Histomat: Adventures in Historical Materialism

'Historical materialism is the theory of the proletarian revolution.' Georg Lukács

Wednesday, October 26, 2005

October 1965 - 'A little shooting in Indonesia'

For the generation of socialists in Britain like myself who have grown up campaigning under (and against) the Blair regime, there is sometimes a temptation to paint previous Labour Governments red, or at least in a good light. So while we can understand why the 1968 veterans saw Prime Minister Harold Wilson with his tongue up the arse of President Lyndon B Johnson because of his support for the Vietnam war, we also (secretly) admired Wilson's tactical nouse in avoiding sending British troops to join that bloody American war. If only Blair had done the same over Iraq!

However, anyone who seriously looks at the reality of previous Labour Governments, especially with respect to Foreign Policy, is soon dispelled of any romantic notions they may once have had - or start to have. In the first Labour Government in 1924, the new Colonial Secretary J.H. Thomas was said to have introduced himself to the heads of departments at the Colonial Office with the statement, “I am here to see that there is no such mucking about with the British Empire". The second Labour Government (1929-31) continued this policy - doing nothing to fulfil previous electoral pledges with respect to what was then called 'the Colonial Question' - not least in India. The sorry story after the Second World War has been well told by among others John Saville and Mark Curtis. It is from Mark Curtis's excellent Web of Deceit; Britain's real role in the world that I ruthlessly plagiarise from for this post.

Imagine the scene. It is October 1965. Forty years ago. A hated Tory Government that lasted for thirteen years had been removed the year before and now under the young Harold Wilson, Labour was promising a new 'techonological revolution' to modernise Britain. The future looks bright.

Then reports start to come out about some violence erupting in Indonesia, then under President Sukarno. Army officers fearing a coup against Sukarno assassinate some Generals who are opposed to his rule, which then leads to others in the Army led by General Suharto to start to round up members of the Indonesian Communist Party (PKI) in revenge.

What might you expect the reaction of a British Labour Government to be? Shrug their shoulders - after all, its a far off country and of little business to us what they get up to? Perhaps criticise the brutal crackdown on the PKI by Generals as undemocratic? Sadly not.

'I have never concealed from you my belief that a little shooting in Indonesia would be an essential preliminary to effective change', the British Ambassador in Indonesia, Sir Andrew Gilchrist, informed the Foreign Office on the 5th October 1965. The Foreign Office agreed, noting the next day that 'the crucial question still remains whether the Generals will pluck up enough courage to take decisive action against the PKI.' On the 16th October, the Foreign Office noted that:

'we must surely prefer an army to a Communist regime...the Generals are going to need all the help they can get and accept without being tagged as hopelessly pro-Western, if they are going to be able to gain ascendency over the Communists. In the short run, and while the present confusion continues, we can hardly go wrong by tacitly backing the Generals.'

Amid the 'confusion,' the Generals did indeed pluck up the courage to take 'decisive action' against the Communists - and started a 'little shooting'. On the 25th November, a British Official could report, presumably with satisfaction, that 'PKI men and women are being executed in very large numbers'. Some victims are 'given a knife and invited to kill themselves. Most refuse and are told to turn around and are shot in the back'.

On the 16th December 1965, a British official reported to the British Ambassador that the US, which was also backing the Generals against 'Communism', were right to be estimating over 100,000 dead so far. By February 1966, the British Ambassador himself was estimating the numbers dead as 400,000 - though the Swedish Ambassador thought this a 'gross under-estimate.' By March, one British official wondered 'how much of the PKI is left, after six months of killing'. Curtis finds nothing in any of the files to show that British officials, under a Labour Government remember, were unduly concerned by the bloodbath taking place. Indeed one British official, referring to over 10,000 people arrested by the army, noted 'I hope they do not throw the 10,005 into the sea...otherwise it will cause quite a shipping hazard'.

The British indeed did have tens of thousands troops in Borneo at the time - and the US were worried the British may intervene in order to get control over Indonesia's natural resources (including rubber, copra and chromium ore) for British companies. To reassure the US, the British Ambassador insisted that 'we should get word to the Generals that we shall not attack them while they are chasing the PKI'. This was well recieved by the Indonesian Generals - an aide to the Defence Minister noted that 'this was just what was needed...as we moved to straighten things out'. While the US armed the Generals, the British were happy that the US would not take over the area for itself having got a confirmation from the US State Department that they had 'undertaken to consult with us before they do anything to support the Generals'.

General Suharto's regime, established on the back of an estimated million deaths, ruled for the next thirty years in Indonesia. In 1966, once this new dictatorship was established, the British Foreign Office noted that 'it was very necessary to demonstrate to the Indonesians that we regarded relations with them as rapidly returning to normal'.

In 1964, President Sukarno had made himself an enemy of the British when he decided to nationalise some of Indonesia's industry - which meant taking it off British companies. In 1956, when Egyptian leader Abdul Nasser had done the same to the Suez Canal - the resulting fiasco caused by the British, French and Israelis to oust him through war had been condemned by many in the Labour Party. Labour learnt from the Tories in Suez - far better to support a military coup discretely rather than openly invade to defend corporate power. When the new Suharto regime was safely installed, the British Foreign Secretary told one Indonesian General that 'we are...glad that your Government has decided to hand back the control of British estates to their original owners'. Forty years on from their complicity in General Suharto's bloody coup, it seems that Labour Government's have not yet forgotten the usefulness of 'a little shooting'. Blair's imperial adventure in Iraq is merely the latest part of a longstanding British Labour tradition.

Edited to add a recent brilliant article by John Pilger on this and its relevance to Iraq now here.

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At 10:15 pm, Anonymous Anonymous said...

As an American who is of Indonesian descent, thank you for being among the few who have bravely mentioned this skeleton in the Anglo-American closet. Most of the mainstream news services have conveniently forgotten about the 40th anniversary of the slaughters in Indonesia. Maybe it's up to the bloggers to remind them...

At 10:26 pm, Blogger Snowball said...

Daniel - thanks for your kind words. This US/UK act of criminality has been ignored I think almost totally in the mainstream media - agreed.

I specifically passed over the widespread American involvement in this coup - there is a lot more in Mark Curtis's excellent book about this - but I think Noam Chomsky has exposed a fair bit. I kind of wanted to bring out the British side of things - as that is also hardly known about.

At 12:49 am, Blogger Rosa Lichtenstein said...

Nice summary of a great book, S!

He's brought another out since, what's it like?

At 12:42 am, Blogger Snowball said...

I wish I knew - I think it is called 'Unpeople' - but I suspect it is similar to his previous work. Then again, if it ain't broke, why fix it?


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