Book Shows How West Was Complicit in Indonesia’s ’65 Massacre
To understand the complex history of the 1965-66 mass killings in Indonesia, it’s important to see the event from both the domestic and international perspective. This is precisely what Nathaniel Mehr strives to do in his recent book, “ ‘Constructive Bloodbath’ in Indonesia.”
The five-chapter book examines the underlying causes, the execution of the massacre and the author’s reflection on the consequences. “The purpose of this study is to provide a detailed narrative of these events, and consider the power politics, internal and global, which brought about such a massive slaughter of innocent lives,” Mehr writes in the introduction.
The most revealing information is found in the two chapters where Mehr, a British journalist, details what he says was the involvement of the United States and the United Kingdom in supporting the slaughter of suspected communists and communist sympathizers, which resulted in the deaths of between 500,000 and one million people in the space of six months.
Using declassified government documents, Mehr argues that Western powers saw the geopolitical importance of Indonesia in the Cold War context, and for that reason supported the massacre.
Mehr writes that the US government offered political support and covert assistance to the Indonesian military during the killings, and later paved the way for Suharto’s rise to power through economic aid, while Britain launched a propaganda campaign of sympathetic media reportage of the massacre.
The book also looks at the wider picture, and the first part of the work details the domestic context of the killings. Mehr considers the political background leading up 1965, including the political polarization and intensity from 1950 to 1965, Sukarno’s “Guided Democracy,” his close relationship with the Indonesian Communist Party (PKI) and the rise of the PKI in Indonesia.
The first chapter ends with the abortive coup on Sept. 30, 1965. Mehr looks at some of the different interpretations of this event, but concludes: “To this day, the precise details of what happened in Indonesia on the night of 30th September 1965 remain far from clear.”
Mehr goes on to cover the massacre of PKI members, which predominantly took place in Jakarta, Central Java, East Java and Bali. Led by Gen. Suharto, this evolved from a non-violent movement to a sadistic military campaign, carried out systematically, engaging religious groups and ordinary citizens.
“General Suharto, would be rather more candid about the nature and aims of the campaign — the strategy, he wrote, was to ‘pursue, purge and destroy,’ ” Mehr writes.
The final chapter covers Mehr’s take on the end of communism in Indonesia, the distortion of the history by Western journalism and how history was shaped by the reign of Suharto.
Mehr writes: “The killings precipitated the beginning of a new era of Indonesian politics, dominated by a regime ostensibly devoted to unity, modernity and an end to lawlessness, but in fact characterized by arbitrary violence, secrecy and corruption.”
Mehr’s work is well-researched and he cites a rich selection of primary and secondary sources. He refers to works by experts like Robert Cribb, Geoffrey Robinson and John Roosa, and utilizes declassified documents from the US Department of State and the British Foreign Office. And Mehr knows how to use the information. Supported with detailed evidence, the core arguments are well-constructed and his analysis is conveyed convincingly.
A minor issue derives from the presentation of the book, however. The book reads like an essay and the language is quite academic. This may be fine for historians and scholars, but many readers will find it dry. The book also only has two illustrations: a map of Indonesia and a blurry archival photo.
At a mere 135 pages, the book may not be adequate to properly cover such complex events, but Mehr’s work can be read as a succinct introduction to a significant piece of Indonesia’s history. Armando Siahaan
‘Constructive Bloodbath’ in Indonesia: The United States, Britain and the Mass Killings of 1965-66
Published by Spokesman Books