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Lessons for Thailand on 50th anniversary of Indonesia's bloody coup

This year is the 50th anniversary of the coup that led to the deaths of an estimated 500,000-3 million, one of the worst episodes of violence in the post-World War II world. Today, few have been held responsible for the killings, which remain a rarely discussed and barely understood topic in now nominally Democratic Indonesia.

As Thailand enters its second year under its own military dictatorship – one that shows no signs of leaving - here are some lessons and warning signs from its Southern neighbor.

A misunderstood history

Much like Thailand in the past decade, Indonesia before 1965 was a country in turmoil. Power struggled between various factions – Communists, Islamists, those oriented to the east (namely, China) and those oriented to the west (America and the Netherlands) were dividing the young, diverse nation.

Of most concern to those in the west was the rising power of the Indonesian Communist Party (Partai Komunis Indonesia, PKI). Remember, this was the 60's, when the United States was getting more and more engaged in an anti-communist war in Vietnam (and using Thailand as a base), and the dominant political paradigm was the “Domino Theory.” Indonesia was the biggest jewel in Southeast Asia, the largest country in the region. And it had, in 1965, the world's third largest Communist Party after Russia and China.

But the PKI was not Stalinist, or even Maoist. It was an agrarian party focused chiefly on farmers and workers’ rights. It wasn't trying to overthrow the Government but was working within the nominally Democratic system. It even accepted Islam as an integral part of Indonesia. It was nominally oriented more towards China, not Russia, entirely unlike the Communist movements in the Mekong region.

Nevertheless, this was seen as a threat.

On September 30th, 1965, in what remain murky circumstances, six top generals were killed by a group allegedly made up of left-wing Indonesians. This allowed a previously little-known military leader, General Suharto, to assume power and launch a nationwide campaign against the perpetrators of the killing, which, according to him, were the Indonesia Communist Party (PKI) and its left-wing allies. Within two years, Suharto was in firm control of the country, the PKI had been completely destroyed, and hundreds of thousands of Indonesians were dead. There is strong evidence of US involvement, but to this day, CIA records remain sealed 1.

Suharto implemented a sham Democracy, in which there were three parties, his, and two puppet ones. Faux elections gave his party, Golkar upwards of 70% of the vote. Parliament served as a rubber stamp for the Indonesian military, who grew in power as they extended their tentacles into the countries rich natural resources. Thailand's recent moves to allow for more mining should be taken as a potentially self-empowering, dangerous move 2.

Suharto ruled for more than three decades, and his chief accomplishment? Stability. Stability allowed him to sign massive contracts with the west and Japan, who supported his regime with military contracts and foreign investment. Indonesia was often seen alongside Thailand as the crown jewels of Southeast Asia, two countries who were rejecting left-wing politics and building strong, capitalist systems friendly to global north corporations and interests.

Growth for the few

It was, of course, capitalism for the few. While Indonesia did see rapid growth during the first few decades of Suharto's rule, it was coming from a low base – the country had been left with little after nearly two centuries of Dutch exploitation. Moreover, the growth was concentrated in the hands of a few – Suharto's family, and his cronies. Together, they went on to steal billions of wealth from one of the world's most endowed nations, in terms of natural wealth.

Jakarta, the capital, grew rich while the countryside, and, especially, the outlying islands of East Indonesia, remained poor. While stability reigned on populous Java, separatist conflicts raged on Aceh, occupied East Timor, and mineral rich West Papua. A compliant news media, however, maintained the illusion of both growth and stability for the majority of Indonesians.


It was the Asian Financial Crisis that finally led to the fall of Suharto in 1998, and the surprisingly rapid transition to multiparty Democracy. Today, Indonesia is one of the few Democracies left in Southeast Asia, and often cited as a global model. But look beneath the glittering surface and you'll find a core made rotten by decades of corruption, incompetence, and lack of accountability.

In fact, Democratic Indonesia is run by many of the same people or families who ran Suharto's New Order regime. Sometimes, the connections are so close as to be comedic. Former President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono was a general who served numerous terms in East Timor, where over 200,000 died during Indonesia's bloody, Suharto-led invasion and occupation. Prabowo Subianto, who ran for President in a tight race against eventual winner and current President Joko Widodo last year, was formally the son-in-law of Suharto. Marrying into his family allowed Prabowo to become head of the 27,000-strong Army Strategic Reserve Command (Kostrad) in 1998, where his subordinates were accused of torturing pro-Democracy advocates.

Amazingly, his close connection to Suharto and accusations of being complicit in human rights abuses in East Timor did not stop him from being just a few percentage points from becoming Indonesia's 7th President 3.

In fact, SBY and Prabowo are just the tip of the iceberg, as Indonesia's political, business, and civil service ranks are dominated by Suharto supporters and those who participated, or supported, the mass killings of the 1960's. That is why, to this day, as depicted in Joshua Oppenheimer's Oscar nominated documentary The Act of Killing, the killers remain heroes and the victims are still suffering. Left wing parties remain banned and Indonesia is stuck in a cycle of corruption and inequality, and legacy of the past the country has not yet accounted for.

The world betrayed Indonesia in 1965, when it turned a blind eye to the mass killings taking place across the country. Likewise, the world is doing a disservice to Thailand as it allows the military to continue to rule the country. On the 50th anniversary of one of the worst atrocities of the 20th century, let's remember that it doesn't have to be this way. Southeast Asia can move forward, but only if it is willing to look itself in the mirror and realize the true cost of dictatorship, military rule, and nepotism.


About the author: Nithin Coca is a freelance journalist who focuses on social and economic issues in developing countries, and has specific expertise in Southeast Asia. Nithin's feature and news pieces have appeared in global media outlets including Al Jazeera, Quartz, Atlantic Cities, SciDev.Net, Southeast Asia Globe, The Diplomat, Penang Monthly and numerous regional publications in Asia and the United States.