The covert war in Indonesia, 1957-58

The covert war in Indonesia, 1957-58

By Mark Curtis

An edited extract from Unpeople: Britain’s Secret Human Rights Abuses

Indonesian president Sukarno’s nationalist domestic policies and a foreign policy of non-alignment were see as a direct threat to Washington and London. The latter were especially concerned about the growing popularity and influence of the Indonesian Communist party (PKI) on the Sukarno government, notably in recent elections where the PKI had increased its share of the popular vote. The Foreign Office, for example, viewed with ‘anxiety’ the ‘trend of events in Indonesia’ especially the ‘electoral results’ showing that the PKI ‘has grown in strength to a disquieting degree’.

British planners were also concerned about the Sukarno government’s recent take-over of Dutch commercial interests. The Foreign Office wrote that ‘clearly a serious blow has been struk [sic] at the confidence of all foreign concerns trading in and with Indonesia’. The latter ‘is a country with a vast population and great potential wealth, and one in which United Kingdom interests are by no means negligible’.

In late 1957 dissident colonels in the Indonesian army were leading a challenge to rule by Jakarta in the outlying provinces in the country. By the end of the year Jakarta’s authority did not spread much beyond the island of Java and the north eastern area of Sumatra; elsewhere, local commanders were in practice operating their provinces independently. In January 1958 a rebellion against the central government broke out in Sumatra and Celebes. The causes were described by the British ambassador in Indonesia as the desire to end the Indonesian government’s inefficient economic policy and a demand for more self-government for the richer provinces. He also noted that ‘anti-communism’ has been included in the aims of the rebels and ‘in order to attract Western support, it has been made to appear one of the main purposes of the rebellion’.

On 15 February, the rebels proclaimed in the city of Padang a Republic of Indonesia; following which the Jakarta government began military operations to crush the rebellion. By June the government had virtually succeeded, Padang had been recaptured and the dissidents, although still in control of large areas of Sumatra, were forced to resort to guerilla warfare. Their rebellion finally petered out and they eventually surrendered in 1961.

The US and Britain covertly supported this rebellion in its early phase, ideally wanting to see Sukarno overthrown, but if not then because of what Foreign Secretary Selwyn Lloyd understood as the rebels’ ‘nuisance value’. This meant using the rebellion to press the Jakarta government to adopt policies of London’s and Washington’s pleasing. Like the Yemenis, therefore, whose brutal civil war Britain covertly sponsored for nearly a decade knowing that their clients could not win but only destablise the central government, the Indonesians were used as tools by London and Washington. When their clients outlived their usefulness, as they did as soon as Jakarta had won the main war against them, London and Washington dropped their clients and re-engaged with Jakarta.

This was a US-led covert programme to which Britain leant important aid. The British files of this period are heavily censored but some light can be shed on the covert British role, while for the US role an excellent book by Audrey and George Kahin serves as a guide.

A prime mover in the British covert operation was Sir Robert Scott, Britain’s Commissioner General in Singapore. In December 1957, Scott lamented ‘the effects of the developing crisis in Indonesia in terms of dislocation of economic interests’ and that Indonesia ‘may pass under communist control’. Referring to the ‘anti-communist elements in Sumatra and the other outlying provinces’, he told the Foreign Office that:

‘I think the time has come to plan secretly with the Australians and Americans how best to give these elements the aid they need. This is a bold policy, carrying considerable risks… The action I am recommending will no doubt have little influence with President Soekarno. They are not designed to; I believe it should be one of our aims to bring about his downfall.’

Scott’s aims included ‘to limit the mischief the communists can do in Java, to save Sumatra’ and ‘to win complete American cooperation both public and private’. Maintaining the unity of Indonesia, however, was imperative.

There was some opposition in the Foreign Office to these proposals. One official, O.C.Morland, wrote that Scott was ‘on the wrong track’ and that: ‘the result of secret help to the outer provinces would be to arouse keen resentment in Java and to increase the risk of armed conflict between the outer provinces and Java’. It was in this knowledge, therefore, that such Foreign Office opposition was essentially overruled and the British covert role initiated. In February 1958 top secret discussions in Washington between British, US and Australian officials ‘have revealed substantial agreement on the main lines of Western policy’ in Indonesia, the Foreign Office noted. They should ‘(a) discreetly support and attempt to unite anti-communist elements in Java’, meaning to counter the increasing influence of the PKI. They should also ‘(b) respond where practicable to requests for help from the dissident provincial administrations’. But ‘(c) do nothing to further the break-up of Indonesia’.

Recently declassified Australian documents show that on 11 March Australian Prime Minister Robert Menzies was informed that Prime Minister Harold Macmillan and Foreign Secretary Selwyn Lloyd believed ‘that it is essential in the interests of the UK government and the West that the dissidents in Sumatra should at the worst be able to make a draw of it’. This meant ‘considerable support for the dissidents from the West’. According to these files, Lloyd had advised Macmillan: ‘as to the implementation that you and I discussed on Saturday night of covert action and what we called the “overt but disavowable” aspect, I feel we have got to take considerable risks to see our policy succeed’.

The following day, 12 March, it was agreed between Britain and the US ‘that all help that is possible to provide should be given to the dissidents although every possible care should be given to conceal the origins’. Sir Robert Scott even suggested as a ‘longer term proposition’ that Britain, the US and Australia ‘should look into the possibility of encouraging rebellion on Amboina and the Moluccas [in eastern Indonesia], to widen the basis of any international attitude that the Indonesian government was not in control of the country’.

