Indonesian killing technology was much simpler than that of the Nazis

Thursday, June 13th, 2019

Control of Indonesia passed through many hands, Jared Diamond explains (in Upheaval):

At first, Japanese military leaders occupying the Dutch East Indies claimed that Indonesians and Japanese were Asian brothers in a shared struggle for a new anti-colonial order.


But the Japanese mainly sought to extract raw materials (especially oil and rubber) from the Dutch East Indies for the Japanese war machine, and they became even more repressive than had been the Dutch.


The Dutch, invoking the ethnic diversity and huge territorial extent of the Indonesian archipelago, and probably driven by their own motive of “divide and rule” to retain control, promoted the idea of a federation for Indonesia.


In contrast, many Indonesian revolutionaries sought a single unified republican government for all of the former Dutch East Indies.


The final transfer took place in December 1949—but with two big limitations that infuriated Indonesians and that took them 12 years to overturn. One limitation was that the Dutch did not yield the Dutch half (the western half) of the island of New Guinea. Instead, they retained it under Dutch administration, on the grounds that New Guinea was much less developed politically than was the rest of the Dutch East Indies, that it was not even remotely ready for independence, and that most New Guineans are ethnically as different from most Indonesians as either group is from Europeans. The other limitation was that Dutch companies such as Shell Oil maintained ownership over Indonesian natural resources.


The military saw itself as the savior of the revolution, the bulwark of national identity, and demanded a guaranteed voting block in parliament. The civilian government, on the other hand, sought to save money by eliminating military units, reducing the size of the officer corps, and pushing soldiers out of the military and off the government payroll.


Military leaders extorted money from other Indonesians and from businesses for army purposes, raised money by smuggling and by taxing radio ownership and electricity, and increasingly took over regional economies, thereby institutionalizing the corruption that remains today one of Indonesia’s biggest problems.


Well aware of Indonesia’s weak national identity, he formulated a set of five principles termed Pancasila, which to this day serves as an umbrella ideology to unify Indonesia and was enshrined in the 1945 constitution. The principles are broad ones: belief in one god, Indonesian national unity, humanitarianism, democracy, and social justice for all Indonesians.


As president, Sukarno blamed Indonesia’s poverty on Dutch imperialism and capitalism, abrogated Indonesia’s inherited debts, nationalized Dutch properties, and turned over the management of most of them to the army.


Sukarno responded by telling the U.S. to “go to hell with your aid”; then in 1965 he expelled the American Peace Corps and withdrew from the United Nations, World Bank, and International Monetary Fund. Inflation soared, and Indonesia’s currency (the rupiah) lost 90% of its value during 1965.


Fundamental to any functioning democracy are widespread literacy, recognition of the right to oppose government policies, tolerance of different points of view, acceptance of being outvoted, and government protection of those without political power. For understandable reasons, all of those prerequisites were weak in Indonesia.


In the September 1955 elections an astonishingly high 92% of registered voters went to the polls, but the outcome was a stalemate, because the four leading parties each obtained between 15% and 22% of votes and parliamentary seats.


Presumably out of fear of Dutch anti-aircraft capabilities during daylight hours, the paratroops were dropped blindly at night over forested terrain, in an incredible act of cruelty. The unfortunate paratroops floated down into a hot, mosquito-infested sago swamp, where those who survived impact on sago trees found themselves hanging from the trees by their parachutes. The even smaller fraction who managed to free themselves from their parachutes dropped or clambered down into standing swamp water. My friend and his Dutch unit surrounded the swamp, waited a week, and then paddled into the swamp with boats to retrieve the few paratroops still alive.


As a face-saving gesture, the Dutch ceded it not directly to Indonesia but instead to the United Nations, which seven months later transferred administrative control (but not ownership) to Indonesia, subject to a future plebiscite. The Indonesian government then initiated a program of massive transmigration from other Indonesian provinces, in part to ensure a majority of Indonesian non–New Guineans in Indonesian New Guinea.


This three-way struggle came to a climax around 3:15 A.M. during the night of September 30–October 1, 1965, when two army units with leftist commanders and 2,000 troops revolted and sent squads to capture seven leading generals (including the army’s commander and the minister of defense) in their homes, evidently to bring them alive to President Sukarno and to persuade him to repress the Council of Generals.


At 7:15 A.M. on October 1 the coup leaders, having also seized the telecom building on one side of the central square in the Indonesian capital city of Jakarta, broadcast an announcement on Indonesia radio declaring themselves to be the 30 September Movement, and stating that their aim was to protect President Sukarno by pre-empting a coup plotted by corrupt generals who were said to be tools of the CIA and the British. By 2:00 P.M. the leaders made three more radio broadcasts, after which they fell silent. Note: despite the account of a communist coup described vividly in the lobby display of my 1979 Indonesian hotel, the revolt was by Indonesian army units, not by a communist mob.


