May 23, 2024 Last Updated 6:09 AM, May 21, 2024

Accomplice to atrocity?

Keith Shann - The Canberra Times, 15 April 1977.

Australia’s role in the 1965 massacres

Marlene Millott

When the Indonesian army massacred an estimated half a million alleged communists in 1965, it did so with the backing of western powers. The role of the United States as an accomplice through its provision of intelligence, training, weaponry and communications equipment has been well documented. Although Australia’s role was subordinate to that of the US, it still has a case to answer.

In the lead-up to 1965, much of the world was caught up in the Cold War that pitted western-style capitalism and democracy against the communist Soviet Union and China. In Indonesia, President Sukarno grew closer to the Indonesian Communist Party (PKI), while becoming increasingly hostile towards the west and foreign corporations. This worried the PKI’s fierce rivals, the Indonesian army, whose power waned as the PKI’s grew. It was also watched closely by the US and its allies, who feared the country would fall to communism, which would then spread through Asia and onto Australia’s doorstep. In response, the army and the US formed a secret relationship. As told in John Roosa’s Pretext to Mass Murder, between 1958 and 1965 the US trained, funded and advised the Indonesian army, and helped turn it into a ‘state within a state’ that would be ready to take over government if the opportunity arose. Further heightening tension, Sukarno strongly opposed the formation of the state of Malaysia out of Malaya, North Borneo and Singapore in 1963. He committed troops to Borneo to fight British, Australian and New Zealand forces as part of Konfrontasi.  Even closer to home, Sukarno had earlier combined diplomacy and the threat of force to successfully bring West Papua into Indonesia.

After an alleged attempted PKI coup on 1 October 1965, the Indonesian army seized the opportunity to gain control of the country and eliminate the PKI and its affiliates. Led by General Suharto, the army embarked on a nation-wide killing spree, enlisting local militia groups to help them identify, arrest, and kill members and sympathisers. This campaign was supported by the US, the UK and Australia, which hoped for an end to the threat of a communist-dominated Indonesia, and for the installation of a leader friendlier to the west.

In the months following the attempted coup, the Australian embassy and the Department of External Affairs supported the Indonesian army’s anti-communist campaign to bring about a change of government. Documents from the National Archives of Australia reveal three main points about embassy officials and the massacres: that the Australian embassy knew they were happening, but did not condemn them; that Australia gave assurance and support to the Indonesian army who they knew were responsible for these massacres; and that Australia actively contributed to the mass anti-communist hysteria through propaganda broadcasts via Radio Australia.

A key figure in Australia’s support for the army’s anti-communist campaign was then ambassador to Indonesia, Keith ‘Mick’ Shann. He had joined the Department of External Affairs in 1946, as part of its expansion following the end of World War II. He was ambassador to Indonesia between 1962 and 1966, had previously been ambassador to the Philippines, and later became ambassador to Japan. He rounded off his career as chairman of the Australian Public Service Board. Shann believed firmly in anti-communist policies, in both domestic and foreign contexts. As ambassador during the Indonesian army’s anti-communist campaign, the department relied heavily on information and instruction from Shann, who played a big role in advising on the operation of Radio Australia, and passed on requests from the Indonesian army to the broadcaster. He was knighted in 1980 for his services to Australia.

Soon after the attempted coup, the Australian embassy observed the early stages of the army’s campaign against the PKI. It knew about the very first rounding up of communists in early October 1965. On 5 October, a cable from Shann to the department reported that the army was ‘picking up a fair number of Communists and a large number of the Pemuda Rakjat [PKI Youth Wing].’  Later in the month, the ambassador wrote that he ‘personally witnessed’ around 250 prisoners being taken away by the army.

By January 1966, the Australian, US, UK and other embassies were exchanging information on the ‘dismemberment of the PKI' at the hands of the army and its supporters.  Estimates put the number of dead between 100,000 and 200,000 and increasing, though one cable noted ‘it is impossible to make any accurate assessment of the number of people who have been killed’. By February, the Australian embassy received first-hand, irrefutable proof that painted a very clear picture of the scale of the atrocities.  J.M. Starey, the First Secretary at the embassy, visited Bali, Flores and Timor, and spoke to Australian students who had been in Lombok, to gather information on the anti-PKI massacres. In Bali, Starey was shocked to learn that the number of those killed was 100,000, a number which, he wrote, was ‘ferociously high’, representing five per cent of the population. In Flores, he saw heads on spikes and he estimated 1000 people had been killed. He reported that the Ende Military District was responsible for anti-PKI activity in Central and West Flores, and was told that once Flores was ‘cleansed’, the process would continue in other parts of the island. The students told him that in Mataram and Lombok, the killings were continuing at the rate of around 30 people per night. While in Timor, Starey’s report said that ‘torture was the customary prelude to death’; public executions were a nightly event and deaths had totalled 4000 people. Starey noted that the army was in full control of the proceedings in Timor.

