March 2016

Essays

Robert Manne and Mark Aarons

Rivers ran red

Indonesian Communist Party chairman Dipa Nusantara Aidit (at left) with President Sukarno at a rally in Jakarta, 23 May 1965. © AP Photo

Indonesia’s mass killings have been overlooked for 50 years

 

Robert Manne

 

In the early hours of 1 October 1965, the first step was taken in a plot to remove the right-wing leaders of the Indonesian army, and to push the regime of the volatile and charismatic President Sukarno even further to the left. Six senior generals were abducted and then killed. Dipa Nusantara Aidit, the chairman of the Indonesian Communist Party (Partai Komunis Indonesia, or PKI), was one of the plotters. Their hopelessly ill-thought-out action began collapsing within a day, and in response a ferocious campaign of repression was mounted.

Between October 1965 and March 1966, perhaps half a million Indonesians – mostly PKI members or supporters, and their families – were brutally murdered. While anti-communist and Muslim groups participated with great enthusiasm, the army, under its new leader General Suharto, directed the campaign. Some of the victims were shot. Some were bludgeoned to death or had their throats slit. Some were beheaded. Mass graves littered the Indonesian archipelago. Rivers were bloated with corpses. Travellers reported seeing heads on pikestaffs by roadsides. Several hundred thousand leftists were, in addition, imprisoned indefinitely in concentration camps. For the next generation, the children of the victims were treated as political lepers, described as “infected” and “unclean”. In scale and speed, the Indonesian murders of 1965–66 resemble the Armenian or Rwandan genocides, but what occurred in Indonesia was not, legally speaking, genocide. The anti-Chinese dimension of the murders, while on occasion real, has often been exaggerated. What took place is what scholars call “politicide”: mass extermination for political reasons. It was indeed one of the most brutal and thorough politicides in history.

Both the anti-army action of 1 October and the anti-PKI response took Washington by surprise. By this time the United States had withdrawn most aid and personnel from Indonesia. During the period of rapid military escalation in Vietnam, the US was alarmed and gloomy about the radically anti-American drift of the Sukarno regime, and its increasingly close links with Beijing and the pro-Chinese PKI (the world’s third-largest communist party). The loss of Indonesia to communism, which appeared to Washington as likely, was regarded as no less serious than the possible loss of Indochina.

Washington’s only fear once the Suharto-led response began was that the Indonesian army might pull back before the PKI was entirely crushed. It was soon clear that, to put it mildly, this would not be the case. The new hardline US ambassador to Indonesia, Marshall Green, reported on 20 October, “Army has nevertheless been working hard at destroying PKI and I, for one, have increasing respect for its determination and organization in carrying out this crucial assignment.”

By late October, the US embassy began receiving reports of the frightful massacre that the Indonesian army and its supporters were conducting. On 29 October the embassy advised Washington of mass beheadings in the province of Aceh. On 1 November, Green informed Washington that Suharto and the minister of defence, General Abdul Haris Nasution, were “moving relentlessly to exterminate PKI …” Green was not speaking metaphorically. On 4 November it reported that the “smaller fry” in the PKI were “being systematically arrested and jailed or executed”; on 13 November it was reported that mass nightly killings “by civilian anti-Communist troops with blessing of the Army” were taking place in Central and East Java. On 16 November the US consulate in Medan, North Sumatra, sent news of “a real reign of terror against PKI” and of indiscriminate killings even of those “with no ideological bond to the party”. Information about the massacre continued for months. By mid 1966, the US embassy’s official death-toll estimate was 300,000. The Swedes thought this far too conservative.

The US embassy made it clear to the Indonesian army that it supported the mass murders. But it went far beyond expressions of support. There is incontrovertible documentary evidence from the US State Department’s own publication, Foreign Relations of the United States, that in various ways the Americans assisted the campaign of the Indonesian army and the anti-communist militias. In early October 1965 the US helped spread mendacious anti-PKI propaganda. In mid November it decided to supply the army with communications equipment “to use in the fight” against the PKI. In early December, Green passed the civilian murder squads 50 million rupiah (more than US$200,000 in 1965) earmarked for “repressive efforts … particularly in Central Java”. And, in late December, US embassy staff member Robert Martens handed to the army the first instalment of lists containing the names of 4000 to 5000 communists, despite knowing they would almost certainly be slaughtered.