The squads ended up killing three of the generals in their houses, two by shooting and one by bayonet. A fourth general succeeded in escaping over the back wall of his house compound. The squad accidentally shot his five-year-old daughter as depicted in one of the paintings in my Indonesian hotel, and also killed his staff lieutenant, whom they mistook for the general himself. (For brevity, I’ll still refer to “seven generals.”) The squads succeeded in capturing alive only the remaining three of the generals, whom they nevertheless proceeded to murder instead of carrying out their instructions to bring the generals alive to Sukarno.


The coup leaders had neither tanks nor walkie-talkies. Because they closed down the Jakarta telephone system at the time that they occupied the telecom building, coup leaders trying to communicate with one another between different parts of Jakarta were reduced to sending messengers through the streets. Incredibly, the coup leaders failed to provide food and water for their troops stationed on the central square, with the result that a battalion of hungry and thirsty soldiers wandered off.


Did anti-communist generals know of the coup in advance but nevertheless allow it to unfold, in order to provide them with a pretext for previously laid plans to suppress the PKI? The last possibility is strongly suggested by the speed of the military’s reaction. Within three days, military commanders began a propaganda campaign to justify round-ups and killings of Indonesian communists and their sympathizers on a vast scale (Plate 5.4).


On October 4 Suharto arrived at an area called Lubang Buaya (“Crocodile Hole” in the Indonesian language), where the coup squads had thrown the bodies of the kidnapped generals down a well. In front of photographers and television cameras, the decomposing bodies were pulled out of the well. On the next day, October 5, the generals’ coffins were driven through Jakarta’s streets, lined by thousands of people. The military’s anti-communist leadership quickly blamed the PKI for the murders, even though the murders had actually been carried out by units of the military itself. A propaganda campaign that could only have been planned in advance was immediately launched to create a hysterical atmosphere, warning non-communist Indonesians that they were in mortal danger from the communists, who were said to be making lists of people to kill, and to be practicing techniques for gouging out eyes.


Members of the PKI’s women’s auxiliary were claimed to have carried out sadistic sexual torture and mutilation of the kidnapped generals.


Throughout October and November, when PKI members were summoned to come to army bases and police stations, many came willingly, because they expected just to be questioned and released.


The highest estimates are about 2 million; the most widely cited figure is the contemporary estimate of half-a-million arrived at by a member of President Sukarno’s own fact-finding commission. Indonesian killing technology was much simpler than that of the Nazis: victims were killed one by one, with machetes and other hand weapons and by strangling, rather than by killing hundreds of people at once in a gas chamber.


In March 1966 Sukarno was pressured into signing a letter ceding authority to Suharto; in March 1967 Suharto became acting president, and in March 1968 he replaced Sukarno as president. He remained in power for another 30 years.


In contrast to Sukarno, Suharto did not pursue Third World anti-colonial politics and had no territorial ambitions outside the Indonesian archipelago. He concentrated instead on Indonesian domestic problems.


Like General Pinochet’s Chicago Boys in Chile, Suharto’s Berkeley mafia instituted economic reforms by balancing the budget, cutting subsidies, adopting a market orientation, and reducing Indonesia’s national debt and inflation.


In effect, the Indonesian military developed a parallel government with a parallel budget approximately equal to the official government budget.


Military officers founded businesses and practiced corruption and extortion on a huge scale, in order to fund the military and to line their private pockets.


Indonesians gave to Suharto’s wife (Ibu Tien = Madam Tien) a nickname meaning “Madam Ten Percent,” because she was said to extract 10% of the value of government contracts.


After nearly 33 years, just after parliament had acclaimed him as president for a seventh five-year term, his regime collapsed quickly and unexpectedly in May 1998. It had been undermined by a combination of many factors. One was an Asian financial crisis that reduced the value of Indonesia’s currency by 80% and provoked rioting. Another was that Suharto himself, at age 77, had grown out of touch with reality, lost his political skills, and was shaken by the death in 1996 of his wife, who had been his closest partner and anchor.


In the 1980’s and 1990’s the operations of Indonesian commercial airlines were often careless and dangerous. In addition to being shaken down for bribes and diverted excess baggage charges, I experienced one flight on which large fuel drums were placed unsecured in the passenger cabin, the steward remained standing during take-off, and seatbelts and vomit bags for passengers (including one who was vomiting) were lacking. During another flight on a large passenger jet into the provincial capital of Jayapura, the pilot and co-pilot were so absorbed in chatting with the stewardesses through the open cabin door that they failed to notice that they were approaching the runway at too high an altitude, tried to make up for their neglect by going into a steep dive, had to brake hard on landing, and succeeded in stopping the plane only 20 feet short of the runway perimeter ditch.


