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Filmmaker Chris Hilton on the Anti-Communist Purges in Indonesia in 1965-66

Shadow Play (2001)

Shadow Play (2001)

A new documentary, Shadow Play, by the Australian award-winning filmmaker, Chris Hilton, deals with the anti-communist purges in Indonesia in 1965-66, during which up to a million Indonesians are estimated to have been killed. Using recently declassified documents, Shadow Play also reveals the extent to which Western powers may have been involved in the events leading up to the overthrow of President Sukarno in Indonesia in 1966, and in what the CIA itself has termed "one of the worst mass murders of the 20th century."

Here Chris Hilton explains why he became interested in the subject, what areas the documentary covers, and what its likely reception will be here in the United States.

Your documentary, Shadow Play, discusses American, British and Australian complicity in the mass murder of communists and alleged communists in Indonesia in 1965-66. When were the official documents exposing this complicity revealed to the public, and under what conditions? That is, what prompted the US government to reveal these when they did? In any case, prior to their revelation, there must have been some speculation about American involvement in the massacre.

Yes, there was quite a bit of speculation even before the documents were released. About 20 or 30 years after an event, the State Department writes an official history of what happened. The State Department released these documents having to do with US involvement in Indonesia through normal declassification procedures. In fact a draft had been written of the official history of the State Department in Indonesia and Malaysia in 1964-66. There was a volume that was prepared by an official historian in the State Department; this volume was then reviewed by the CIA and withdrawn from publication because they had some concerns about it but it was accidentally published and posted on a website. So it was because of this lapse in the declassification process that the most overt connections between the US government and the Indonesian military during that time were revealed. This is the story of the United States.

As far as Britain is concerned, a lot of the information is available in the Foreign Office archives. It is quite clear that the British wanted a change of government in Indonesia but the physical proof of their various manipulations is not as obvious. The cables often talk about how the British government should be involved in propaganda, in influencing people's opinions in Indonesia as much as possible, but in terms of covert operations, there still is nothing on the record, nothing written explicitly saying that Sukarno ought to be assassinated or anything like that, even though we strongly suspect that this was also happening.

In terms of the film, one of the significant elements came from the head of the propaganda operation who actually revealed information which we were able to get hold of before he died to other journalists. His name was Norman Reddaway; he appears in one version of the documentary although not the one that is being aired on PBS. Norman Reddaway was an official propagandist from the British Foreign Office and had worked in World War II and had also been involved in different British campaigns like the Suez Crisis and was sent out to Singapore to take charge of this operation.

He appears in the 79-minute version, which is the longer one, and is also more in-depth. We do a lot more in that film on the press and information manipulation and propaganda.

How did you become interested in this event?

I grew up in Indonesia as an adolescent, in Central Java, because my parents were working there, so I got to hear lots of stories. I also remember being told by my parents, at the age of 13, not to discuss politics around the table or anywhere in the country, which struck me as rather unusual. This made me even more intrigued by what it was that had transpired in Central Java seven years before I was there. I had met missionaries and other people who had been there then and had very dark stories to tell.

Of course when Suharto's regime fell [in 1998], it became possible to revisit the whole issue of what happened.

In your documentary, you say that Indonesia's military under Suharto murdered more of its own population than any other regime supported by the West and that the military operated very much as a political party. How is it that one can account for the power of the institution?

It has mostly to do with the revolution; the history of Indonesia was essentially as a fragmented country of multiple nations, multiple languages. It became the Dutch East Indies under the Dutch and only became the nation of Indonesia through a war of independence which was fought by initially a rag-tag groups of guerilla fighters who linked themselves up informally. These groups then became the Indonesian army. So effectively it was the most powerful institution in the country from day one.

You say in the documentary that after the 1957 elections, in which the Communist Party of Indonesia (PKI) fared well, the US started supporting insurgencies throughout Indonesia. What effects did this American involvement have on the shape these insurgencies subsequently took? Were these insurgencies actually expressions of popular discontent, either against Sukarno or the centralized nature of the Indonesian state? Or were they actually created or propelled by the support they received from the outside? What was the effect of this involvement on US-Indonesian relations?

You will hear the argument mounted both ways. If one is interested in a regime change, one cultivates opposition elements. Now to what extent those elements could achieve their ends on their own is possibly the major question. In this case, there is no doubt that there was a major US military intervention. More guns, bombs, planes, and bombing raids were run in that operation than any other operation even against Mao and in support of the KMT in the 1950s; so it was a major operation.

The Americans flew bombing missions themselves. American pilots from the US Air Force operating under CIA command from the Philippines ran bombing raids against the Indonesian military. An American pilot named Allen Pope was shot down in 1957. He was shot down while bombing a church and a port in Ambon. His plane was hit, he parachuted out, and was arrested and put on trial in Indonesia. The most significant thing is that he was shot down with his papers on him. Normally when officers fly in this kind of covert mission, they carry no identification with them; in the event that they are caught, they say they were acting as a mercenary. He actually had a copy of his orders with him. The Indonesians got hold of the orders, he was put on trial, given the death penalty but treated very well, in the sense that he was kept under a house-arrest situation. His release was secured by Robert Kennedy in 1962 through intensive diplomacy.

So it is absolutely clear, through other studies that have been done as well of Eisenhower's and Dulles' records, that there was a huge covert operation in Indonesia, supporting the insurgencies with bombs, guns, ships, planes, etc. There were two places in particular where these insurgencies were: a region in Sumatra and the other was in the very northern tip of Sulawesi.

American involvement clearly strengthened these insurgencies materially. The insurgencies seemed to be run by a bunch of disaffected colonels who wanted to run the country themselves. The effect was that the Indonesian army put these rebellions down rather effectively within 18 months or so.

US support for these insurgencies was viewed by Indonesia as an act of betrayal by the West (the British and the Australians were also involved in supporting this covert operation). So it shattered trust and isolated Sukarno and made him paranoid (although justly suspicious is probably more accurate) and pushed him more over to the Soviet camp. Even after this happened, the Indonesians went back to the Americans in 1958 asking for military supplies to put down other rebellions. When they were refused by the Americans, they got supplies from the Soviet Union.