the whereabouts of the six Generals. Sukarno made the lame assertion that such things normally occur in a revolution. It was sort of a "Boys will be boys" assertion.

Two days later the para-commandos found the Lubang Buaya (Crocodile Hole) well where the bodies of the dead generals had been dumped.

On October 16th, 1965, Su Karno was pressured to appoint Su Harto Commander of the Army. By that time it had been generall accepted that the Communist Party of Indonesia (PKI) was the force behind the insurrection. There was a rage againt the Communists that led to a one-sided civil war against communists. The rank and file Communist Party members of course had no knowledge of the insurrection but they bore the brunt of the vengence that was exacted, much in the same way the Japanese soldiers and civilians bore the brunt of the vengence exacted for the attack on Pearl Harbor.

Sarwo Edhie and his para-commandos were assigned the task of putting down the armed resistance of the Communit Party organizations in Central and East Java where the PKI had a strong following. But that lead to the more severe executions of Communists by local religious groups. The PKI had gained a following by promising to redistribute the land. Those who saw themselves as the future potential victimns of such a redistribution took the opportunity to kill those who were threatening them. The local massacres were particulary heavy in Bali.

As stated before the toll was about 250,000 people killed, most of them PKI members. The massacre spread from Indonesian Malay Communists to Indonesian Chinese Communists to simply Chinese out of a resentment of their ownership of businesses in Indonesia.

There is currently (2019) a concerted effort on the part of political leftists to fabricate and promote the notion that the Indonesian Communist Party (PKI) was not responsible for the attempted coup and the subsequent massacre that followed its failure. A review of the details strongly indicate that the coup was a joint effort of Sukarno and the leadership of the PKI. One such detail is the fact that the assasination squads came from the bodyguard troops of Sukarno. Another was the presences of Sukarno and the leadership of the PKI at the Halim Air Base, the headquarters of the insurrectionists.

Despite Sukarno's involvement in the insurrection he was kept on as a figurehead president because his association with regime of Su Harto lent creditability to leadership by a political unknown. Sukarno afterall was generally considered to be the father of Indonesian independence.

Given the deep, bitter divide between the Moslems and the Communists in the countryside it was inevitable there was going to a civil war and massacre. It was a matter of which side was going to be massacred. To the Moslem land owners the Communists were just people who were working towards the confiscation of their land.To the Communists the Moslem land owners were just people who stood i the way of their getting the land they deserved.

The toll was terrible but not by any means among the top tragedies of the human race. In the Great Leap Forward disaster in China 20 to 40 million people died of starvation in the famine that resulted from the foolish economic programs of the Communist Party. Su Karno thought that the emulation of Communist China was the solution to the economic problems of Indonesia. Little did he know that as bad as Indonesia's problems were they were vastly better than conditions under the Communists in China.

For other material on Indonesia click here.

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