In 2013 a rifle shot from the ground broke the windshield of my chartered helicopter in the air over Indonesian New Guinea; it remained uncertain whether the shot had been fired by New Guinean guerrillas still fighting for independence, or by Indonesian troops themselves feigning guerrilla activity in order to justify a crackdown.


  1. Lu An Li says:

    Interesting documentary a few years ago, interviews with those that executed the communists. The executioners spoke of the work they had done in a matter-of-fact and calm manner, no qualms or questioning of what was done.

  2. Kirk says:

    What I find stunning in those passages is that nowhere does Diamond make mention of one of the key issues in the entire mess–The expat Chinese community, which provided the bulk of the Communist membership in Indonesia.

    He also doesn’t mention the ethnic issues that came right along with that, and resulted in what amounted to a genocide of the Chinese community in Indonesia. The Chinese were far more successful and mercantile than the local Indonesians, and managed to amass huge fortunes. They were resented the same way the Jews were, in Europe, and for many of the same basic reasons–Jealousy of the greater sophistication, insularity, and economic success. That played into a lot of what went on throughout what Diamond is describing here, and the fact that you don’t even see the word “Chinese” mentioned in connection with any of this…?

    Yeah, I’m not likely to even borrow the book from the library, let alone waste the time reading it.

  3. Graham says:

    Sounds pretty similar to, for good reasons of cultural similarity, the conditions in neighbouring Malaysia.

    Same Malay-Chinese-other dynamics, Chinese largely behind the long ago communist insurgency too. Certainly made it easier for the British and their allies to suppress it.

    The Chinese of SEA are usually a pretty good if loose comparison to the Jews of Europe for all those reasons. The same dynamic of success, connections to the homeland and other colonial Chinese populations of a region, suggesting a cosmopolitan network across borders but internally insular subculture. Same thousands of years of history in these regions, too.

    I sometimes hear the Lebanese of West Africa similarly described, but I don’t know how well that holds up. Probably doesn’t go back as far, although you never know. Phoenicians got around.

  4. Graham says:

    I also notice Diamond has pro-communist military units staging a pro-communist coup but it’s the fault of “the military” not of “the communists”. Language very important.

  5. Graham says:

    Lu An Li,

    I’d probably be unable to do what they did [I hope] and would have puked my guts out afterward even if I had.

    Still, in most times and places communists have been players, not bystanders. Their enemies know the communists have had the knife in their hand for them, so all’s fair.

    Everytime somebody ranks all the groups targeted by the Nazis and includes, “…and communists” I have to resist the temptation to giggle. One of these things is not like the others.

  6. Kirk says:

    It would be interesting to be able to trace back where that thread of nihilistic murderousness comes from, with the Communists. Was that a continuation of themes brought forward from the precursor Russian anarchists that made life miserable for the Romanovs, or is it an artifact of the actual belief? What about communism as a movement encourages this crap? Where did it come from?

    You go looking at things, and it’s widespread throughout Europe before Marx really took off–The “bomb-throwing anarchist” has been with us a long time, and the big-C Communists just co-opted them

    What I would speculate is that the belief system attracts sociopaths, ones who are usually failures in their own cultures, and who seek a path to power. I’d hesitate to diagnose an entire movement, but my observation has always been that the Communists are generally will-to-power types that aren’t much good for anything past killing and blowing things up, Socialists are usually dreamy idiots with no idea how things actually work, and the rest of us are unwilling bystanders to these morons working out their mommy and daddy issues on the world at large.

  7. CVLR says:

    To be fair to the Germans, the Indonesians weren’t perennially blockaded, beset by epidemic typhus, and critically short of soap.

  8. Isegoria says:

    You’ve reminded me that I still haven’t read Amy Chua’s World on Fire, about market-dominant minorities like the Chinese in Southeast Asia.

  9. Kirk says:

    Didn’t make much difference to the ethnic Chinese, though…

    I had an acquaintance with a survivor of those years, who’d been a teenager when the whole “anti-communist” thing kicked off. The stories he had weren’t too much different than the ones you’d hear from a Jewish pogrom victim, either. His parents had been fairly prosperous shopkeepers, and he’d had a large extended family, with about eight brothers and sisters.

    When it was all over, he and an uncle who’d been off the island for business were the only ones left alive. His mother and father had gotten to watch their kids tortured and burned to death in order for them to tell their neighbors where all the “hidden gold” was, which didn’t exist. The people who did it were all “friends and neighbors” they’d traded with for years, but who turned on them in a heartbeat.