The most important support given to General Suharto and the murder squads as they went about their business was, however, what on 8 June 1966 the State Department itself described as the US policy of “silence”. “The anti-communist leaders wanted no cheers from us. This policy remains generally sound, particularly in the light of the wholesale killings that have accompanied the transition.” Not one US official ever raised the issue of the mass murder campaign with a leader of the Indonesian army. Not one member of President Lyndon Johnson’s administration spoke publicly about the mass murders. Of all leading US politicians, only the former attorney general, Senator Robert Kennedy, broke the silence. “We have spoken out against inhuman slaughters perpetrated by the Nazis and the Communists,” he argued in a speech in January 1966. “But will we speak out also against the inhuman slaughter in Indonesia?”

Kennedy was alone. The reason is obvious. As Time magazine put it in mid 1966, the “boiling bloodbath” in Indonesia “was the West’s best news for years in Asia”. Or as Howard Federspiel of the State Department’s Bureau of Intelligence and Research admitted in 1990, “No one cared as long as they were Communists, that they were being butchered.”


Like the Americans, the Australian embassy in Jakarta was well informed about the massacre. Indeed by mid 1966 the embassy estimated that the death toll was likely to be “in the vicinity of half a million” and described the “savagery and scale of the killings” as “probably unique”. The Australian embassy had seen what was happening firsthand. In February 1966 its first secretary, JM Starey, inspected several Australian aid–funded road projects. He reported that in Bali the best estimate was already 100,000 deaths. He reported that in West Timor “the Army was in complete control” of the “nightly executions”, that the preferred method of execution there was “beheading”, and that even the wives and children of PKI members were being murdered. There is one piece of evidence that Australia’s ambassador in Jakarta, Keith “Mick” Shann, was at least privately disturbed by the slaughter. On 19 December 1965 he informed Canberra, “In many cases the massacre of entire families because one member spoke to the Communists has occurred. Some of the methods adopted are unspeakable.” Yet this did not influence policy. Shann assured the Indonesian army in November 1965 that they “would be completely safe in using their forces for whatever purpose they saw fit”. In January 1966, he suggested some token aid to the army “as a means of … indicating our sympathy for what they are doing”. In February 1966, he was depressed when, momentarily, the political star of one of the leaders of the mass murder, General Nasution, appeared to have faded.

As in the Australian embassy in Jakarta, so too in Canberra. The question of the Indonesian massacre was barely discussed in parliament during that period. On one occasion only, the Labor Opposition raised the fundamental question directly. Bill Hayden asked the minister for external affairs, Paul Hasluck, whether members of his government were alarmed by or critical of the loss of between 100,000 and 300,000 “human lives” and, if so, whether he would “give expression to these feelings on behalf of the Australian people”. Hasluck answered with not so much a straight as an inert moral bat. “Australians are naturally concerned at this suffering and loss of life. It is the constant hope of the government that political and social stability will develop in Indonesia.”

Beyond this there were little more than occasional interventions. When Hasluck spoke of those who “have demonstrated in other ways their animosity towards the Chinese for interfering in the domestic affairs of Indonesia”, the leader of the Opposition, Arthur Calwell, interjected: “And murdered 200,000 of their compatriots.” When the minister for trade and industry, John McEwen, spoke of the “wave of relief” that had passed over the Australian community with the end of the Indonesian communist threat, the leader of the ALP Left, Dr Jim Cairns, responded. “Had … Communist forces killed 120,000 people we would have had members on the other side of the House taunting those on this side of the House by saying, ‘Have you protested against this act of genocide?’” As a result, Liberal backbencher WC Wentworth called Cairns a communist sympathiser. Labor MP Gordon Bryant accused the Holt government of speaking of the massacres in Indonesia “with great glee”.

