May 28, 2024 Last Updated 8:34 AM, May 27, 2024

Testimony of a messenger

President Sukarno with PKI Secretary General DN Aidit at an anniversary celebration for the PKI, 23 May 1965  -  Howard Sochurek
Published: Apr 04, 2016

A memoir by a former army officer offers insights into Suharto’s moves in October 1965

Margot L. Lyon

In the early hours of 1 October 1965 six Indonesian Army generals were assassinated by a self-proclaimed organisation of Indonesian National Armed Forces members who were attempting to seize control of the Indonesian government. By the end of the same day this ‘30 September 1965 Movement’ had failed. The largely overlooked, five-part memoir of Army Air Command pilot Colonel Sudjai provides testimony from the days immediately following the collapse of the Movement. Hurriedly planned and ill-executed by a small group of mainly middle-ranking army officers, the movement was immediately branded by General Suharto as a communist coup attempt, presenting a raison d’etre for his own seizure of power and subsequent campaign of mass killing. The memoir sheds further light on the process through which Suharto sought to bring the commanders of the three key military divisions of Java into line behind his systematic plan to destroy the Communist Party of Indonesia (Partai Komunis Indonesia; PKI) and ultimately the authority of President Sukarno. 

A pilot’s testimony

The contents of the memoir, first published online in June 2009 and re-posted several times since, complement Jess Melvin’s revelations published in Inside Indonesia, based on documents she discovered in Aceh. Significantly, those documents, some of which date from 1 October 1965, ‘meticulously detailed the role of the military in initiating and implementing’ plans to annihilate the PKI in North Sumatra.

The memoir’s author, Colonel Sudjai, then a captain, was a senior pilot in the Army Air Command, a small, relatively new branch within the army. Founded in November 1959, it functioned independently of the Indonesian Air Force. Sudjai was entrusted with personally delivering General Suharto’s secret orders to the commanders of the crucial military divisions of East, Central, and West Java in the first days of October 1965. While it is widely known that Suharto’s orders to regional army commanders were conveyed privately, as Harold Crouch notes in his classic The Army and Politics in Indonesia (first published in 1978), Sudjai’s memoir provides new detail regarding the delivery of Suharto’s instructions and the responses of these key commanders. He also includes some brief comments on the political and military uncertainties during this early period of the establishment of the New Order. 

All five parts of the memoir were first published on 29 June 2009 in an online newsletter, The Global Review, a publication of the Global Future Institute (GFI). Its website states that it is a non-partisan institution founded in October 2007 with a focus on Indonesia in the context of global change.

Until now, the memoir seems to have received attention not for its revelations about army actions in the wake of the 30 September Movement, but rather for its promise of inside information on Suharto’s use of mystical advisors in his pursuit of power. This is perhaps understandable, as all five parts of the series are published under the same enticing title of Spiritual Flight Missions of the New Order (Misi Penerbangan Spiritual Orde Baru), with new subtitles for each part. In fact, content related to the spiritual missions, aside from a few introductory paragraphs in part one, does not appear until the latter sections of part four and part five.

These later sections tell of the highly secret missions that Sudjai flew with key spiritual advisors such as General Soedjono Humardani, one of Suharto’s inner circle, and Sudiyat, a mystical guru, in pursuit of magical objects and to undertake ritual observances at sacred sites. As Sudjai remarks, it was for information about this aspect of his work that he was so often pestered by both foreign and domestic journalists and researchers, who urged him to record his recollections. He explains that he wished to wait until after the death of Suharto (in 2008), citing his concerns about the potential politicisation of the information on Suharto’s mystics, as well as its possible impact on the aging and unwell ex-president. 

However, much of the information contained in the memoir’s early parts is of a different order. Part one provides an overview of the series, as well as details of Sudjai’s own path to becoming an army pilot, including the opportunities he had for overseas flight training at US Army and US Air Force flight schools in 1960. He also provides a brief history of the Indonesian army’s founding of its own air command. 

Part two, subtitled ‘First Duties as An Army Air Command Pilot’, briefly describes missions flown from 1962 to 1964 in the campaign to crush the ongoing rebellion in South Sulawesi under the leadership of Kahar Muzakkar. He includes detail on the types of aircraft the army possessed and from whom they were acquired. Notable is his description of the army leadership’s placing a rush order in 1964 for two twin-engine, US-manufactured, ‘Aero Grand Commander’ aircraft to strengthen the army’s strike force and thus its command and control capabilities. To speed up their delivery, the army agreed to provide its own pilots to ferry the aircraft from the US to Indonesia, with Sudjai piloting the second plane home arriving in Jakarta in late August 1964.

Plans for the destruction of the PKI

Part three of the memoir ‘Entering the Era of G 30 S / PKI’ is possibly the most interesting. Sudjai recounts how he and his Grand Commander aircraft were involved from 1 October in special operations on behalf of Suharto. The urgent back-and-forth negotiations conducted between Suharto and the various army commanders required multiple flights per day, including missions outside of normal flying hours.

It is clear that the instructions he and his crew conveyed contained Suharto’s plan for the destruction of the PKI right down to the local level. Also clear is that they foreshadowed Suharto’s intent to implicate President Sukarno in the alleged plot. To succeed, Suharto had to ensure an integrated response from all three commanders. Only then could he consolidate the Indonesian Army’s central core under his command, as well as ensure that he would possess the forces needed in the destruction of the PKI:

In the face of the 30th of September event, the engagement of these three provincial level military commands was marked by a flurry of flights of the Army’s Grand Commander aircraft to convey orders and information to the three commanders. This commenced from the very first day following the 30th of September movement of the Communist Party. Through this method Pak Harto was attempting to ensure an integrated response of the commanders controlled by him from Jakarta. In that way too Pak Harto was commencing the consolidation of the Indonesian Army.

