Hell descended on Indonesia in October 1965.
On 17 August 1965, the day I first arrived in Thailand, President Sukarno told Indonesia, in his Independence Day address, that he intended to align Indonesia with the People’s Republic of China. Sukarno’s effort to form a non-aligned bloc of nations with Nasser of the United Arab Republic, was to be abandoned. Sukarno had already withdrawn Indonesia from the United Nations and flouted the USA and its allies while shifting the Indonesian military into hands of Communist leaders. This appeared to be the domino that would fall and fulfill John Foster Dulles’s prediction to the US National Security Council on March 31, 1953, that if one South East Asian nation would fall they would all fall, one by one, like a line of dominoes. President Dwight Eisenhower reiterated the “Domino Theory” in August 1953, suggesting that it would be possible to stop the fall, but if Indonesia fell it would be much harder. Already, the USA was trying to support France to keep this from happening in Vietnam. The “Domino Theory” was behind the US stepping into Vietnam when France lost its colony in 1954.
So, August 17 was a critical day in Indonesia. Disaster was soon to descend.
On October 1, 1965 Sukarno’s top military leaders were “kidnapped”, according to news reports. In fact, they were found on October 3 to have been killed, and their corpses were buried on October 5 in a public ceremony presided over by Major General Suharto. A bloody story was circulated that the generals had been killed in an abortive Communist coup attempt. Although the coup of October 1 seemed to have failed, the funeral on the 5th consolidated the public and gave focus to massive outrage. Suharto took control. All Communists were to be rounded up. At the time, the Communist parties in Indonesia were the third largest in the world Both military and Muslim civilian groups rounded up countless thousands of “Communists” and possible comrades.
On October 18, 2017 the Independent published a report of recently de-classified CIA documents that testify to both CIA support financing and armaments for the anti-communist actions that followed, and also to the extent to which everything escalated out of control. Furthermore, the reports fully implicate Suharto as the one who orchestrated the killing of the generals on October 1 and who fabricated the story of the kidnapping by communists. By December 1965 the USA knew of mass killings and of camps of detainees numbering in tens of thousands, far beyond the capacity of local provincial government groups to sustain. [See the Independent article here: http://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/asia/indonesia-anti-communist-massacres-1960s-us-knew-cia-desclassifed-embassy-files-jakarta-a8006186.html
The Indonesian domino did not fall as Eisenhower and Dulles has feared it might. Far worse things happened.
We, here in Thailand, were close enough to know something about all this.
One of the fortunate first refugees to leave Indonesia was the Rev. Dr. Pouw Boon Kiat and his wife. They initially relocated to Chiang Mai, Thailand where Dr. Pouw was given a position teaching New Testament at the Thailand Theological Seminary. At that time the seminary faculty was the most international it has ever been, before or since, with faculty members from Indonesia, India, Japan, England, Germany, Netherlands, Thailand and the USA. Pouw left Indonesia early because of rising anti-Chinese threats.
Behind the anti-communist rhetoric it was essentially racism that energized the reaction in Indonesia in 1965 and 1966 leaving as many as a million dead. This racist retaliation, at the local level, hardly had anything to do with national politics. It had everything to do with fear of the Chinese in dispersion in positions and influence in markets and banks. It had to do with the inability of the nation to integrate and accommodate diversity. The rampage lasted for several months, fueled by tribalism and jealousy.
We heard about this sooner than the world at large. There were accounts coming out about camps of 10,000 prisoners, almost all ethnic Chinese or suspicious minorities, who had nothing to eat because their captors had nothing to feed them. They were penned in to starve.
One of the sets of anecdotes that emerged later told how some did not starve due to the actions of local people. In particular, Christians, who make up a solid 10% of the Indonesian population, provided food through the fences of the camps. When the situation settled down the camps were abandoned. A couple of years later conservative Muslim groups influenced the government to pass an anti-conversion law that made it illegal for people to change religion. In order to implement this law a census was taken in which people had to declare their religion. An Indonesian informant whose ethnic Chinese parents had survived this bloodbath, told me on October 21, 2017 that communists, rather than expose themselves to arrest by declaring they had “no religion” said that they were Christian. Furthermore, several thousand people who had been sustained by Christians in the bad times declared themselves to be Christian, and to the great surprise of local churches came for baptism. For a while there were mass baptisms of up to 300 at a time. Outside Christian observers called this a “miraculous movement of the Holy Spirit”. Others compared it to the same thing that had happened in Korea when it was the Christians who opposed the early twentieth century “enslavement” of Korea by Japanese nationalists expanding their empire. My interpretation is that when Christians take action to defend and sustain their neighbors there will usually be a “miraculous movement of the Holy Spirit.”
Meanwhile, hell was descending on other areas of this part of the world. It came mostly from the US Air Force in the attempt to stop the domino of South Vietnam from falling. Fire fell all over Vietnam, but also on Laos and Cambodia. When South Vietnam fell anyway, there was a tsunami of refugees flooding out of South Vietnam by boat. Those who could not leave were “re-educated” and mostly remained in Vietnam to start over. As this was going on, Communist insurgency groups grew bolder in Malaysia, Thailand and the Philippines. Burma, however, embarked on “a Burmese path to socialism.” Thailand undertook a diplomatic strategy to neutralize what was left of the Maoist threat. Cambodia endured the Khmer Rouge, which was put down by the Vietnamese Army, now rid of America. The Cold War was moving away from the region so not everybody noticed the irony that the Khmer Rouge Communists were subdued by the Vietnamese Communists. Burma settled into civil war and never became anything close to socialist, not to mention Communist. Thailand’s amnesties worked to end insurgency movements in the North and Northeast and along the Malay border, as the Thai fighters grew to realize that Communism would be just another form of repressive regime.
Still, I believe that the Domino Theory was devastated in 1965 to those who were paying attention. Apparently, according to what we have just recently learned, the US Central Intelligence Agency was paying attention and did not want the theory to be undone. It was, after all, the rationale for US military presence throughout Asia and the Pacific.
Rev. Dr. Kenneth Dobson posts his weekly reflections on this blog.