During his visit to the United States in mid 1966, Prime Minister Holt showed that, psychologically speaking, Bryant was not wrong. While addressing the American Australian Association, Harold Holt quipped, “With 500,000 to 1 million Communist sympathisers knocked off, I think it is safe to assume that a reorientation has taken place.” Holt’s startlingly frank and flippant remark was published in the New York Times. Momentarily, perhaps inadvertently, Holt had broken the American and Australian governments’ official code of silence concerning the murders in Indonesia.


During the period of army repression, the Australian government maintained as tight a control as possible over the way Indonesian events were interpreted. In early October 1965 a young officer at the Department of External Affairs, Richard Woolcott, reported, “we are now in a position to influence the content of leaders in practically all major metropolitan papers”. In Jakarta, the embassy briefed the ABC’s correspondents on events in Indonesia in the knowledge that their reports would be regarded as authoritative. Radio Australia provided the most influential broadcasts in English to the educated Indonesian audience. On 18 October, Ambassador Shann reported that the embassy had been providing “regular daily guidance” to Radio Australia on the line it should run: to help discredit the PKI, to make sure it was not presenting news that suggested Sukarno retained control, and so on. On 5 November, Shann said that a colonel in the army had approached and advised him that Radio Australia should not make it appear as if “the army is acting alone against the PKI’’ and that it should “never suggest that the army or anyone else is pro-Western or rightist”. Shann took the advice.

In his fascinating study of Australian opinion and what he calls “the Indonesian holocaust”, the University of Melbourne political and social studies professor Richard Tanter has shown how infrequently two newspapers in Melbourne, the Age and the Sun-News Pictorial, reported details of the mass murders. Nonetheless, the reports in Australian newspapers make it clear that any attentive citizen could have become aware of what was taking place. Vivid, heart-stopping reports were filed or re-published – by Denis Warner in the Sydney Morning Herald on 30 December 1965 and 15 June 1966; by CL Sulzberger in the Age and Canberra Times on 14 April 1966; by Robert Elegant in the Australian on 22 April 1966; by Frank Palmos in the Sun on 5 August 1996; by Seymour Topping in the Age on 24 August 1966. These reports did not make any attempt to disguise the horror, as the headlines make clear: ‘Bloody vengeance floods Indonesia’; ‘Vicious killings continue in Indonesia’; ‘Indonesian Army led the bloodbath’; ‘“Bloody Liquidation” of Indonesia’s PKI’. Elegant estimated more than 200,000 deaths. Sulzberger, who likened the slaughter to “Turkey’s Armenian massacres, Stalin’s starvation of the Kulaks, Hitler’s Jewish genocide”, put the likely toll at half a million.

What is interesting is that these reports did not stir Australian conscience or provoke debate. Tanter calls his study Witness Denied. This does not seem right to me. No one pretended that mass murder had not taken place. What is truly terrifying is that the politically convenient slaughter in Indonesia was greeted in Australia with indifference, not denial.


What, then, of the attitude of the Australian anti-communist intelligentsia, with whom I was politically associated from the mid 1970s until the late 1980s? The magazine of the National Civic Council (NCC), News Weekly, covered the killings in some detail, and sometimes with what reads like genuine pity, although in general it attributed them not to General Suharto and his army but to revivalist Islam. On the other hand, as late as 31 August 1966, despite the downfall of Sukarno and the mass slaughter of the PKI, the leader of the NCC, BA Santamaria, briefly a political ally of mine, warned darkly about the possible return of Sukarno and of the communists, and therefore of the continuing Indonesian threat to Australia. The extermination of the PKI was clearly not enough to still his fears.

