Indonesia’s Government Retaliates Against a Failed Communist Coup

The Indonesian military came to dominate all aspects of Indonesian life after it successfully defeated a communist coup attempt on September 30, 1965.

Summary of Event

After gaining independence from the Dutch in 1949, Indonesia embarked on a program to establish itself as a nation. The formative years, 1949 to 1955, saw a chaotic political situation with numerous political parties vying for seats in the National Assembly and no party having a majority to form a government. Added to the political chaos were inflation, foreign divestment because of the threat of nationalization, and political instability in the forms of strikes by labor unions and student demonstrations. President Sukarno blamed these problems on the weaknesses and impracticability inherent in Western-style democracy and proposed his own brand of “guided democracy” to save Indonesia. September 30 Movement[September Thirtieth Movement]
Indonesian coup attempt (1965)
Martial law, Indonesian
Human rights;Indonesia
Revolutions and coups;Indonesia
[kw]Indonesia’s Government Retaliates Against a Failed Communist Coup (Sept. 30, 1965)[Indonesias Government Retaliates Against a Failed Communist Coup]
[kw]Communist Coup, Indonesia’s Government Retaliates Against a Failed (Sept. 30, 1965)
[kw]Coup, Indonesia’s Government Retaliates Against a Failed Communist (Sept. 30, 1965)[Coup, Indonesias Government Retaliates Against a Failed Communist]
September 30 Movement[September Thirtieth Movement]
Indonesian coup attempt (1965)
Martial law, Indonesian
Human rights;Indonesia
Revolutions and coups;Indonesia
[g]Southeast Asia;Sept. 30, 1965: Indonesia’s Government Retaliates Against a Failed Communist Coup[08570]
[g]Indonesia;Sept. 30, 1965: Indonesia’s Government Retaliates Against a Failed Communist Coup[08570]
[c]Wars, uprisings, and civil unrest;Sept. 30, 1965: Indonesia’s Government Retaliates Against a Failed Communist Coup[08570]
[c]Government and politics;Sept. 30, 1965: Indonesia’s Government Retaliates Against a Failed Communist Coup[08570]
[c]Human rights;Sept. 30, 1965: Indonesia’s Government Retaliates Against a Failed Communist Coup[08570]
Nasution, Abdul Haris
Aidit, Dipa Nusantara

Sukarno formed a national advisory council on February 21, 1957, consisting of leaders from the military and communists, nationalists, peasants, and workers. He tried to convince the Indonesians of the advisability of the principle of guided democracy, a government form in which decisions would be made according to Indonesian sensitivities and culture. That is, decisions were to be made by mushawara (deliberation) and gotong royong (mutual consensus) rather than by debate and majority rule.

Sukarno’s personal dictatorship Dictatorships , combined with continued economic, social, and religious turmoil, resulted in several rebellions throughout Indonesia in 1958. In July, 1959, Sukarno reinstated the 1945 constitution, which gave almost unlimited powers to the president. He introduced a secularist state ideology of pancasila, the five principles embracing belief in God, national consciousness, humanism, social justice, and the sovereignty of the people. The armed forces held the responsibility of safeguarding the integrity of pancasila and the 1945 constitution. To include Indonesians of all political hues and to satisfy the spirit and concept of guided democracy and mutual cooperation, Sukarno introduced a new symbol, NASAKOM, the acronym for nasionalisme (nationalism), agama (religion), and komunisme (communism), emphasizing his argument that nationalism, Islam, and Marxism were wholly compatible.

After laying the foundation for personal dictatorship, Sukarno concentrated on gaining legitimacy not by striving for the economic and social well-being of the people but by projecting Indonesia and himself as key players in the international arena. He diverted the people’s attention from economic needs by encouraging them to join him as the leader of the “Newly Emerging Forces” (NEF), which aimed to eliminate the neocolonialism and imperialism of the “Old Established Forces” (OEF).

