A Secret History of the Indonesian Genocide
Mass murder by radio
In an effort to keep their Holocaust a secret, the Nazi extermination program sent and received orders by landline wire communications, which were more secure than wireless. A radio station inside of a death camp would be inviting another Sobibor uprising, except the prisoners would be sending out messages to the world instead of blowing up a gas chamber. Given the fulsome defeat of German naval, air, and army radio encryption over the course of World War II, the communication system of Operation Reinhard was probably their most secure network, such is the irony.
As a nation of islands, Indonesia is a very different communication environment from Poland or the Russian pale. Radio and radio telephony were essential to the events of the 1 October coup, the defeat of that coup during the first day, the propagandizing incitement and coordination of militia networks to commit mass murders, the passage of orders regarding genocidal mass arrests and disappearances of prisoners, and then the movement of remaining prisoners from island to island. Boats were another technological variation from the earlier European genocide, as the archipelago was a wholly different logistical environment from eastern Europe. Shipping produces radio and radar noise. Given that so much electromagnetic signal was produced, one might expect anyone in the vicinity who had any sort of problem with Indonesia to be listening, analyzing, and even amplifying that traffic to their advantage.
Sukarno had made such a deadly enemy in the United Kingdom and their key regional ally, Australia. By supporting Malaysian separation from Indonesia, the British navy hoped to retain their strategic base at Singapore. Sukarno reacted to these developments by calling for Konfrontasi (confrontation) with the new Malay state, inflaming Cold War tensions. He sent troops to the island of Borneo to wage a guerilla campaign in the Kalimantan border region and agitated for Singaporean independence via radio propaganda. This enlargement of the crisis, coming on the postwar ebb tide of Britain’s global power, pushed the enfeebled empire towards the Americans, and towards the most economical force multipliers available.
Downing Street turned to GCHQ, and to black propaganda.
Note that this decision came out of relative military weakness, which is a pattern with radio warfare. Briefly: Austria-Hungary and France both developed SIGINT capability before the First World War in response to Italian aggression; the Einsatzbureau became a force multiplier that kept the Austrians in the First World War against superior opposition far longer than they might otherwise have lasted; the French Deuxième Bureau also checked a more powerful Germany at the Marne; meanwhile, on the Eastern Front, radio warfare was crucial to Hindenburg and Ludendorff defeating larger Russian forces in detail at Tannenberg and the Masurian Lakes. During the Second World War, the famous British wartime SIGINT program at Bletchley Park cracked Enigma codes, allowing an island nation to wage war against Germany without troops on the continent. Even today, American reliance on powerful remote sensing technologies and signal interception is a necessity created by the long reach of American policy and the relative weakness of hard power available at the other end. We can say the same for information warfare. The more recent Russian model of “active measures” is instructive on this point: the Kremlin saw social media discord and disinfo as a low-cost, low-risk way of attacking a global adversary.
In 1965, London and Canberra had full support from the United States, but the Americans were already embroiling themselves in Vietnam, and eager to avoid a second military front against communism in the far east. Radio warfare, in all its forms, was a way to make the most of the security assets that were already available.
Targeting was wide and deep. In his memoir Spycatcher, former MI-5 spook Peter Wright confirms that Indonesia’s diplomatic and military traffic was fully compromised. When the United States agreed to sell Indonesia new radio equipment in 1965, for example, the new Labour government secretly negotiated a solution with their Atlantic ally that allowed them to continue breaking Indonesian army COMSEC. Combined with aerial surveillance in the disputed border region and human assets within Indonesia, Britain struck back on the ground. Listening posts in Hong Kong and Singapore located Indonesian advance bases near the Malaysian border by triangulating their radio signals. Aerial photography confirmed the locations, and then cross-border raids destroyed them. Sukarno’s offensive fell back in disorder.
We must note the effect these tactical defeats had on the Indonesian army. Demoralization added to the mounting frustration of a new, elite class of modernizing officers with American training who loathed communism. Setbacks to Konfrontasi also alarmed the Javan traditionalist generals of the Diponegoro Division with ties to the Indonesian communist party (PKI). This latter group formed the base of Sukarno’s support within the army. Unwilling to report failure to Sukarno, the army did not tell him how bad things were in Borneo. Meanwhile, tensions between the two factions became ever more acute after January 1965. Sukarno began to talk of a “fifth force,” a fedayeen militia of PKI with military training. In turn, this idea horrified and alarmed the westernized generals. Rumors that they were planning a coup against Sukarno with the support of the CIA became rampant among the communists, some of whom began to discuss a preemptive coup of their own.