The performance of Quadrant, the magazine I edited between 1990 and 1997, was more shameful than that of News Weekly. In Quadrant’s March–April 1966 issue, the journal’s founding editor, the poet James McAuley, wrote of a visit to Jakarta. Even though the murder of between 100,000 and 300,000 leftists was common knowledge, he dismissed the slaughter in two words: a “bloody aftermath”. McAuley reserved his political sympathy for Mochtar Lubis, a liberal anti-communist writer who had spent several years in prison under Sukarno, in conditions comfortable enough to allow him to write. Apparently, the jailing of a single author moved McAuley more deeply than the murder of several hundred thousand communists or their supporters. A year later, Quadrant published an uncritical account of the militantly anti-communist student movement KAMI. It spoke with enthusiasm about KAMI’s championship of human rights and the noble role it had played in the destruction of the PKI. Not a word appeared about the murders or KAMI’s involvement in the slaughter. We know that even the CIA was worried about handing over weapons that might end up in the hands of KAMI. We also know that KAMI was involved in the violence in Aceh in early 1966.

Quadrant’s foremost authority on Indonesia was the Australian National University professor of economics Heinz Arndt. In 1968, at a time when some murders were still occurring, he wrote in Australian Outlook on Suharto and his government. Arndt did not address the murders directly. Instead, in response to criticism of the Suharto government on grounds of human-rights violations, he argued that the government was “desperately anxious not to be thought undemocratic, militaristic, dictatorial”, and was therefore unable or reluctant “to assert its will” against the occasionally authoritarian behaviour of provincial underlings. This was a curious way of describing the nature of a government led by the architect of one of the century’s great political crimes.

By contrast, my old mentor, Frank Knopfelmacher, was brutal – both in his enthusiasm over the political consequences of the murders and in his description of the savagery of the perpetrators. In the News Weekly of 12 January 1966, Knopfelmacher expressed open gratitude that the “Soekarno–PKI racket”, as he called it, had been destroyed. On the other hand, in an article in the Bulletin of 26 November 1966, he acknowledged the role of the army in the slaughter, and described without euphemism the actions of the Indonesian soldier, “the peasant in uniform”, who had fallen “upon the PKI with the most frightful ferocity and conducted the most sanguine massacres in Javanese villages under PKI control or influence”. Knopfelmacher was perhaps the only member of the Australian anti-communist intelligentsia whose writing shows an awareness of the nature and gravity of the human tragedy that had occurred.

This story has a painful personal meaning. My political identity was shaped by the Holocaust. At first this drew me naturally to the left. However, because of my reading about the historical crimes of Stalin and the contemporary crimes of Mao Zedong, and because of the influence of two teachers, Vincent Buckley and Frank Knopfelmacher, during my undergraduate days I was gradually drawn into the anti-communist movement. There were two main reasons why people became anti-communists in those days. The first was geopolitical: because they believed the future of the world would be determined by the outcome of the Cold War that was being fought between Communism and Democracy. The second was moral: because of the crimes of Stalin and of Mao. For my part, I did not become an anti-communist because of the Cold War. In 1970, I marched against Australia’s participation in the United States–led Vietnam War. I became an anti-communist because only the anti-communist intelligentsia seemed to speak of the mass killings associated with Stalin and with Mao in an appropriate moral register.

Between the time I was preparing for my matriculation exams in October 1965 and the time I arrived at the University of Melbourne in March 1966, some 500,000 Indonesians were slaughtered. During my undergraduate days there was no discussion of the murders. We were preoccupied by the Vietnam War. As I know now, the American and Australian governments supported the murders through aid and silence, principally for questionable foreign-policy reasons. The threat of Chinese aggression, especially at the time of the Sino–Soviet schism, was vastly overblown. The anti-communist intelligentsia offered their governments full support. It is of course possible, perhaps even likely, that if the Indonesian communists had come to power a different kind of tragedy might have occurred. But can it seriously be maintained, as many anti-communist defenders of the Western policy in Indonesia did then and still do, that acquiescence in the murder of half a million civilians on political grounds can be justified by speculations about possible events in the future?