The Indonesian Communist Party Communist Party, Indonesian (PKI), which by the early 1960’s claimed a membership of more than three million, capitalized on the frustration and anger of unemployed youths in the urban areas. As the PKI grew to be the largest communist party in Asia outside China, the armed forces also gained military assistance from both the Soviet Union and China. Sukarno encouraged both the PKI and the armed forces to battle the OEF.

In March, 1962, Indonesian “volunteers” invaded West Irian, formerly under Dutch control, by ship and by parachute. In June, 1963, West Irian became part of Indonesia. This victory encouraged Sukarno to challenge forces of neocolonialism and imperialism by starting a “crush Malaysia” campaign in August. Sukarno received economic and military aid from the Soviet Union because his leadership of the NEF challenged China’s leadership role in the region. Dipa Nusantara Aidit, chair of the PKI, and Foreign Minister and First Deputy Prime Minister Subandrio preferred to have closer ties with China.

Indonesian president Sukarno.

(National Archives)

Sukarno played on the pride of Indonesians as he led the NEF against the OEF, and he controlled the country by balancing the nationalism of the armed forces against the rise of the PKI. The PKI became more powerful as Sukarno became more dependent on Soviet and Chinese aid, which increased tremendously because of the Sino-Soviet dispute. The army leadership was suspicious of the influence of the Russians and the Chinese, and of the possible internal threat as the PKI’s political role became legitimized.

As the PKI gained strength, it moved to outlaw anti-Marxist student movements and Islamic political parties. The PKI infiltrated labor unions and the armed forces. It also encouraged landless farmers to seize land and squatters to remain on the large former Dutch plantations that were now under army control. Subandrio and the PKI demanded the creation of a Fifth Force of armed peasants and workers, in addition to the established army, navy, air force, and police. To discredit the army, the PKI spread rumors that renegade Indonesian generals were out to assassinate Sukarno and his army chief of staff. On May 5, 1965, Subandrio produced the so-called Gilchrist letter Gilchrist letter , named after a former British ambassador to Indonesia, to expose a plot by the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency Central Intelligence Agency;Indonesia (CIA) and the pro-Western Council of Generals to take over Indonesia.

Sukarno fell seriously ill on August 4. Jakarta was rife with rumors of an invasion by the U.S. Seventh Fleet, and suspicion and intrigue heightened between the army and the PKI. The final showdown came in the early hours of the morning of September 30. Several army units, aided by communist volunteers, attempted a putsch to rid the army high command of six anticommunist generals. Five of the generals were killed or tortured to death. Their bodies were mutilated and thrown into a well at Halim airbase. The rebel forces then took the radio station and announced to the people that the September 30 Movement, or Gerakan Tiga-puluh September (GESTAPU), consisting of progressive revolutionary officers and political leaders, had successfully defeated a coup by the CIA-sponsored Council of Generals.

In support of GESTAPU, PKI-led coups were attempted in Jogjakarta, Surakarta, Semarang, and Bali. Defense Minister General Abdul Haris Nasution, one of the six targeted for capture or death, escaped. Within hours, he rallied loyal troops to fight GESTAPU’s Revolutionary Council forces. Together with General Suharto, he regained control of the situation.

The brutal murder of the generals, and other killings by the communists in Central and East Java, resulted in retaliatory slaughter of communists, alleged communists, and sympathizers of the PKI that lasted for several months. The army held mass executions, and Muslim youth organizations took their revenge by killing between 100,000 and 1 million people. By 1969, some 70,000 to 160,000 political prisoners had been taken.

Although Sukarno was implicated with the GESTAPU affair, he was never formally charged with the uprising because of fears that his supporters would challenge the new regime of Suharto and start a civil war. While Aidit and most of the leaders of the abortive coup were hunted down and killed, Sukarno was protected by Suharto, the de facto president. Suharto was made acting president by the People’s Provisional Consultative Assembly, which under Indonesia’s constitution was the highest policy-making body and also the body that elected the president. Suharto began his era of “New Order” as a clean demarcation from Sukarno’s “Old Order,” purging the military of communists and other radical influences.

