Explaining the rise of the military in Indonesia in the 1960s

by indonotes

Military ‘Heroes of the Revolution’ killed in the events of 1965. Author’s photo, taken in Museum Dharma Wiratama, Yogyakarta

Comparisons with Indonesia’s neighbours can help explain the military takeover of 1965.

Since the fall of Suharto’s military regime in the late 1990s, the army has played a much diminished role in Indonesian politics. There is much debate on how powerful the military remains, and it is also quite possible to imagine it becoming more influential if there is a period of economic crisis, weakness and division amongst civilian politicians, and/or serious regional and ethnic conflict.

Taking a step back it is interesting to consider how the military came to power in the first place. In Indonesia (and amongst outside scholars) a great deal of controversy is focused on the events of 1965. The most thorough account of these events is provided by John Roosa, who finds that some elements of the PKI leadership along with some sympathetic military officers made a botched attempt to kidnap some of their key opponents in the military and pressure President Sukarno into giving them a greater role in government. The poorly executed plan saw three of the Generals shot, and one escape, with only three successfully captured. With their plans going to pot, they decided to kill the remaining three. Then, when they met up with Sukarno he would not give them his support.[1] Ultimately, Suharto outmaneuvered everyone, coming to power at the head of a military regime. Sukarno was sidelined. The Indonesian Communist Party (PKI) was decimated in a blood letting that saw perhaps 500,000-1,000,000 killed.[2] The USA, happy to see PKI destroyed, provided small arms, communications equipment and lists of PKI members to be killed.[3] Muslim groups that had initially worked with the army to crush the PKI were soon marginalised as the military cemented its hold on power.

One may well wonder what would have happened if the plot had been better organised and the Generals all kidnapped as planned. Maybe Sukarno’s support would then have been forthcoming. It is not inconceivable that there could have ended up with something closer to a civil war than the massacres that took place.

However, I would argue that there were strong forces that conditioned the rise of the military in Indonesia. In this argument the key parallel is with Burma/Myanmar, which also saw a military takeover in the 1960s.

Key amongst the parallels between the two states were:

  1. Ethnically diverse populations brought together by a colonial state.
  2. Lack of an indigenous civilian elite combining independent socio-economic power with political dominance (in other word presence of ‘pariah’ economic elite – Indian and some Chinese in Burma/Myanmar, Chinese in Indonesia – that was excluded from political power).
  3. Lack of indigenous participation in government under colonialism (admittedly there were some concessions made in this direction by the British in Burma).
  4. Major but varied social change under colonialism.
  5. Japanese occupation causing severe social dislocation and encouraging militarisation of social/ethnic/religious conflicts building up under colonial rule.
  6. Cold war support for armies and aggravation of internal conflicts, requiring strengthening of armies for counterinsurgency.

Another interesting comparison is with the Philippines, where the military played a much less important role in politics than in Indonesia. The Philippines had experiences (ethnic diversity, major social change, insurgencies and military build up exacerbated by the Cold War) that in some ways parallel Indonesia’s historical trajectory. However, I would single out two key differences. One is the relative integration of economic and political power in the ‘mestizo’ elite that had mixed Chinese and Filipino heritage.[4] The other is the ability of this elite to entrench itself in power following the arrival of American colonialism, expanding their social and economic influence and capitalising on the opportunities offered by the elections the Americans instituted. In this way they were able to capture the coercive apparatus of the state and provide a much greater obstacle to military takeover than in Indonesia or Burma/Myanmar.[5]


[1] J.Roosa, Pretext for Mass Murder: the September 30th Movement and Suharto’s Coup d’Etat in Indonesia (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 2006).

[2] R.Cribb, ‘Problems in the Historiography of the Killings in Indonesia’ in R.Cribb ed., The Indonesian Killings of 1965-66 (Clayton: Monash University Centre for Southeast Asian Studies, 1990).

[3] B.R.Simpson, Economists with Guns: Authoritarian Development and US-Indonesian Relations, 1960-1968 (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2008).

[4] W.G. Skinner, “Creolized Chinese Societies in Southeast Asia,” in Anthony Reid, ed, Sojourners and Settlers: Histories of Southeast Asia and the Chinese (Sydney: Allen & Unwin, 1996), pp.51-93.

[5] E.E. Hedman and J.T. Sidel, Philippine Politics and Society in the Twentieth Century: Colonial Legacies, Post-Colonial Trajectories (London: Routledge, 2000), esp. cpt 1-4.

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