Review of Pretext for Mass Murder

Posted: November 25, 2012 in Book Reviews
Tags: , , ,

John Roosa’s exposition of the 1965 coup is a highly readable account of the events and actors surrounding a failed ‘coup’ which involved the kidnapping and death of several generals at Lubang Buaya. The subsequent  ‘countercoup’ spearheaded by General Suharto destroyed the army’s political rivals namely the Partai Komunis Indonesia (PKI) and signalled the beginning of a ‘New Order’ regime.

Official Narrative of the Coup

The official narratives which try to explain the coup is riddled with incoherence and contradictions. Part of the problem is that those who provided these narratives were heavily invested in presenting a one sided view. The military depiction of the  event was that the PKI was responsible for the movement. This was supported by propaganda and forced confessions in the days of repression following the coup. Anti PKI propaganda proclaimed that PKI members had a huge role in the death and torture of the generals. Films, memorials and events were  constructed to ingrain this narrative in the consciousness of subsequent generations of Indonesian citizens. Many Western sources are also prejudiced by the context of the cold war and were inclined to believe the propaganda of the nascent New Order.

Alternative Explanations of the Coup

 However, scholars like Benedict Anderson and Ruth Mcveigh theorized that the movement was started via a group of officers disgruntled by the leadership of the general staff under Yani. They wanted to purge the army of these officers so Sukarno could more effectively carry out his policies. The PKI in effect got dragged into the conflict by Suharto’s manoeuvrings.  Another scholar Harold Crouch had argued that the PKI did have a role. He suggested that the Special Bureau of the PKI had a hand in planning the coup, but the party as an institution was not involved. Rather several select members of the party supported what they saw as the attempts of their progressive allies in the military to execute the coup. In another analysis, Wertheim on the other hand argued that the movement was a frame up of the PKI. The general who was not abducted and was responsible for crushing the movement, namely Suharto was close to the military leaders of the initial coup. The centrality of the Special Bureau of the PKI and the role of Sjam led Wertheim to speculate that Sjam was the double agent for the army to instigate the PKI into rash action.

Roosa however writes that some of the alternative explanations of the  coup has its own internal weaknesses. For example, if the coup was led by the progressive army officers, how did this disparate group of officers come together? Why were there radio pronouncements during the coup urging people to form revolutionary councils? If it was led by the military, why was everything so poorly planned?

Recreating the Situation

Using new evidence that he had gathered such as the Supardjo document and insights from an insider ‘Hasan’, Roosa sifts the evidence to piece together a more coherent and plausible narrative of the events leading up to that period. He studies the key pieces of the puzzle one by one- the arrangement of those involved both civilian and military, the role of Sjam and the special bureau, the situation of Aidit and the PKI. Finally he gives a plausible alternative narrative to the reasons and context of the coup.

In 1965, the political situation in Indonesia was highly volatile. The left wing was rapidly growing but unarmed. The PKI which were growing however continued to be sidelined from the state machinery. Under ‘guided democracy’, they did not have the electoral mechanisms required to translate their mass support into political power. The right wing generals aligned with the Western powers were concerned about the left’s growing strength, but were unable to do anything because of Sukarno’s influence. They thus needed to lure the PKI into rash action while preparing for a counterattack to such action. At the same time, various factions within the army were upset at the corruption of the top generals, as well as their undermining of Sukarno’s policies. The role of the Special Bureau in the PKI was to source out and consolidate this dissent into a movement which could oust the right wing generals. Egged on by Sjam, Aidit and sections of the military arranged for a coup in which sections of the PKI would support the military actions of the progressive generals. However due to Sjam’s personality, the movement was extremely poorly planned which led to blind spots cumulatively leading to the collapse of the coup. In the final denouement, Sjam and Aidit were  described by Sukarno as ‘keblinger’, misreading the political situation and were extremely poorly prepared to fall into the trap that had been set for them.


This summary is merely a rough overview of Roosa’s work and arguments. The significance of his work is important as part of the ongoing efforts to reclaim the historical narrative from the huge propaganda which followed the massive repression of the PKI. It also puts the actions of the various actors in historical perspective allowing us to appreciate the bravery and courage of those who struggled in extremely difficult circumstances and condemn more forcefully the brutality of those who engaged in such oppression. Such a work provides useful touchstones in navigating the maze of lies and fabrications, coerced confessions and testimonies and propaganda which bestride this period of Indonesia’s historical landscape. This would be instructive in relooking at Singapore’s own history  and position in the Cold War, especially since its independence occurred just mere months before the coup.  It would also be useful to read the works of the other scholars mentioned as well as their updated analysis of the situation to get a clearer account. What is clear however is that the actions of Suharto supported by the military and various factions were unwarranted and remain one of the more heinous acts of repression in history whose victims still have not received their due justice.


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