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Media Manipulation and the Indonesian Killings of 1965-66

Alex Constantine - May 18, 2009

by Nathaniel Mehr

The Indonesian killings of 1965-66 provide a valuable case study for anyone seeking to understand the techniques with which governments and non-governmental actors manipulate information sources in pursuit of pragmatic and ideological goals.

When the Indonesian army's strategic reserve crushed an internal army mutiny on 1st October 1965, the reserve's leader, General Suharto, seized the opportunity to link the mutiny -- which had claimed the lives of six leading Generals -- to the Indonesian Communist Party (PKI). At this point, the PKI was the largest communist party outside the officially communist nations, posing a credible threat to the Indonesian army's long-standing primacy in Indonesian public life. Capitalising on reports that the upper echelons of the PKI had endorsed the abortive mutiny, the Indonesian army effected a mobilisation of anti-communist opinion with the single aim of exterminating the PKI once and for all. The campaign, which did not discriminate between party cadres and the party's mass membership, culminated in the violent deaths of between 500,000 and a million people, the overwhelming majority of whom were rural peasants who had joined the PKI because of the party's progressive position on land reform issues. The massacre removed the PKI as a viable political force in Indonesia, paving the way for Suharto to seize power and install a 32-year dictatorship that became notorious for corruption and human rights abuses.

Media manipulation was central to Suharto's success in two important respects. Firstly, a fierce propaganda onslaught against the PKI helped to fuel popular resentment against the party, and helped to recruit many thousands of youths, particularly among the country's zealous Muslim population, to the task of assisting the army in its deadly mission. British secret service organisations played an important role in assisting the Indonesian army in this endeavour. It is doubtful whether the army could have carried out such a massive bloodbath without the assistance of sections of the civilian population, to whom much of the work was delegated. Secondly, the coverage of the massacre in Western media outlets has tended to distort and obfuscate the nature and extent of the killings, in line with the prevailing Cold War expediency of the time. To the extent that Suharto was very much a "friend" of the West, opening up Indonesia to US capital in the years after 1967, the killings constituted what Noam Chomsky calls "a constructive bloodbath", and therefore relatively little is known, outside of academic circles, about one of the largest mass murders of the 20th Century.

"Psychological Warfare" -- Internal and External

The bulk of the propaganda burden was borne directly by the Indonesian army themselves. Independent newspapers were shut down, and a number of army-run newspapers devoted themselves to calling for the physical elimination of the PKI. PKI members were identified as traitors and thugs, and religion was invoked in order to incite the country's Muslims into action, preying on their religious sensibilities by raising the spectre of a takeover by militant atheists, which would presumably have disastrous implications for the religious community. The message of the campaign was not limited either to calling for the prosecution of the ringleaders of the mutiny or to a generic denunciation of the PKI. Instead, the army newspapers incited physical violence against PKI members in unequivocal terms, with a strong emphasis on a sense of religious duty. An editorial in the army newspaper Angkatan Bersendjata on 8th October issued a clear call to arms: "The sword cannot be met by the Koran . . . but must be met by the sword. The Koran itself says that whoever opposes you should be opposed as they oppose you." A few days later, the same newspaper would proclaim: "God is with us because we are on the path that is right and that he has set for us". A sensationalistic newspaper, Api Pancasila, appeared in circulation just days after the coup, and disappeared again soon after the slaughter; the mysterious timing of its publication and subsequent disappearance have prompted suggestions that the American CIA was involved in its production and dissemination. Deception was central to the army's campaign against the PKI. Army newspapers ran stories which featured a host of sordid -- and completely false -- details about the circumstances surrounding the murder of the Generals on the night of the failed mutiny. Their accounts alleged that, prior to the killings, a number of women from the PKI women's organisation Gerwani stripped naked and performed a lascivious dance in front of PKI cadres and air force officers involved in the 30th September Movement, before proceeding to a ritual genital mutilation of the Generals. The Generals' genitals were severed, and their eyes gouged out, before they were finally killed and their bodies disposed of. The Gerwani women celebrated by abandoning themselves to an orgy with PKI members and air force officers in attendance; the PKI leader, Aidit, awarded medals to the most depraved performers. In every detail -- save for the killing -- this account was a complete fabrication, yet it was circulated deliberately by the army. If the allegations in relation to genital mutilation would have been shocking enough in most cultures, the descriptions of naked dancing and wild group sex were designed to shock the sensibilities of a highly conservative society and reinforce the notion that the communists represented a way of life that was anathema to traditional Indonesian values. The success of these techniques is attested to by the frenzied enthusiasm with which militias of Muslim youths executed the purge. Armed with knives and cudgels, they roamed the towns, killing without mercy, often raping and mutilating their victims prior to killing them.

