Apr 22, 2024 Last Updated 1:12 AM, Apr 19, 2024

Dictionary of a disaster

Dictionary of a disaster

John Roosa

        Aidit speaking at PKI election rally, 1955

Aidit, DN (1923-65)

Head of the Communist Party of Indonesia (PKI). It is difficult now to understand his strategising in the months before the 30 September Movement, the hours during which the movement occurred, and the weeks he lived in hiding after the movement ended. The eyewitness account written in 1986 by the former note taker of the Politburo, Iskandar Subekti, contends that Aidit believed by September 1965 that a cabal of right-wing army generals were planning to overthrow President Sukarno and attack the PKI. Aidit had to decide whether to launch a pre-emptive action or allow the coup to proceed and then respond. Based on briefings from Sjam, the party's liaison with military officers supportive of the PKI, he thought that a pre-emptive action stood a good chance of success. He was convinced that mid-ranking 'progressive' officers could mobilise enough troops to act against their superiors and foil the plot. With secrecy of paramount concern, he selected a handful of his most trusted colleagues in the Politburo for discussions during the month of September about how the party would assist those 'progressive' officers. The agreement was that the PKI would determine the political side of the action while the officers handled the military side. Sjam shuttled between the party leaders and the officers. The movement was not designed to put the PKI directly into power; the immediate goal was a coalition government (thus the disparate figures named to the Revolution Council). By purging the right-wing generals, the movement would create an environment in which the PKI could gradually gain greater power. On the day of the action (October 1), Aidit was at the Halim Airbase. Through a courier, he was in frequent contact with Sjam and the military officers holed up in a different house. Once the action collapsed on the night of October 1, he boarded a plane to Central Java where the party had its strongest bases of support. He remained underground there until his capture and summary execution by army personnel in late November. His post-October 1 strategising remains unclear. He appears to have been thoroughly confused as what to do once the movement failed. Without his leadership, the party fell into disarray.

Army, Indonesian

An institution that in 1965 had extensive political and economic power and was dominated by officers who were thoroughly anti-communist. Under generals Nasution and Yani, the army had become a state within a state, owning businesses, funding anti-communist political organisations, publishing newspapers, and undermining president Sukarno's foreign policy. Anti-communist civilians and the US government looked to the army as the ultimate check on Sukarno's leftward drift and the PKI's rising power. Officers considered to be overly supportive of Sukarno and the PKI were usually excluded from key positions; they were sent to study abroad, command troops in the country's eastern periphery, or handle unimportant desk jobs. The generals believed that Indonesian politics were moving too far to the left in 1965: Sukarno was taking Indonesia out of the UN, ramping up Confrontation with Malaysia and toying with the PKI's proposal of a new militia. Trade unions were occupying foreign-owned oil facilities and mass demonstrations were attacking US government buildings in the cities. Despite some personal rivalries, the senior generals were largely unified in the face of their common foe: the PKI. The generals knew they could not overthrow Sukarno with a typical coup d'état. He was still too popular, even among the army's officers and rank-and-file. They also knew they could not move directly against the PKI. As long as Sukarno was in power he would protect the party. The generals made no secret of their antipathy to the PKI but they had to be discrete about their plans regarding Sukarno. Meeting in secret, discussing plans in coded terms with trusted colleagues, they scripted a best-case scenario: wait for a violent event to occur, claim that the PKI is staging a revolt, attack the PKI, erode Sukarno's power from below while keeping him as president, and then remove him from office when it is convenient. To provoke the PKI into acting first, they secretly stoked the rumour mills, spreading the idea that the army was about to stage a coup. They did not organise the 30 September Movement to frame up the PKI (as some writers have suggested) but they did help provoke it. Suharto, in putting the scripted scenario into action, was worried that army personnel would be unwilling to carry out the crackdown on the PKI with the kind of viciousness he envisioned. He relied on one particular unit, the Special Forces (RPKAD), to function as shock troops, ensuring that other army units would not shirk in fulfilling the order to crush the PKI 'down to its roots'. Many army personnel were arrested as suspected PKI sympathisers and imprisoned for years as political prisoners.