If I had known then what I know now, while my attitude to the crimes of communism would have been no different, I hope I would have had sufficient judgement to have given the anti-communist movement a far wider berth.


 

Mark Aarons

 

One of my earliest memories concerns my father’s first visit to Indonesia. In March 1954 Laurie Aarons, representing the Communist Party of Australia (CPA), attended the fifth national congress of the Indonesian Communist Party (PKI). He also travelled widely through Java and Sumatra. I was just two years old, too young to understand where he had gone or why. I felt his absence acutely and recall my joy when he returned.

As I grew up, the souvenirs he brought back from that trip continued to fascinate me, especially the voluptuously curved kris – the traditional dagger that reputedly has magical powers in Indonesian ceremonial life. I still have two mementos on my desk: an elaborately decorated tin box engraved with the date “27–3–’54” (the day he visited Surabaya) and two clasped hands (one representing the PKI, the other the CPA); and an ornately carved replica of a traditional house.

The Australian Security Intelligence Organisation (ASIO) greeted my father on his return, tearing his luggage apart and noting 99 items of interest. One was described in ASIO’s report as a “Large python-skin bound photo album, on front page of which there are maps of Indonesia and Australia between which are clasped hands”, like those engraved on the tin box. “This album contains photograph [sic] of conference meetings and other functions,” ASIO reported. “AARONS appears in many of these photographs.”


Fifty-seven years later I sat in the cavernous reading room of Sydney’s Mitchell Library – where I had deposited my father’s papers – watching a silently weeping woman slowly turn the pages of this album. Tatiana Lukman’s father, Mohammad Nulhakim Lukman, had met Laurie in 1954. In October 1965, when the mass killings of communists commenced, Lukman was first deputy chairman of the PKI and vice-speaker of Indonesia’s parliament. A few months later he was murdered. Tatiana was fortunate to be out of the country, but so absolute was the extirpation of the PKI that from 1965 until that day in the library she had never seen a photograph of her beloved father. All trace of him had vanished.

Lukman was the second most senior PKI leader. Together with PKI chairman Dipa Nusantara Aidit, Lukman transformed the party from an insignificant and demoralised force of 10,000 in 1950 into a mass party by the mid ’60s, numbering around three million, with 16 million adherents in organisations representing peasants, unionists, women, intellectuals and youth. Only the Soviet and Chinese communist parties were larger.

During Laurie’s visit, he addressed rallies with attendances totalling more than one million, “more people than I’ve ever spoken to in Australia in my whole life”, as he wryly commented years later. Illustrating the PKI’s extraordinary growth, in the national election of late 1955 it garnered more than six million votes, transforming it into President Sukarno’s powerful junior partner in Indonesian politics.


Laurie’s time in Indonesia made a profound impression, not least his warm relations with Aidit and Lukman. On the plane home Laurie wrote to Aidit, “Never have I felt a farewell so deeply, nor, as I think I’ve told you before, realised so personally and concretely the meaning of proletarian internationalism.” Laurie made international solidarity a priority, recommending even closer ties with the PKI upon his return, especially as Indonesia’s national revolution will “assist Australia greatly during [the] next three year period”.

Over the following decade Laurie assumed an increasingly important role in the CPA, eventually becoming national secretary in 1965. Throughout these years he kept abreast of Indonesian developments, observing the PKI’s emergence as a counterweight to pro-Western sections of the armed forces that worked to destabilise Sukarno and roll back communist gains. He ensured the CPA’s close collaboration with the PKI, for example, strengthening union ties, particularly in the maritime industry.

In April 1962 Laurie attended the PKI’s seventh congress, again representing the CPA. The next year, when Lukman visited Australia, Laurie drove him to Cowra, New South Wales, to visit Lukman’s mother’s grave. (She had died there while interned during World War Two.) Subsequently, Laurie arranged a proper headstone for her.


