Critical Questions Over Oz's Role in Indonesian Independence

An Australian scholar has kicked off controversy in Indonesia by publishing articles in both of Jakarta’s English-language dailies asserting that Australians were complicit in several violent episodes including militarily opposing independence from the Dutch after the Japanese WWII occupation.

Thomas Reuter, an ABC Future Fellow at the University of Melbourne, also alleged that Australian troops occupied Indonesia’s outer islands such as Bali, and massacred Indonesians in a bid to help the British allied forces return Indonesia to Dutch rule.

Indonesia’s history is becoming open to revision, though alternate accounts like Reuter’s are still situated within the frame of a New Order military epic predominantly focused on correcting military events.

According to Reuter, Australians were also involved in an attempt to assassinate Sukarno in 1964 during an operation into Indonesian territory in Kalimantan. Then in 1965 army General Suharto supposedly faked a Communist Party of Indonesia (PKI) coup through collaboration with British and American intelligence that allowed him to take control over a left-leaning and nationalist Sukarno, resulting in scores of deaths –1,500 per day. That allegedly had Australia applauding the decisive anti-communist upheaval.

A former Australian diplomat who prefers not to be named, was stationed in Jakarta during the 1965 period rejected Reuter’s account.

“The coup was a PKI move to get rid of the strongly anti-PKI top leadership of the Army while Sukarno was still at the helm to protect them (there were lots of rumors that his health was failing),” the former diplomat said, adding that the coup failed because the Communists were unable to kill the late Gen. Abdul Haris Nasution, who returned to help lead the response. “Suharto turned out to be more than they bargained for, and for those two reasons Sukarno lost his nerve. About the only true thing in the article is that General Sarwo Edhie and the RPKAD were the troops who squashed abortive PKI efforts to follow up with a seizure of power in Central Java,” he said.

Readers’ comments tended to agree with such foreign conspiracies, endorsing the supposed treachery of Australia and others to covertly interfere in Indonesian affairs. The public, who still view history through the lens of Suharto’s New Order, is suitably primed to validate revisionist military histories that clarify Western interference.

Peter Dawson, former Acting Australian Trade Commissioner, questioned why people don’t want to believe that the PKI instigated the coup and instead prefer to fall back on plots implicating foreign powers. Dawson was also in the Australian embassy in Jakarta at the time and recalls how Sukarno had to survive politically by balancing off competing PKI and army forces.

In regard to the attempted restoration of Dutch colonial power involving Australian troops he says, “The story I remember hearing is of Australian troops hating the colonial Dutch, and the Indonesians welcoming their egalitarian attitudes and sympathy. Australia was the first country in the world to recognize Indonesian independence - helped by demonstrations by Sydney wharfies [wharf laborers] who refused to load Dutch ships. Then the generals were murdered - no doubt about that - so who, if not the PKI, murdered them?” Dawson asked.

He recounts that Suharto did take control and massacres did take place, in numbers that were variously estimated to have ranged up to half a million or even one million; Suharto was able to exploit the murder of its generals and respond in amplified kind against the PKI. Reuter alleges the Australian embassy reported ambivalently about the massacres, but Dawson said that even though at the time the growth of communism in East Asia was viewed as serious threat, the Australian embassy was deeply shocked.

“We were horrified. That is not to say that we were not relieved to see the threat of a communist takeover of Indonesia recede. Remember this was occurring in the time of the Cold War.”

In a pre-election climate of spying, food security concerns, multinational resource exploitation and sovereign emphasis, nationalism has become a buzzword in everything from economic policy to regional diplomacy. Now the role of interventionist foreign powers in military conflicts is being given greater attention, reinforcing the ambiguous historical involvement of frenemy Australia.

Indonesian history is the story of dominant groups, a military history of struggle and heroism that serviced the project of nation building and unity. Official Indonesian historiography in the last century predominantly centers on successions of military events. There was little scope to change the version of events reified in textbooks and in copious public monuments that testify to a vision of glorious military achievements.

The rise of alternate perspectives of history can challenge these orthodox narratives, however without the closure of truth and reconciliation processes, much revisionism still involves amending truths about a violent past centered on independence and military timelines.

In 1995 Indonesian authorities banned former Sukarno cabinet minister Oei Tjoe Tat's memoirs with the justification that they were false opinion and could incite public unrest. The book, Oek Tjoe Tat: Assistant to President Suharto diverged from mainstream chronicles, stating that half a million people died between 1965 and 1966, when official accounts put the number at just 80 000. Indonesians now know that official number far undervalued the real genocidal tolls, but the margins of history are still measured by a well-worn narrative. In 1945 Indonesians were freeing Dutch POWs from the Japanese and claiming independence once and for all, and in 1965, nationalist Indonesians were killing treacherous communist Indonesians.

Truths are slowing being broken down and rebuilt into a national conversation despite much of it still confronting history as a military paradigm. Dawson believes that Indonesian silence about the killings was not just related to the fear of political reprisals but because the events of the coup and its aftermath left a huge scar on their consciousness.

A preoccupation with truth and accountability is constraining the adoption of alternate historical accounts and perspectives such as the famous Indonesian scholar Pramoedya’s. Instead the reinforcement of an enduring New Order paradigm of history as a militaristic national account involves revisionism focusing on implicating not just domestic actors and acts, but also foreign powers. At this rate Australia may earn a place in Indonesia school text books before Pramoedya does.