The Act of Killing


Previous Defence-in-Depth blogs have covered ‘forgotten battles’: this blog addresses the consequences of a forgotten war: the undeclared war fought between Britain and Indonesia from 1963-66, termed by the Indonesians Konfrontasi (Confrontation).

Small wars often have large consequences, even if those consequences do not always impinge on western consciousness.

In Jakarta, fifty years ago, on the night of September 30-1st October 1965, elements of the Indonesian Presidential Guard launched an attempted coup. The coup failed, but the events that it initiated led to the toppling from power of the then leader of Indonesia, President Sukarno, and his replacement by a military regime under General Suharto. This process was welcomed in Britain. The UK, in concert with Malaysia, and latterly with Australia and New Zealand, had been fighting an undeclared, low intensity war against Indonesia in the jungles of Borneo in defence of the newly created federation of Malaysia. General Suharto wound down Confrontation, signing a peace deal in August 1966.

Confrontation had a low profile at the time. In part, this was because both the British and Indonesian governments wished to avoid escalation into full-blown war. But it was also partly because, from a British perspective, the campaign seemed so successful. Dennis Healey, Minister of defence from 1964, characterised the campaign as ‘a textbook demonstration of how to apply economy of force, under political guidance for political ends.’ Confrontation appeared in many respects to be a mere adjunct to the Malayan Emergency: simply another example of the effectiveness of British counter-insurgency techniques. It appeared to be a clean, low-cost, tightly controlled conflict. But the process by which Britain helped to end Confrontation was neither clean nor uncontroversial, and the claim that Britain won Confrontation and Indonesia lost is also contestable.

The September 30 coup was not caused by Britain and its allies. The rebellion was related to a longer running power struggle between the Indonesian communist party, the PKI (Partai Komunis Indonesia), and the Indonesian army, the TNI (Tentara Nasional Indonesia). President Sukarno had sustained his position in part by maintaining a balance of conflict between the two. By the second half of 1965, however, the Confrontation campaign had contributed to a deepening internal crisis in Indonesia, and had helped push Sukarno further to the left. The Army, fearful of the growing power of the PKI was primed to act.

In consequence, the coup of September 30 did not just begin the process by which Confrontation ended; it also began the process by which the Indonesian army and its allies began a reckoning with the PKI. In the months that followed the coup, somewhere between 500,000 and a million communists, suspected communists, or those labelled as communists were killed. The events, explored in chilling detail in the documentary The Act of Killing, were not the consequence of a spontaneous outburst of violence. Indeed, the massacres were activities in which the TNI, and such other groups as the Islamic Nahdlatul Ulama, were active agents. It was three weeks after the coup that the massacres really began, and they took place in the context of systematic efforts by the TNI to organise and motivate groups into action at a local level; and in the context also of a broader programme of legal and administrative measures against the PKI.

Britain was no neutral bystander to the bloodletting. There is no evidence that the UK (or, indeed, the US, which had also become hostile to Sukarno) caused the coup, and for a time, the government was unclear about its possible consequences. But UK policy-makers saw the process initiated by the coup as potential opportunity to end the war with Indonesia and to build a positive relationship with Suharto’s military regime. At the very least, it was hoped that British efforts to lengthen and intensify the internal crisis in Indonesia might make a resumption of Confrontation by the TNI less likely. So, for example, Britain reduced its military operations against Indonesia, providing the TNI with assurances through informal channels that the UK would not exploit Indonesia’s internal tensions, allowing Indonesian troops to focus on the task of eliminating their opposition.

The UK also turned its propaganda and psychological warfare assets towards supporting the TNI’s activities. The British ambassador to Jakarta, Sir Andrew Gilchrist argued that ‘the most important political warfare objective at the present moment is not to support friends (overtly) but to keep the pot boiling and to magnify confusion’. In general, UK efforts sought to help mobilise opponents of the PKI to crush communism in Indonesia. Key to this was the task of de-legitimising the PKI in Indonesian eyes. The messaging pursued by Britain to aid the TNI focused on reinforcing the Indonesian army’s own narrative: that the PKI was a threat to Indonesia; that they were brutal; that they were opposed to Sukarno. Moreover, British efforts also sought to highlight the PKI’s links to China, and the role of the PKI as an agent of Chinese interests. Developing British experience from the Malayan Emergency, Britain sought to reinforce the idea that the PKI threat was also a Chinese threat, playing upon already existing anti-Chinese ethnic tensions in Indonesia.

The accounts of the massacres cover very well the pitiless brutality of TNI efforts. One British embassy official in Jakarta commented that ‘I probably have a lot of blood on my hands, but that’s not all bad. There’s a time when you have to strike hard at a decisive moment.’ But for Sir Andrew Gilchrist, the outcomes seemed much more ambiguous: ‘What have we to hope from the generals? 400,000 people murdered, far more than the total casualties in Vietnam and nobody cares. “They were communists.” Were they? And are not communists human beings?’

Thus, wars may be ‘small’ in terms of the impact that they have on the British consciousness; but that doesn’t mean that their impact on others is limited similarly. The end of Confrontation was accompanied by events that had a profound impact on Indonesia. In the end, perhaps the biggest winner wasn’t Britain, but the Indonesian army.

(Dr Christopher Tuck discusses Confrontation in more detail in his book Confrontation, Strategy, and War Termination: Britain’s Conflict with Indonesia)

Image: Soekarno 1947 Indonesia stamp, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

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