This was the last political and personal warmth between old comrades. In 1962, the PKI began to swing towards Mao Zedong’s ultra-left line. Publicly, the PKI had hitherto taken a neutral stance in the bitter Sino–Soviet dispute, in which the communist superpowers waged ideological war over Mao’s insistence that Stalin had been largely correct, notwithstanding his mass crimes, which Mao emulated. By mid 1963 the PKI’s pro-Chinese faction was in the ascendancy, transforming Laurie from respected comrade to – in Maoism’s bizarre terminology – “revisionist running dog” of the “social imperialists” in Moscow.

From early 1962, Laurie led the fight against Mao’s supporters in the CPA, just as the PKI embraced Chinese “Marxism-Leninism”. By the time of Lukman’s aforementioned visit in April 1963, Mao’s Australian followers had been defeated decisively. Concerned by the PKI’s adoption of Maoism, Laurie proposed dialogue, but his letters and cables went unanswered. The only response he received was a terse verbal rejection of proposed discussions aimed at resolving differences.

PKI chairman Aidit finally issued a lukewarm invitation for Laurie to visit Indonesia, which he did in early 1965. As recorded in Laurie’s ASIO file, Aidit was “very unco-operative” and Laurie was “practically ignored”. Eventually Aidit arranged an “unofficial” meeting, in which Laurie asked to “get together on some of the problems facing the World Communist Movement”. Aidit’s reply was dismissive. “Why not? Even if we can only agree on 10% of them!” Laurie was “astonished” at the brusque and impersonal language, but he made one final effort. “Surely we can agree on more than that?” Aidit did not reply. Their warm comradeship had ended.


By early 1965, Laurie was deeply worried by the PKI’s ultra-leftist, hyper-nationalist policies. He believed the PKI was pushing Sukarno “to the brink of war with Malaysia” and foresaw danger, expressing concern at the PKI’s embrace of Sukarno’s increasingly bombastic proclamations.

As for the PKI’s adversaries, Laurie had firsthand experience of the dangers posed by extremist Muslims and the Indonesian army. A decade before, in 1954, he and Aidit had addressed a rally of more than 100,000 people in Malang, East Java. A small but well-organised crowd of Muslim hardliners – led by the virulently anti-communist Masyumi party – infiltrated the meeting, brandishing knives and guns. The military police arrived and ordered Aidit, Laurie and other speakers into their jeeps, driving them to the nearby police headquarters.

Later, Aidit asked if Laurie could drive, explaining that he and the other PKI representatives had feared for their lives from the army as much as from the Muslim militants and had been considering overpowering their guards and escaping, but none of them could drive. In farewelling Laurie, Aidit spoke portentously: “Comrade Aarons and I faced death together at Malang.”

Laurie thought Aidit was exaggerating. That is, until the army – aided by Masyumi adherents and other extremists – conducted the mass killings of 1965–66.


Until his death, almost 40 years later, Laurie continuously reflected on the causes of the PKI’s liquidation. His initial reaction was disgust: “The Australian establishment is happy about what it thinks is a great victory won for it by the Indonesian rightist generals. The current anti-communist campaign … has all the trimmings of arson, murder, pillage and repression for which the communists are falsely denounced but which are warmly applauded when practised against communism.” And he mourned his former comrades, especially Aidit and Lukman, as news of their murders emerged.

By December 1965, Laurie was certain that the abortive action of leftist army officers, which triggered the slaughter, was a pre-emptive strike against right-wing army generals who planned to remove Sukarno and destroy the PKI. While acknowledging that “there is much still unclear”, Laurie wrote, “If the PKI had seriously aimed at making a revolution, it is impossible to imagine the struggle would be confined to a section of the armed forces elite. The masses of workers and peasants would have been drawn into the struggle in the great industrial cities like Surabaya, Djakarta and Semarang and in the countryside.”

Much remains “unclear” 50 years later. Some facts are known: during 1965, Aidit became convinced by persistent rumours – perhaps started by CIA “black propaganda” operations – that right-wing generals were planning to overthrow Sukarno. Consequently, Aidit directed plans to kidnap these generals, using sympathetic junior army officers, thus engineering a change in the army’s leadership and pushing Sukarno further to the left. It was an amateurish operation: on 1 October 1965 six generals were murdered, rather than kidnapped as planned.