Coup, attempted

Suharto's army, in suppressing the 30 September Movement, claimed that it was an attempted coup. Most historians, even those critical of army propaganda, have followed that terminology. The movement, in its first radio announcement in the morning, signalled its intention to safeguard Sukarno from an impending coup by right-wing army generals. It also signalled a claim to some kind of state power: all political organisations and media outlets would have to pledge allegiance to a new 'Indonesian Revolution Council' that would 'take action' against supporters of the right-wing generals. The exact powers of this council were left undefined in the first announcement but a radio listener could assume that it was designed to work with Sukarno, not to overthrow him. The movement's radio announcement in the afternoon of October 1 (Decree no. 1) signalled something different. It stated that the newly-formed Revolution Council held 'the entire authority of the state' and that Sukarno's cabinet was 'decommissioned'. But it appears that the text of this afternoon announcement was not the original text upon which the movement's leaders had agreed. A few hours after the first announcement in the morning, Sukarno ordered the movement's leaders to call off the action. He rejected their demand to issue a statement of support. The army officers in the movement's leadership (Lt. Col. Untung and Col. Latief) were willing to abide by Sukarno's order. So the afternoon announcement deposing Sukarno came at a time when the movement's military officers were following his orders. If they had been willing to depose him from the start they would not have gone to great lengths to ask for his support and would not have stopped the movement. From Brig. Gen. Supardjo's inside account of the movement's decision-making, it appears that a civilian from the PKI, Sjam, issued the second announcement in the afternoon on his own. Sjam wanted to keep the movement going. If Sukarno would not support the movement then it would have to continue without him. Sjam was unable to rally the military officers (Untung, Latief, Sujono and Supardjo) to his side. The afternoon radio announcement was a dead letter. At no point did the movement's troops move against Sukarno. The original intention of the movement was not to overthrow Sukarno and Sjam's last-minute call for a coup went unheeded.

Coup, creeping

This term is an oxymoron. A coup is a sudden, swift blow. In some uses, it is the short form of coup d'état, which the Oxford English Dictionary defines as 'a sudden and great change in the government carried out violently or illegally'. In current usage at least, coup d'état always implies the overthrow of the government, not just some sort of change. Retaining the term coup in describing Suharto's gradual takeover of state power is an ironic retort to his incessant propaganda about the PKI's attempted coup. It also implies a criticism of Suharto's version of events, which presents the overthrow of Sukarno as an entirely legal transfer of power mandated by the parliament and, incredibly enough, Sukarno himself. The first move in Suharto's gradual and disguised takeover of state power was on October 1 itself, when Suharto rejected Sukarno's order appointing Major General Pranoto as interim army commander. Among the many other moves were: arresting 15 ministers of Sukarno's cabinet in March 1966 (see Supersemar), forcing Sukarno to appoint a new cabinet in July 1966, handpicking a new parliament and having it declare himself Acting President in March 1967, and then having it declare himself President in March 1968.


The puppeteer of a shadow-play theatre who sits behind the screen and single-handedly manipulates all the puppets. In political discourse, the term refers to the mastermind of a conspiracy. Most of the literature about the 30 September Movement is preoccupied with identifying the dalang, as if there were a single person or institution behind it all. The Suharto regime cast 'the PKI' as the dalang while many of the regime's opponents have claimed Suharto was the dalang. This assumption that there was a dalang has hindered a detailed analysis of how the movement was organised. The core leadership of the movement consisted of different people with different expectations miscommunicating with one another. In the core group were three military officers (Untung, Latief and Sujono) and two members of the Special Bureau (Sjam and Pono, see Special Bureau). With Sjam as the middleman between the military officers on one side and Aidit on the other, each side wound up thinking the other would ensure the success of the planned action. Once the movement began, both sides realised that their expectations had been incorrect. The whole operation was bungled. As they were heading for defeat on the day of October 1, they could agree neither on how to save the movement nor save their own skins.