To gain national stability and internal security, there was press censorship and the charge for the military to play two roles, as both the protector of national security and law and order and major player in the government. The multiparty system, which once had nine viable contesting parties, was reshuffled to form three factions. Functional Groups, with the largest representation, consisted of bureaucrats, businesspeople, community leaders, and the military. Next was the United Development Party United Development Party, Indonesian (PPP), a conglomeration of four Islamic parties. The five others that once represented Christians and nationalists were lumped into the Indonesian Democratic Party Democratic Party, Indonesian (PDI). Suharto was elected to a series of five-year presidencies and remained in power until 1998.


President Suharto’s government searched for consensus, unity, stability, security, and economic growth. The army after GESTAPU was legitimized to intervene in politics in addition to defending the country. In July of 1976, it invaded East Timor, using a scorched-earth policy that starved to death 100,000 to 200,000 Timorese. With pancasila as a state ideology, journalists were told that they had a duty to provide information that would create national unity and stability. The Command for the Restoration of Security and Order (Kopkamtib) was quick to use force to counter any disturbances.

Indonesia continued to suffer from corruption in high places and economic privation for the majority of citizens. Any opposition against Suharto faced charges of being anti-pancasila and contrary to the constitution of 1945. Political prisoners continued to be taken. The few journalists and members of the Institute of the Defence of Human Rights Institute of the Defence of Human Rights in Jakarta courageously let the world know of the plight of prisoners and other opponents of the Suharto regime. Indonesia’s economic situation improved under Suharto until the Asian financial crisis of the late 1990’s.

Suharto would face significant political opposition from Sukarno’s daughter Megawati Sudarnoputri Sudarnoputri, Megawati , who chaired the PDI. Suharto commandeered a faction of the PDI and a tangled and vicious conflict broke out, with Suharto eventually imposing the Reformasi, or Reformation, which stifled Megawati’s democratic efforts. The Asian financial crisis forced Suharto to negotiate an austerity program with the World Bank and International Monetary Fund (IMF). This proved unpopular and precipitated further opposition and turmoil, obliging Suharto to step down as president on May 21, 1998.

Indonesia, long after Sukarno and Suharto, continues to be marked by human rights challenges and a turbulent political situation. There is added concern about terrorist organizations known to operate in this far-flung archipelagic nation of more than 250 million people. September 30 Movement[September Thirtieth Movement]
Indonesian coup attempt (1965)
Martial law, Indonesian
Human rights;Indonesia
Revolutions and coups;Indonesia

Further Reading

  • Brackman, Arnold C. Indonesia: The Gestapu Affair. New York: American-Asian Educational Exchange, 1969. Chapter 6 emphasizes the major role of the PKI in the GESTAPU affair. Defends the army as not being responsible for instigating the abortive coup.
  • Crouch, Harold. The Army and Politics in Indonesia. Rev. ed. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1988. Documents the role of the Indonesian army in the political arena during Sukarno’s regime and Suharto’s New Order government.
  • Dahm, Bernhard. History of Indonesia in the Twentieth Century. Translated by P. S. Falla. London: Praeger, 1971. Covers the social and economic forces that influenced the political development of Indonesia. Of particular value is Dahm’s portrayal of the key personalities of the leaders, the factionalism inherent in the multiparty system, and the patrician role of the army.
  • Friend, Theodore. Indonesian Destinies. Cambridge, Mass.: Belknap Press, 2003. Comprehensive analysis of political change from 1945 to 2002, based in part on interviews with generals, presidents, and ordinary people in Indonesia, though most coverage is about Java. Little discussion of the outer islands.
  • Kingsbury, Damien. The Politics of Indonesia. 3d ed. New York: Oxford University Press, 2005. A political history of the development of Indonesia as a nation, covering tradition and colonialism, anticolonialism, independence, the rise and fall of Suharto, and the presidency of the country’s first prodemocracy leader.
  • Vasil, Raj. Governing Indonesia: National Development and Democracy. Singapore: Butterworth-Heinemann Asia, 1997. Chapters analyze Indonesia under the Old Order, experiments with Western-style liberal democracy, guided democracy and authoritarianism, and GESTAPU and the transition to the New Order.

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