    He counted it up, and there were 70 or so family of his killed in those riots, mostly kids and old people. He and his uncle got out, and since there had been overseas investments and holdings the family had had in Singapore and Hong Kong, they were able to get out and survive until he was able to support himself.

    A lot of that sort of thing never made it into the “official record”, in much the same way the Turks deny the Armenian genocide.

    I’m sure that the folks running mainland China have not forgotten, though. I’m also fairly certain that there will be a reckoning, at some point.

  10. Graham says:

    There’s an interesting point. I have no idea what PRC-Indonesia relations look like or whether there is a subtext that dates back to those times.

    I mean, I know there are the usual SCS issues, but beyond that I have no idea what sticking points they have.

  11. CVLR says:

    The plight of a market-dominant minority is to be in one of the more interesting economic, social, moral, ethical, and philosophical positions, in my estimation.

    On one hand, you’re smart and skilled and savvy enough to have cornered, against all odds, the financial (and possibly cultural) life of an alien country.

    On the other, you don’t have the military initiative — you haven’t yet taken over the place and begun to run it like you would if you were a martial aristocracy above reproach. And you might never; it’s a very tough nut to crack.

    It’s not impossible, but you do probably need support from either a proper central bank or outright foreign intervention, or both.

    And beyond the practical “can I?” question, there’s the ethical “should I?” question. Do you, the fresh-faced and vigorous foreigner, have a right to take your heretofore host’s civilization and set about running it entirely for your own benefit?

    If you adhere to the eternal precepts of the natural law, you do — if and only if you can make it stick.

    The natives might protest, but who cares about them? No one weeps for the Amerindian. Plus, you can make up whatever justification you want — you’ll get to write the history. Manifest Destiny sounds pretty good.

    Woe to the vanquished.

  12. CVLR says:

    Kirk: “I’m also fairly certain that there will be a reckoning, at some point.”

    And the wheel of history keeps on turning, without beginning nor end.

  13. Graham says:

    Speaking of dark senses of humour, less robust than Kirk’s but possibly more wrong, I can’t keep seeing this headline without thinking of an early Simpsons episode, as I do, called “The Secret War of Lisa Simpson”.

    Bart gets shipped off to military school, called Rommelwood. Motto: “A Tradition of Heritage”. Lisa insists on going too. This was back in the 90s when the sex segregation of VMI and The Citadel was a big thing.

    Eventually, both she and Bart get medals for finishing the second grade. Bart gets another for the improvement of his “academic and general killing skills”. He whispers to Lisa, “My killing teacher says I’m a natural”.

  14. Graham says:

    Also, this post keeps reminding me that as late as 1994 the Hutus reminded the world just what can be accomplished with Iron Age implements.

  15. Graham says:

    CVLR reminds me of something that political science and comparative history could usefully do, but likely has not: neutral comparative analysis of the many ways one group can penetrate and take over a society. I don’t think they’re all quite the same, as an MDM is not the same as colonialism or outright invasion. But there’s a spectrum there and CVLR’s comments about the economic and cultural versus the military power brought it to mind.

    One can be an MDM, with varying degrees of influence and connections to crossborder networks, possibly even the loose sympathy of a home state or states, or other states, or even the backing of the host state, but always tenuous and never any one or more states under full control than can back you up, and your status and safety can wax and wane a lot over time.

    You can be a new group that operates in similar ways, but may be organized under one or a few explicit business entities and with ties back to one or more actual states of your own people, still operating by sufferance of a powerful host state that sees advantage. Here I think of the East India Companies in India and Indonesia in their early days. Their means of accruing status, wealth and power has a lot to compare with that of true, comparatively stateless MDMS, but they have the option of leaving and some diplomatic backing in the crunch.

    Then you get the scenario in which that organized state starts to collapse and their is political, diplomatic, economic and military competition among successor states and entities. So your company raises an army locally and imports some home country muscle as well. You’ve got quasi-native playa status with patents from the old government or comparable status, same as the real indigenes. So you play. Maybe win.

    Then there is the sort of colonialism where organized indigenous states play no meaningful role. The colonizer imports everything and just sets up their shop and starts operating. Occasionally the indigenes are organized enough to oppose, but there is never much effort to pretend that the colonizer is operating an enterprise within, under, and legitimized by a local polity.

    Then you get the real old school where you just invade the place and take it against coherent opposition.

    I mean, I get that it’s all bad, but still. It has to be more interesting study than yet another paper on the significance of gender fluidity on garden-agriculture output in ancient Uruk.

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