An abbreviation invented by army propagandists in early October 1965 to refer to the 30 September Movement (Gerakan Tiga Puluh September). Although it did not accurately abbreviate the movement's name, it was used because of its similarity to the name of the Nazi secret police. It gave a terrifying aura to the movement's name. President Sukarno insisted on calling the movement Gestok, an abbreviation for 1 October Movement (Gerakan Satu Oktober), since the movement occurred on 1 October. To use Gestapu today to refer to the movement indicates support for the army's legitimacy to name and narrate the event.


In both the social memory of Indonesians and the scholarly literature, responsibility for the killings is assigned variously to civilian militias, the army, or some combination of the two. With very few detailed, reliable eye-witness accounts of particular cases, it has been difficult to determine who the perpetrators were. Did the mass violence spontaneously erupt or was it bureaucratically organised? It is clear that both civilian militias and army personnel were involved. But how were they involved? Who was responsible for what? Based on recent case studies from Central Java, East Java and Bali, a very rough model can be ventured for those regions. The army instigated the killings by spreading misinformation in the media and in meetings with civilian organisations about the 30 September Movement. The army blamed everyone in the PKI for the murder of the generals and created an environment in which all non-communists felt that their lives were in danger. The army then worked with civilians in conducting mass arrests, eventually filling prisons, military facilities, government offices, confiscated buildings and improvised campsites with detainees. This mass roundup was accompanied by much street violence and arson but not a lot of killing. With impunity guaranteed by the army, small groups of young men joined army personnel to take detainees out at night, truck them to remote locations, execute them and dispose of their bodies in mass graves or rivers. While many civilians were perpetrators, they did not begin the killings on their own initiative. The killings would not have occurred without army instigation and organisation. Civilian perpetrators have tended to claim that they were only following the army's lead, while the army perpetrators claim the civilians committed all the violence in a frenzied rage.

PKI (Partai Komunis Indonesia)

By 1965, the party claimed that it had 3.5 million members and enjoyed the support of 23.5 million members of other organisations: a peasant's association, a trade union confederation, a university students' union, an artists' organisation, etc. The party kept its relationship with these organisations rather vague. The only one officially under the party was the youth organisation, or Pemuda Rakyat. The others were technically independent. Although their leaders were usually drawn from the party ranks, the rank-and-file members did not necessarily consider themselves PKI supporters. The army, when conducting the mass arrests and killings, targeted everyone who belonged to these organisations. The term 'PKI' was freely applied to anyone, regardless of whether or not they were party members. The result of the 1965-66 violence was the destruction of the PKI, but also the entire left-wing nationalist political tendency.

30 September Movement

The movement, as Subekti stated in his 1986 account, was named after Fidel Castro's 26 July Movement which led the Cuban revolution in 1959. It was, however, completely unlike the Cuban revolution. The movement's main action was the abduction and killing of six army generals in Jakarta. It achieved very little in military terms since the key commanders of troops in and around Jakarta were untouched. Very few troops joined the movement and most of those who did were not strongly committed to it. It was quickly and easily repressed by Suharto, who was tipped off about the action beforehand. Both Untung and Latief were friends of Suharto and assumed that he would support them. On coming to power, Suharto's regime insisted that the term '30 September Movement' (abbreviated as G30S) had to be conjoined with 'PKI' to indicate that the PKI had been its mastermind. Since Suharto's fall, that rule has been upheld by the Attorney General's office. School textbooks that use the term G30S, not G30S/PKI, have been banned and burned.