The British were as keen as their American partners to help ensure the complete destruction of the PKI. For their part, the Americans had provided the Indonesian army with years of funding and training for just such an eventuality and, with the killing in full flow in November 1965, they also provided the army with a shipment of walky-talkies, and a substantial transfer of funds to an army-civilian front organisation that was helping to organise civilian involvement in the killings. The British sought to reinforce the Indonesian army's media blitz by providing independent and apparently reliable corroboration of the accounts proffered by the army-run newspapers. It was a campaign of deliberate misinformation, euphemistically referred to by foreign policy officials as "psychological warfare". Responsibility for this task was entrusted to Norman Reddaway, a Foreign Office propaganda specialist, working with the government's Information and Research Department (IRD). Reddaway's brief in relation to Indonesia was to "do anything you can think of" to ensure the PKI's demise. In the wake of the abortive mutiny of 30th September 1965, the IRD therefore focused its efforts on disseminating apparently credible documentary evidence of PKI atrocities while taking care to obscure the precise nature of the anti-communist crackdown. Over the ensuing weeks the IRD issued, from its base at the headquarters of British Far East Command in Phoenix Part, Singapore, a series of deliberately misleading background briefs for the benefit of local and international media agencies. One such briefing, entitled "The PKI Holds Its Fire", was released in December, and described a policy of mass arrests aimed at putting down the a rampant communist rebellion. The fact that communists were, at this point, being systematically slaughtered in their tens of thousands, was not alluded to in the briefing; the outright defeat of the 30th September mutiny was also overlooked for the purposes of propaganda.

Reddaway's "briefings" were for the most part drawn from information received in top secret telegrams from the British Ambassador Andrew Gilchrist. Reddaway received about four a week by diplomatic wire service from Jakarta, passing them on to his contacts at the BBC, as well as UK newspapers -- The Times, the Daily Telegraph, the Observer and The Daily Mail -- and international media organisations. The stories would work their way back to Indonesia via ordinary domestic news outlets which relied upon the BBC and other respected international media for much of their copy. In this way, the IRD managed to influence the way in which the 30th September mutiny and its aftermath were perceived by Indonesian and world public opinion, giving a seal of credibility to Suharto's interpretation of the 30th September events, while providing a duly sanitised and sympathetic account of the subsequent anti-communist crackdown. Gilchrist's influence was so direct that Reddaway would later joke: "It was about that time that I wondered whether this was the first time in history that an Ambassador had been able to address the people of his country of work almost at will and almost instantaneously".

A recently declassified letter from Reddaway to Gilchrist provides a concise summary of a number of key elements of the IRD's "psychological warfare" campaign, a list of deceptions and fabrications including: "The story of PKI systematic preparations before the coup -- the carving up of the town into districts for systematic slaughter"; "Various sitreps [situation reports] from yourself [Gilchrist] which were put almost instantly back into Indonesia via the BBC"; and "A flattering version of the night of the long knives". While these fabrications helped to stoke up anti-PKI sentiments among the Indonesian public, British public opinion was similarly misled about the nature of the Suharto coup, as attested to by the inclusion on Reddaway's list of a reference to the IRD's contact with a British correspondent, Gavin Young, who "agreed to give exactly your [Gilchrist's] angle on events in his article in the Observer of 13th March - i.e. that this was a kid glove coup without butchery". This propaganda campaign sometimes took even more direct forms. Under Reddaway's stewardship, the IRD produced an Indonesian-language radio programme entitled "Voice from the Well" (in an emotive reference to the well at the Halim airbase in which the bodies of the murdered generals of the 30th September mutiny had been thrown). This programme, made by British agents in Singapore, safe-handed into Jakarta and transmitted from a residence close to Suharto's, comprised a barrage of purportedly nationalistic anti-PKI propaganda. It is difficult to quantify the precise impact of the IRD's "psychological warfare" operations upon the course of events in Indonesia in the turmoil of the 1965-66 period. However, it is clear that the Foreign Office was actively involved in a deliberate campaign of misinformation, aimed at manipulating Indonesian and international public opinion in order to provide support for General Suharto's cynical seizure of power and his murderous anti-communist pogrom.