Ultimately, this atmosphere of intrigue in the crisis of a secret defeat is what led Col. Untung to form his “30 September Movement” and give Suharto, a leading westernizer, the excuse he needed to destroy the PKI. In the first American academic analysis of the events that followed, the so-called “Cornell Paper,” Benedict Anderson made an informed speculation that Untung may have made this fateful decision with the help of a shaman, as Thursday nights are traditionally associated with magic in Javan mysticism. Whether this is the case or not, the conspiracy to kidnap and murder six generals was certainly hatched in a febrile atmosphere, ad hoc and on the fly, like a gambler casting dice with the highest possible stakes out of sheer desperation.
The plot disintegrated within 24 hours. I will detail this part of the story at a later time, only noting here that Gen. Suharto used radio and telephone to contact each level of command within the units that were taking part in the coup. These efforts paid off as all the troops guarding the presidential palace and the Radio Indonesia station in Jakarta stood down, all at once or a few at a time, without firing a shot. As October 2 dawned, Suharto had complete control of the Indonesian capital. Aware of events in Jakarta thanks to signal intercepts, Britain offered Suharto a truce in Kalimantan so he could take Indonesian troops home to fight his new war against communists. Helpfully, they even provided a British ship under a neutral flag to facilitate the troop movement. The offer was accepted on October 14. Although Suharto would not be in a position to officially end Konfrontasi until March 1966, when his slow-motion coup succeeded in marginalizing Sukarno as a political force, the Indonesian army was no longer unofficially at war with the British empire.
As revealed in documents uncovered by Dr. Jess Melvin, the Indonesian army began spinning up Islamists and other militant groups from the beginning of 1965 in expectation of trouble with the PKI. Plans developed in that process were set in motion in the first days after the October 1 coup. Armed gangs attacked, murdered, burned, raped, robbed, and pillaged with remarkable discipline. The army issued commands for communists to turn themselves in; grisly “spontaneous” riots and lynchings encouraged compliance with the order. As a result, most of the people who died in the next months willingly entered the custody of the army only to “disappear,” or be “released” to their killers, or die of torture and other mistreatment.
Sukarno’s enemies not only supported the destruction of Indonesian communism, they threw fuel on the fire. Norman Reddaway, PR man to the Foreign Office in Beirut, was sent to Singapore, arriving at the beginning of November to take his new post as Regional Information Officer with a mission to remove Sukarno from power. Britain, Malaysia, and Australia all broadcast radio news in the Indonesian language. Programming was covert, for example by presenting news from supposed dissidents, and also official via the BBC, ABRI, and Radio Malaysia. All three networks took an editorial line consistent with their governments’ interests, avoiding anything that might stir sympathy for communists. Instead, dubious Indonesian army newspaper stories about supposed PKI preparations for the mass murder of non-communists, including the blood libel of women in the Gerwani organization as sexual deviants, were amplified and re-broadcast back into the country as “real news” from “independent sources.”
David Easter has explained that Reddaway used diplomatic and military signal intercepts to further shape the news against Sukarno, who reacted by kicking all western journalists out of the country, thinking this would end the leaks. It only made him look paranoid and weak, both of which were increasingly true of the national father-figure. In fact, the offending broadcast was repeating from the tower next to his residence the whole time, for Sukarno had already lost control. Cut off from information, never really in command of the army, he could not protect the PKI, and then he could not protect his own party, the PNI. It was only a matter of time before he could not protect himself.
Information dominance created the conditions for the coup and the genocide. At the height of the killing, and over the sad years to come, at least three countries — the US, UK, and Australia — had powerful SIGINT assets in the region. They knew what was going on, for they were monitoring Suharto’s progress in communist-destruction. Eager to learn as much as possible, diplomatic and espionage personnel pumped their sources for information. Confident that communism was truly being erased, with each step Suharto took into power, they became more cooperative, and gave the Indonesian armed forces more help. Death squads operated with radios supplied by the United States. The CIA published a secret report in 1968, since made public under the Freedom of Information Act, which later served as the model for a new generation of low intensity conflicts in Central and South America. Paramilitaries, disappearances, and torture became the standard toolkit of Cold War oppression, for in the eyes of the west, Suharto had shown the way.
Reddaway claimed victory and collected a bonus for toppling Sukarno. Radio energy, the force multiplier for western weakness, had toppled the founding father of Indonesia, destroyed the largest communist party in the world outside of China or Russia, and ended a million lives.