The memoir highlights the confusion and consternation of the three army commanders, and later those in other divisions, over Suharto’s instructions. It also reveals their uncertainty about his intentions regarding their own commands. As Sudjai explains, the effort to ensure an integrated response was hampered by divergent positions amongst the three generals, who he says were torn between their loyalty to President Sukarno and their hostility toward the PKI. A consensus to destroy the PKI without touching President Sukarno would have been easier to come by than one that intended to target Sukarno, an element that made them extremely anxious. The commanders voiced their concern as to whether private agreements they made regarding actions against Sukarno would be treated with utmost care and secrecy.

Commanders’ uncertainty

In another section within part three, entitled ‘The Consolidation of the Military Commands in Java’, Sudjai comments in some detail on the individual responses of each commander.. He describes how he and his crew could feel the intense emotions evoked by the orders and by the meetings each had with Suharto as they were ferried back and forth between Suharto’s Kostrad headquarters in Jakarta and their own headquarters in Semarang, Bandung or Surabaya.

His description of flying General Adji to Jakarta as often as two times a day is telling. Sudjai comments that the questions Adji asked of him and his crew during their journeys revealed a potential incompatibility and at least an initial lack of trust between Adji and Suharto. He recounts that before any one of the innumerable flights from Bandung to Jakarta, Adji would repeat the same questions:
‘What do you think will happen this time? Will I be arrested, will I be fired, or will I be demoted?’

When Adji stopped asking such questions he and his crew assumed an agreement had been reached between the two leaders. Adji’s meetings with Suharto were most fraught due to his close friendship with President Sukarno. Sudjai cites the rumour that the two reached an understanding when Suharto agreed that General Adji be permitted to maintain good relations with President Sukarno. It was at this point that Adji finally agreed to the crushing of the PKI in West Java.

Each of the commanders, according to Sudjai, was in the dark about the response of the others to Suharto’s orders. Each would repeatedly ask Sudjai and his crew whether the other two commanders had agreed or would agree to the secret orders. His descriptions indicate their uncertainty, hesitation, and confusion. In response, and swayed by their own perceptions of events in Jakarta and the popular support they believed Suharto had, Sudjai states that he and his crew decided among themselves to try to influence the commanders to more quickly arrive at a decision to follow Suharto’s orders.

Thus, when asked by each commander as to whether the other commanders had already assented to the orders, the crew agreed that would reply that the other commanders would definitely be issuing their decision in the next day or two. Sudjai doesn't claim to have exerted any real influence, – but he notes that by the third week of October, the three Java division commanders had finally acceded to Suharto’s confidential demands. He reminds the reader that the official, public banning of the PKI was not instituted until some five months later on 12 March 1966, by which time Suharto had significantly boosted his powers. In this section, Sudjai then goes on to recount the dangers they faced in the early days of October in flying to airfields where the loyalty of local troops was in doubt.

In Part Four, ‘Consolidation of the Military Divisions Outside Java’, Sudjai gives the example of the response of General Solihin, commander of the outer island military division headquartered in Makassar, whom he had known earlier in his career. Solihin personally awaited the plane’s arrival and immediately opened the envelope handed to him. Sudjai notes that Solihin’s expression became tense, and quotes him as saying: ‘I’m confused. Last night in Pak Harto’s radio speech he declared he stood behind President Sukarno without reserve. But the message you brought reads differently. So what to do?’

Sudjai states that he replied by confirming that the secret orders must be followed and explained that each of the commanders in Java and elsewhere had received the same orders and were to enact them. General Solihin was flown to Jakarta the following day to meet with Suharto.

Sudjai also mentions his meetings with other army division heads, noting that the reactions of the various commanders upon opening and reading the documents was always the same.  It was always followed by questions about the situation in Jakarta and what he and his crew knew of the responses of other commanders. Sudjai openly acknowledges that all interchanges he had with the various regional commanders were later reported to Army General Staff headquarters (SUAD II) on his return to Jakarta.

Suharto’s pilot

Sudjai describes how he served as pilot to General Suharto in early October on so-called ‘blackflights’ – secret flights that had to be made without ground support or landing lights. One of these took place before dawn on the morning of 3 October in Semarang, Central Java, after it had been re-secured by loyalist forces. He also again flew Suharto to Semarang at the time of the capture of PKI chairman, Aidit, in November.

Other priority passengers in early days are also mentioned, such as Subhan ZE, a young leader within the Muslim organization Nahdatul Ulama, and a key figure in publicly mobilising mass action against the PKI. As Deputy Head of the interim parliament, he was instrumental in supporting the formal banning of the PKI and the appointment of Suharto as president in 1968.

In summary, Sudjai's memoir provides a sense of what was at stake during the period when Suharto took his first steps toward ensure recognition of his own command as well as the unity of army action in crushing the PKI and weakening and ultimately removing President Sukarno. 

Col. Sudjai, ‘Kesaksian Kolonel Sudjai, Pilot Angkatan Darat Di Era G-30S (1965-1970): Misi Penerbangan Spritual Orde Baru - Bagian 1-5’ in The Global Review, 29 June 2009.

Margot L. Lyon ( is an anthropologist and retired faculty member at the Australian National University. She remains at ANU as a Visiting Fellow and member of the Emeritus Faculty.

Other articles by the author:

Jamu for the Ills of Modernity, July-September 2003.

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


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