Suharto always said it was the communists. Yet from the start, says Colonel Latief, Suharto himself was involved.
Indonesian President BJ Habibie has refused to release Colonel Latief, whose arrest in 1965 for involvement in a military coup was followed by Major-General Suharto's rise to the presidency.
Habibie has granted amnesty to 73 other political prisoners, even to members of the Indonesian Communist Party (PKI) accused of involvement in the 1965 coup attempt. Refusing amnesty to Latief now shows how Suharto overshadows Habibie.
Interviewed in Cipinang Prison, Jakarta, three days after Suharto resigned, Latief told me that he expected never to be released. Despite various kidney operations and the stroke he suffered last year, Latief is still very alert. His explanation for his involvement in 1965 directly implicates Suharto.
By late 1965, President Sukarno was ailing and without a successor. Tension between the PKI and the armed forces was growing. Conspiracies rumours were rife. Who would make the first move?
On the night of 30 September 1965, six hours before the military coup, Latief confirmed with Suharto that the plan to kidnap seven army generals would soon start. Latief was an officer attached to the Jakarta military command. As head of the Army Strategic Reserve Command (Kostrad), Suharto held the optimum position to crush the operation, so his name should have been at the top of the list. When troops who conducted the kidnappings asked why Suharto was not on the list, they were told: 'Because he is one of us'.
There was a rumour the seven generals were intending to seize power from Sukarno. Latief and two other army officers in the operation, Lieutenant-Colonel Untung (in charge of some of the troops guarding Sukarno's palace) and General Supardjo (a commander from Kalimantan), planned to kidnap the generals and bring them before President Sukarno to explain themselves.
The 30th September Movement was thus a limited pre-emptive strike by pro-Sukarno officers against anti-Sukarno officers. They kidnapped the generals and occupied strategic centres in Jakarta's main square, without touching Suharto's headquarters. The plan involved no killing, but it went terribly wrong and six of the seven died.
Although Untung was assigned responsibility for collecting the generals, this crucial task was then taken over by a certain Kamaruzzaman alias Sjam, evidently a 'double agent' with contacts in the Jakarta military command as well as the PKI. At his trial, Sjam admitted responsibility for killing the generals but blamed the PKI under Aidit. In 1965 when Suharto accused the PKI of responsibility for killing the generals, the Sjam-Aidit link gave Suharto enough leverage to convince his contemporaries.
Between Sjam and Suharto there was a twenty-year friendship going back to the fight against the Dutch in Central Java in 1948-49. This strengthened in the late 1950s when both attended the Bandung Staff College.
Suharto was also on close terms with Untung, who served under him during the campaign to reclaim Netherlands New Guinea in 1962 and who became a family friend.
During his trial in 1978, not only did Latief explain that he met Suharto on the night of the coup, but also that several days before he met both Suharto and his wife in the privacy of Suharto's home to discuss the overall plan. The court declared that this information was 'not relevant'.
Suharto, more than anybody, described the events that night as 'communist inspired'. Suharto's claim that he saw the slain generals' bodies had been sexually mutilated was shown to be deliberately false by post-mortem documents, not revealed till decades later. This false claim provoked months of killings against communists, particularly in Bali and Central and East Java.
The PKI, numbering 20 million, were mostly rice farmers. Accused en masse they became victims in one of the worst massacres this century. In the opinion of the author, many writers underestimated the death toll, which may be around one million persons. Another 700,000 were imprisoned without trial. The most notorious general involved, Sarwo Edhie, claimed not one but two million were killed. 'And we did a good job', he added. Traumatised by violence, the nation became politically malleable.
Using Suharto's own categorisation of crimes related to 1965, his prior knowledge of the alleged coup places him in 'Category A' involvement - the same as those who faced execution or life imprisonment.
The release of Colonel Latief is a litmus test of Habibie's willingness to promote genuine reform. Fewer than ten long term prisoners remain. Latief has pleaded: 'Most of them are already 70 years old and fragile. For the sake of humanity, please take notice of us.'
Dr Greg Poulgrain <email@example.com> is a research fellow at the School of Humanities, QUT Carseldine.