After the Event: the Western Media Response to the Killings

The more honest conservative commentators did not mince their words: James Reston of the New York Times hailed the "savage transformation" of Indonesia, from a country in which a communist party had a significant political foothold, into to a regional bastion of anti-communism and an investors' paradise. The massacre of half a million innocent people was "a gleam of light in Asia". Elsewhere, obfuscation and distortion were the order of the day. In December 1965, a New York Times editorial misleadingly presented the anti-communist campaign as an effort solely targeted against senior party cadres, praising the Indonesian army for having "de-fused the country's political time-bomb, the powerful Indonesian Communist Party" by eliminating "virtually all the top- and second- level leaders of the PKI". Over a decade later, the influential Los Angeles Times correspondent George McArthur went even further, informing his readers that the PKI had actually carried out the massacre themselves (against themselves): "the Indonesians broke relations [with China] in 1965, when the Mao-inspired Communist Party, now outlawed, attempted to seize power and subjected the country to a bloodbath". Where a publication could not quite muster this level of mendacity, it might content itself with a more generalised statement of support for Suharto's regime, such as the declaration by the prestigious London current affairs weekly, The Economist, of Suharto's regime as "at heart benign".

Commentators seeking to play down the systematic nature of the killings tended to characterise the killings as a culturally-determined outbreak of ritual violence, employing a full range of Orientalist clichés. John Hughes was one of only a small handful of Western journalists in Indonesia at the time of the killings. His account -- the first detailed account of the slaughter to be read in the West -- was published under the title Indonesian Upheaval in 1967, and has informed much of the subsequent commentary about the killings. Hughes drew a comparison with the conscious and deliberate suicidal violence of Balinese fighters in the face of Dutch guns in 1906, concluding that Indonesia in 1965-66 was permeated by that same sense of a "mass joyful death-wish" which he believed characterised the heroic self-sacrificing violence of an earlier era. Hughes was by no means alone in this view – the New York Times journalist CL Sulzberger attributed the killings to a "strange Malay streak, that inner frenzied blood-lust which has given to other languages one of their few Malay words: amok." Robert Shaplen of the New Yorker magazine insisted that "the rest of the rational world" should not judge the Indonesians, as they "were able to explain the bloodbath, at least to their own satisfaction, in ancient terms of catharsis and the eradication of evil." The people were "emotionally and psychologically ready to run amok." In fact, the true definition of "running amok" presupposes a pathetic, suicidal self-sacrifice on the part of the person doing the killing, so that the expression was completely inapplicable to subject under discussion. Nevertheless, the expression had the ring of anthropological insight, and was duly incorporated into much of the discourse about the killings, serving to obscure the reality of this systematic and very deliberate operation of mass murder. Sulzberger's observation that the killings took place in "violent Asia, where life is cheap", accord with this general tendency to construct a different moral framework in which the killings can be received with rather less horror than comparable events might have been in the Western world.

The reaction of the mainstream media to the Indonesian killings of 1965-66 marks the killings as a watershed moment in US and British foreign policy during the Cold War period. The episode provided a revealing demonstration of the US establishment's response to a major bloodbath in circumstances in which the political results perceived as being propitious in Cold War terms; the enthusiastic response of journalists and political leaders, combined with only minimal protest at the mass killings, set a precedent for the use of mass killings as a viable model for further large-scale anti-communist pogroms in later years. A mere seven years would elapse before the United States sponsored a similar programme of destabilisation and killing -- albeit with a death toll in the thousands rather than in the hundreds of thousands -- which brought the military dictator Augusto Pinochet to power in Chile. The Indonesian experience showed US policymakers that they could involve the US government in a policy of deliberate, politically-motivated mass murder of civilians without having to fear a substantial domestic backlash from the US political establishment or mainstream media organisations. In this way, the culture of state-sponsored terrorism which characterised the United States' conduct of international relations during the Cold War era was consolidated after the tentative steps taken in the 1950s.

Nathaniel Mehr is co-editor of London Progressive Journal (www.londonprogressivejournal.com). Read 'Constructive Bloodbath' in Indonesia by Nathaniel Mehr, just published by Spokesman Books.

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