‘Constructive Bloodbath’ in Indonesia

By Herman Jones

Book Review:  Nathaniel Mehr, ‘Constructive Bloodbath’ in Indonesia: The United States, Britain and the Mass Killings of 1965-66 (Spokesman Books, £15)

The purge of the Indonesian Communist Party undertaken by General Suharto in October 1965 was no simple ‘kid glove’ manoeuvre. Leadership and senior cadres comprised only a small minority of those targeted for elimination in one of the 20th Century’s bloodiest mass killings. The vast majority of the victims were ordinary rural peasants, who had joined the Communist Party because of its progressive policies on land reform. In all, between 500,000 to 1 million innocent people were slaughtered in about six months. Though overseen by the organizational and material might of the Indonesian army, much of the killing was carried out by anti-communist civilian groups, armed and encouraged by the military.

This small book examines the political background to the killings, and scrutinizes the controversial role of the US and British governments in aiding and abetting Suharto’s murderous rampage. Mehr considers the economic and geo-strategic thinking which led Britain and the US into a tactical alliance with the perpetrators of this atrocity.  Assistance took various forms, including logistical assistance to the Indonesian military and the dissemination of ‘black’ propaganda to encourage civilian participation in the killings. After the massacres, the US opened the taps of economic aid, giving the nascent Suharto dictatorship the economic strength to cement its primacy. The vast resources of the Indonesian archipelago would be opened up to US-led foreign investment, and the Indonesian people subjected to over three decades of authoritarian dictatorship. It was, in the words of Time magazine, ‘the West’s best news in Asia’.

The grisly account of the killings is hard reading at times; juxtaposed with the matter-of-fact and dispassionate language of senior US policymakers determinedly seeking to safeguard Suharto’s position, the callousness of the US/British policy is fully exposed.  The international dimension is, however, just one aspect of this tragedy; at heart this campaign was a concerted effort on the part of Indonesia’s ruling class – the landowning elite and a commercially active upper stratum of the military – to protect its privileged position in the political and economic life of the nation, against the threat from egalitarian politics. The nation’s landowners were well represented in the upper echelons of religious institutions, and when senior religious leaders, Muslim and Hindu alike, told their respective constituents that it was their religious duty to go out and kill as many communists as they could find, the devout youths of Indonesia duly obliged, their bloodlust encouraged by the hysterical editorials of army-run newspapers.

A mere 130 pages long, ‘Constructive Bloodbath’ in Indonesia is very much an introductory text. In the West, relatively little is known about this staggering historical event. Well-written, accessible and fiercely passionate, this book is an excellent starting-point for anyone wanting to lean more.

– This article was contributed to PalestineChronicle.com.

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