Serious US covert operations had already begun in the autumn of 1957. The US then authorised $10 million to be spent in support of the dissident colonels and arms were soon provided from US submarines and aircraft from the Philippines, Taiwan and Thailand. According to the Kahins, the US supplied enough arms for 8,000 men. The CIA recruited around 350 US, Filipinos and nationalist Chinese to service and fly a small fleet of transport aircraft and fifteen B-26 bombers. This rebel air force conducted numerous bombing raids on cities and civilian shipping, even destroying one British tanker. In April 1958 the British files reported that 12 of the crew of 26 on a 1200 ton Panamanian steamer were killed, and a 5000 tons Italian ship was sunk with 12 of her crew missing.

According to the Kahins, Britain also provided a small quantity of arms to the rebels and British warplanes flew reconnaissance missions over Sumatra and eastern Indonesia. Aside from that, the major British covert role was to provide the use of British military bases in Malaya and more importantly Singapore, then still colonies, for covert operations. This included the US use of Singapore to covertly drop arms to the rebels. ‘Americans agreed they would take action from United Kingdom territories only with our consent’, the Colonial Secretary told the British Governors of Singapore, North Borneo and Sarawak (the latter in Malaya) in a top secret message of February 1958. He also noted that ‘Governor Singapore has reported that his ministers are privately inclined towards helping dissidents’ but that since London formally recognises the Jakarta government ‘Singapore cannot overtly take sides’ – meaning this role would need to be kept secret.

A US brief prepared for US Secretary of State Dulles after meetings with the British in December 1957 states that: ‘We were promised [by the British] the maximum use of Singapore for operations, keeping in mind no arms shipments to dissidents would come thru [sic] that port, that knowledge of British consent to our operations be tightly held, and neither it nor our operations become subject to pol [sic – ie, political] comment in Singapore’.

These criteria, however, were soon ignored, the Kahins note, and by early 1958 British facilities in Singapore were open and welcoming to the US navy. A British submarine was also seen apparently rescuing US paramilitary advisers as the rebels’ positions collapsed; it was attacked by the Indonesians off Celebes. Britain’s ambassador to Indonesia, MacDermot, also told the Foreign Office that ‘secret assurances of support by Malaya and Philippines would be most useful together with increased news cover acquired in our information broadcast [sic] to Asia about Indonesia’.

In June 1958 the Foreign Office was noting that ‘for more than six months now’ Britain had been ‘principally motivated by our hopes that the activities of rebel groups in Indonesia would be of advantage to the Western cause’. But policy by now had changed in alliance with the Americans. Western support for the rebels was now explicitly to be used as a tool to press Sukarno.

In May, with the Indonesian army having pushed back the rebels, the US ambassador in Indonesia was instructed by the State Department to tell Sukarno that if he removed ‘the communist threat’ to the government then the US would stop aiding the rebels. The files make clear that Britain supported this strategy. The ambassador instead met Indonesian Prime Minister Djuanda who essentially rejected the US proposal saying that the rebels would be crushed first.

Nevertheless, the US and British calculation was now that they should essentially abandon the rebels and revert to encouraging ‘pro-Western’ tendencies in the Indonesian government. This meant pressing Sukarno to remove or undermine senior figures in the government who were sympathetic to or members of the PKI. That said, it appears that the British allowed the dissidents to continue some activities from Singapore; these finally ended only after Indonesian pressure on Singapore’s first government after independence in 1959.

It was understood that with the Indonesian army having disposed of the rebels they are ‘free to deal with the communists’, the British Ambassador in Jakarta wrote. The other key US and British policy was to resume arms exports to the Indonesian military. This enabled them to develop closer relations with key political figures in Indonesia who would act as a counter to Sukarno supporters and communists. The strategy paid off, with horrendous human effects – it was these people who struck with such ferocity in 1965.

US policy was frighteningly illuminating. A February 1959 policy statement by the National Security Council, stated that the US should: ‘maintain and strengthen… ties with the Indonesian police and military establishments; and increase their capability to maintain internal security and combat communist activity in Indonesia by providing appropriate arms, equipment and training, on a limited by continuing basis… [The US should] give priority treatment to requests for assistance in programs and projects which offer opportunities to isolate the PKI, drive it into positions of open opposition to the Indonesian government, thereby creating grounds for repressive measures politically justifiable in terms of Indonesian self-interest’.

In conducting this covert operation, there can be little doubt that Britain and the US actually strengthened the forces they were opposing. The war was a gift to Sukarno, the nationalists and the communists, who consolidated their positions as a result. The US role had ceased to be covert when a US pilot was captured and his papers displayed to the world’s press, which enabled government ministers to claim with some justification that they were being attacked by the US.

A secret British memo said that the war had made ‘Indonesia increasingly vulnerable to economic penetration by the Sino-Soviet bloc’. Ambassador Macdermot, meanwhile, noted in July 1958 that ‘the United States has lost much ground as a result of the rebellion’ and that the Indonesian cabinet has ‘been quick to seize upon Russian offers for help’. Soviet military aircraft, cargo ships, tankers and other equipment ‘have already arrived and Russian progress here during the last year has been astonishing’.

London’s backing of separatists to destabilise Jakarta did not end in the late 1950s. In 1963 and 1964, Britain reactivated the policy it promoted in 1957-8, supplying weapons and support to rebels in Kalimantan, Sumatra and elsewhere. But again this was only temporary and by January 1965 planners were stating that ‘in the long term, effective support for dissident movements in Indonesia may be counter-productive in that it might impair the capacity of the army to resist the PKI’. By 1966, Suharto was firmly in control – since then, the good guys have been in power in Jakarta and our enemies have therefore become those who challenge them.

Comments on this entry are closed.

1 pingback