These communications make it clear that the embassy and the Department of External Affairs were quite aware that the army was carrying out systematic massacres of alleged PKI members and sympathisers across Indonesia. The events on the night of 1 October 1965 (initiated by the so-called 30 September Movement) changed Indonesian politics. They gave the Indonesian army an opportunity to remove the PKI from power – a situation that Australia and its allies had been hoping for some time. Immediately after, embassy officials made clear their hopes that the army would seize their opportunity to act. On the fifth of October, Shann cabled the department saying that he ‘devoutly hope[d]’ that ‘the army [would] act firmly’ against the PKI. As Australian officials observed developments, they praised the army for doing ‘far better than expected,’ having ‘gone ahead with attacks on the PKI’. Embassy officials were encouraged that the army was prepared to proceed ‘in order to make a real clean-up of communists and their allies’. By mid-1966, Australian Prime Minister Harold Holt made clear his satisfaction with the pro-western shift in Indonesian foreign and economic policy brought about by the massacres. At the Australian-American Association in New York, he callously joked ‘With 500,000 to one million Communist sympathisers knocked off, I think it is safe to assume a reorientation has taken place’.

Throughout the army’s anti-communist campaign, embassy officials were in regular contact with top army officials on the issue. By 1965 Australia had been part of a military campaign in Borneo for two years, to defend the newly created state of Malaysia against Indonesian aggression. In November 1965, Ambassador Shann reported a conversation he had with an under secretary from the Indonesian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Dr A.Y. Helmi, who requested that Australian and British troops ‘restrict all patrols and other activities to an absolute minimum’, explaining that the army needed all its available troops and resources ‘to deal with what he [described] as “the bloody Communists”’. Shann reassured Helmi that the army was ‘completely safe in using their forces for whatever purposes they saw fit’, knowing those forces would be used to attack PKI members and allies. Shann went as far as to say in his cable that he would have liked to tell the Indonesian army ‘that for all [he] cared, they could remove every soldier from Indonesian Borneo without fear’.

Australia’s biggest contribution to the army’s anti-communist campaign was broadcasting and supporting Indonesian army propaganda. The army seized control of virtually all of Indonesia’s media after the attempted coup. It began an aggressive and pervasive anti-PKI campaign, spreading dangerous disinformation to discredit and dehumanise the communists. During the time of the killings, Radio Australia was under the guidance of the Department of External Affairs. Its foreign broadcasts reached most parts of the Indonesian archipelago. The department in turn received instruction from the Indonesian army via the embassy. By means of this regular daily guidance, Radio Australia fed the Indonesian population an Indonesian army-approved political narrative that, Shann said, ‘should [be thumped] into Indonesians’ as much as possible. Shann asserted that Radio Australia’s broadcasts were ‘excellent propaganda and of assistance to the anti-PKI forces’ who were ‘refreshingly determined to do over the PKI’. He encouraged them to ‘highlight reports tending to discredit the PKI and to show its involvement in… the 30th September movement’.

Evidence shows that Radio Australia was not just encouraged to drill certain ‘facts’ into Indonesian heads. It was also instructed to report manipulations of the truth as if they were facts, in line with Indonesian army requests. On 9 November 1965, Shann cabled that he had been approached by an unnamed colonel from the army’s Information Section, who told him that Radio Australian should ‘mention as often as possible youth groups and other organisations, both Moslem and Christian’ that were involved in anti-communist actions (thus clearly hoping to dilute the army’s culpability). He also discussed a list of other internal and external issues to be reported that would favour the army. Shann concluded the cable with the comment that he could ‘live with most of this, even if we must be a bit dishonest for a while’. Radio Australia was also told to avoid ‘giving information to the Indonesian people that would be withheld by the army-controlled internal media’, to avoid compromising the army’s position.

It is difficult to estimate the reach and influence Radio Australia had convincing civilians to join the army’s anti-PKI campaign and take up arms against communists. It is known, however, that Radio Australia was the most popular of the foreign radio stations. An army officer told the Australian embassy in June 1965 that Radio Australia was listened to more than his own official Radio Republik Indonesia. There can be no doubt that the mass media propaganda had a substantial impact on the Indonesian public. Even where it did not directly motivate people to kill, it made the killings appear justified. Sukarno himself understood the power of this propaganda. In a speech in January 1966 he lumped the army-controlled media and western media outlets together and said they represented a ‘neo-colonial threat’. He warned against using the media as a political tool to ‘carry out secret campaigns of slander’ to undermine his leadership and cause anti-PKI hysteria.  Foreign news reports on the horror of the killings included quotes from Indonesians that indicated they had been impacted by anti-PKI propaganda. Seymour Topping of the New York Times noted in an article that ‘many Indonesians say bluntly, “It was them or us”’. This justification of the killings as self-defence was strongly promoted by army propaganda. The justification is still often heard in Indonesia even today.

Australia’s actions as an accomplice to the 1965 PKI massacres were immoral but their impact should not be exaggerated. The killings took place against a complex backdrop of political tensions in Indonesia. Perhaps the killings would have taken place regardless of Australia’s role in justifying them. However, without that justification, it would have been much harder for Suharto’s New Order to maintain the fiction for so long that they were necessary.

Marlene Millott ( recently completed a Masters in Journalism and International Relations at Monash University. This article is based on research completed for her Masters thesis.

Inside Indonesia 124: Apr-Jun 2016{jcomments on}

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