Suharto's army claimed that the movement was not just an attempted coup, it was the start of a full-scale social revolt (pembrontakan). The mass detentions of some 1.5 million people by the security forces and their allied civilians were justified with the allegation that the PKI was about to stage a revolt. Supposedly, everyone affiliated to the party had been privy to the secret planning for weeks if not months. The army propaganda alleged that party supporters were preparing for mass murder: stockpiling guns, drawing up death lists and digging mass graves. Such allegations were the products of army psychological warfare specialists, colluding with their counterparts in the CIA and MI6. The PKI had not organised a revolt. After the 30 September Movement occurred, there were no revolts anywhere in the country. The mass arrests and killings began in Central Java nearly three weeks after the movement had been defeated. During those three weeks, the newspapers of the province (those allowed by the army to publish) did not report any major incidences of violence. PKI supporters were largely passive even as the repression continued for months. The army pretended as if it were fighting a counterinsurgency war when it was doing nothing more than attacking unarmed, defenceless, unresisting civilians.

Special Bureau

A clandestine group operating under the PKI chairman, DN Aidit. Its job was to exchange information with military personnel. When Sjam, the leader of this group, appeared in public in 1967 as a witness in the trial of a PKI leader (Sudisman), he made the existence of this group publicly known for the first time. Many observers were justifiably sceptical; they had not heard of Sjam or the Special Bureau before. Sjam seemed to some experts on Indonesian politics to be an army stooge spinning tall tales to help build the case against the PKI. Only the gradual accumulation of evidence over the years since 1967 allows us to affirm that the Special Bureau did indeed exist, Sjam was its head, and he reported only to Aidit.

Sjam (1924-86)

Sjam was the key leader of the 30 September Movement. He convinced Aidit that the Special Bureau's contacts in the military could mobilise enough troops and armaments to foil a plot by right-wing generals to overthrow President Sukarno. Arrogant and headstrong, he browbeat his subordinates in the bureau who did not agree with his assessment. He assured the military officers interested in joining that his plan was fool-proof and that they could not lose. The officers assumed that the PKI, with all of its high-level supporters inside the government and its millions of members, would not let their action fail. Aidit, for his part, assumed that the military officers were indeed fully capable of implementing the planned putsch. Aidit allowed Sjam to proceed and ordered some party personnel (such as Njono who was head of the Jakarta chapter) to perform ancillary tasks to help the putsch. A small number of PKI supporters became involved in the action while the vast majority of party supporters knew nothing about it. Even many top leaders (such as Njoto) were kept out of the loop. The weight of the evidence today suggests that Sjam was not a double-agent who purposely framed up the PKI. He was a long-time, committed PKI member who was intensely loyal to Aidit. Sjam moved underground after the defeat of his movement. He was captured in March 1967, imprisoned, put on trial in 1968, and executed in 1986.


A document supposedly signed by Sukarno on 11 March 1966 authorising Suharto to take all necessary action to restore peace and stability. Three army generals close to Suharto visited Sukarno at the Bogor palace and demanded that he issue the order. The original document is missing so it is unclear whether Sukarno signed it. The controversy over the signature is not of great importance. The order simply repeated language that Sukarno had already used in a previous order granting Suharto emergency powers. Suharto hardly cared about its contents; he used it, against Sukarno's wishes, to justify his power grab. After receiving the document, he banned the PKI and threw 15 of Sukarno's left-leaning ministers in jail. Suharto pretended as if Sukarno had asked to be stripped of his powers. The real controversy should be over Sukarno's actions. Why did he not do more, either before or after Supersemar, to stop Suharto if he sincerely disapproved of his actions?


The 30 September Movement was responsible for killing 12 individuals: six army generals, one colonel, one lieutenant colonel, one lieutenant, one security guard, one five-year old girl and one 24-year old man. In the name of suppressing the 30 September Movement, the army organised the killing of hundreds of thousands of people and imprisoned hundreds of thousands more. After Suharto's fall, at least five different organisations of victims were formed to demand accountability, official investigations and reparations. Even though the word victim (korban) appears in the names of their organisations, those who suffered in the violence of 1965-66 often feel uncomfortable with the word's connotations of helplessness.

John Roosa (jroosa@interchange.ubc.ca) teaches history at the University of British Columbia and is the author of Pretext for Mass Murder: The September 30th Movement and Suharto's Coup d'État in Indonesia.

Inside Indonesia 99: Jan-Mar 2010

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