The response, however, was beyond all reason. The small group involved could easily have been rounded up and brought to justice. To justify the mass killings, the new army commander, General Suharto, blamed the PKI as an organisation for the botched operation, circulating false accounts that it aimed to overthrow the popular Sukarno and claiming the generals were mutilated while naked communist women danced around them. This had the intended effect, whipping up extremist Muslim groups, which formed army-controlled civilian death squads.

Suharto’s version of events largely went unchallenged because most of the key PKI leaders were eliminated without trial. Of the five senior leaders, only the general secretary, Sudisman, was eventually tried. In his polite but defiant defence statement during the trial in 1967, Sudisman confirmed that Aidit had been behind the army officers’ operation, but painted a plausible scenario that the PKI as an organisation had not been involved.

In his 2006 book, Pretext for Mass Murder, American historian John Roosa made a powerful case that lends weight to Sudisman’s contention. Roosa sifted through the evidence – much previously unavailable – and concluded that Aidit basically acted on his own initiative and the rest of the PKI leadership was only aware of the general concept, not the details. The conclusion: Suharto used the botched kidnappings as a pretext for mass killings. This achieved politically what right-wing officers and Muslim extremists had been scheming, with American backing, since the late 1950s: the removal of Sukarno and his principal political ally, the PKI.

US involvement in the events used to justify the murders remains murky, but official files reveal that in early 1965 Washington had developed a scenario that closely mimicked what unfolded a few months later: the plan involved inducing the PKI into pre-emptive action against the army, providing the justification for its destruction.


Soon after the killings commenced, Laurie argued that the PKI could not be “rubbed out”. “[It] will be able to continue its struggle, overcome the difficulties it faces from internal and external forces of the extreme Right and defeat the present attacks.” In this he seriously overestimated the PKI’s ability to resist, and he underestimated the lethal capacities of extremists and the well-equipped army.

Laurie highlighted Maoism’s role in the tragedy, condemning “Chinese interference in Indonesia”. However, he rejected the thesis – enunciated by Western anti-communists – that the PKI, under the influence of Maoist ideology, would have conducted similar mass killings had it come to power. In the early 1950s the PKI had explicitly rejected Mao’s armed revolution strategy because Java had no remote bases to which a guerrilla army could retreat. Rather, it opted to forge alliances with progressive nationalism. The PKI never had the wherewithal to conduct mass killings: it had no weapons even to resist the army.

On the other hand, had history turned out differently and Aidit had succeeded in his plan to remove the right-wing generals – positioning the PKI to seize control of the army – it seems probable it would have repressed what communists termed “counter-revolutionaries”. This was the inevitable logic of communism’s theory of revolution. In light of the dominance of the hardline Maoist faction in the PKI, it could easily have emulated Mao’s mass crimes if it had obtained the means to carry them out. In denying that communists perpetrated crimes similar to those committed against the PKI, Laurie turned a blind eye to history.

In subsequent years Laurie pursued policies that would have appalled his erstwhile Indonesian comrades even more than his criticism of Maoism did. He repudiated both Soviet and Chinese communism, advocating a democratic path to socialism, embracing Alexander Dubček’s “Prague Spring” and condemning its crushing by Moscow. He also over-estimated a central Marxist tenet: the inevitability of communism’s victory over capitalism. By the time he died, half a century after his first visit to Indonesia, communism was a spent force in all but a handful of nations. In the largest of these – China – capitalism was rampant and Mao’s “Marxism-Leninism” was in tatters.

Robert Manne and Mark Aarons

Robert Manne is emeritus professor of politics at La Trobe University. His books include Left, Right, Left: Political Essays, 1977–2005 and Making Trouble.

Mark Aarons is a writer whose books include The Family File.

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