By Owen Schalk – Oct 1, 2021
On the morning of October 1, 1965, a group of Indonesian military officers calling themselves the “September 30th Movement” launched a bizarre offensive whose results reverberate to this day, but whose precise circumstances remained muddled in mystery. Here is what we know: the officers abducted six high-ranking Indonesian Army generals, whose corpses were subsequently discovered at the bottom of a well near an army base. The officers announced over the radio that their actions were taken to prevent a CIA-backed coup against President Achmed Sukarno that was being planned for October 5th. In response, the Indonesian Army (under the direction of General Suharto) crushed the rebels and assumed supreme control of the country. The military labelled the September 30th Movement a communist organization, supposedly under the direction of Maoist China, and the massacres started.
To this day it is unclear exactly what the officers’ movement hoped to achieve, but some scholars (such as John Roosa, Bradley Simpson, and Peter Dale Scott) posit that the revolt was simply blamed on the communists as a pretext for crushing the left. This cannot be stated with certainty given the scant documentation, but what happened next is well-recorded: the Indonesian Army began a nationwide mass murder program against registered members of the unarmed Communist Party of Indonesia (the PKI, at the time the largest communist party in the world outside Russia and China), known leftists, union officials, those accused of having left-wing sympathies, feminists organizations (including Gerwani, one of the largest women’s organizations on the planet at the time), and ethnic Chinese people. Anti-communist paramilitaries, criminal gangs, conservative Muslim groups, and others were given state sanction to join the killing, and the CIA provided the new military government with lists of suspected communists to liquidate using whatever methods they chose. The result was several months of state-supported massacres on a national scale. Between 500,000 and one million people were murdered, many with knives, machetes, and other close-range weaponry. Descriptions of the grotesque violence are innumerable and easy to find – they are not worth listing here. Suffice it to say, the total number of accounts is literally impossible to enumerate, and not just due to the enormity of the atrocities. It is impossible because the perpetrators are still in control of Indonesia, still openly celebrated, and still backed by Western governments and capital. Many of those who witnessed the massacres, or whose family members died in the killings, are scared to speak out due to fear of brutal recriminations.
Joshua Oppenheimer’s film diptych on the legacy of 1965 – The Act of Killing (2012) and The Look of Silence (2014) – was instrumental in drawing Western attention to the massacres in Indonesia. In 2020, Vincent Bevins’ hit book The Jakarta Method expanded on the integral role of US intelligence and military support in the killings. The works of Oppenheimer and Bevins have been hugely important in widening the consciousness of Western nations about the events surrounding 1965 and the direct complicity of the US government in the atrocities. However, one dimension that remains understudied is Canada’s role in undermining President Sukarno, and the benefits that the Canadian government and transnational business community received in the aftermath of the organized politicide of the Indonesian left.
Canada initially supported Dutch colonialism during the Indonesian war of independence. This support involved selling weapons to the Netherlands to use against the liberation fighters and opposing a number of United Nations Security Council motions condemning Dutch policy toward Indonesia. However, Canada took a turn in 1948 and backed Indonesian independence, alongside the United States and Australia. The US and Australia were opposed to continued Dutch rule over Indonesia, believing that an independent Western-aligned government would better serve Global North interests in the long-term as compared to a weakening colonial structure. Secretary of State for External Affairs Lester B. Pearson wrote that Canada was seeking “to prevent a conflict between the United States and the Netherlands that could harm progress toward the North Atlantic alliance,” but nonetheless lamented that he had to oppose the colonial project in Indonesia. “I do not see that there is much more we can do for the Netherlands at this point,” he wrote, “although we shall continue to consider their position most sympathetically, and shall do what we can to make the resolution [on steps toward independence] more acceptable to them.”
The new state, led by Sukarno, appeared to be exactly what Canada and the US wanted. It was seemingly pro-Western and anti-communist – but it also had an annoying habit of tolerating the presence of the widely popular Communist Party (PKI) in Indonesian political life. By the early 1960s, Canada’s attitude changed. Sukarno’s willingness to recognize the legitimacy of the PKI and other endogenous left-wing and progressive movements irked North America and the European powers, as did his tendency to publicly criticize Western imperialism in Asia and his leading role in the anti-colonial Non-Aligned Movement. During Sukarno’s 1963 confrontation with the newly independent country of Malaysia, a state whose construction he viewed as a form of British power projection, Canada sided with Malaysia, sending aircrafts, motorcycles, and military trainers to fight Sukarno’s forces. Canadian officials spoke openly of their newfound dissatisfaction with Sukarno, calling his government “a collapse of world order” – meaning, it seems, a collapse of unchallenged European dominance in the region – and contributing to an atmosphere of anti-Sukarno sentiment in the West that would soon culminate in catastrophe.
The Canadian ruling class welcomed the abrupt shift in Indonesia’s political and economic orientation after the massacres of 1965. An External Affairs memo from 1966 reads: “Changes in the political orientation of Indonesia have already had a profound effect on the prospects for stability in South East Asia. It is patently in our interests that the new [Suharto] regime be able to consolidate its internal position and to pursue external policies it appears prepared to follow.” Even recently, many Canadian academics fail to grapple with the magnitude and brutality of the changes wrought by Suharto. Louis A. Delvoie, a senior fellow at the Centre for International Relations and an adjunct professor at Queen’s University, describes the shift in the following terms: “the new government promptly…embarked on a course of action which attached the highest priority to economic development as opposed to [Sukarno’s] political grand standing.” He wrote this in 2010. Delvoie’s total disregard for the mass murder program is astonishing, but it reveals a grim truth that lurks at the heart of the Canadian political class: their imperialist disregard for the self-determination of Global South nations causes them to see these peoples as less than human, and their demands for dignified treatment on the world stage as nothing but “political grand standing.”
The Canadian ambassador to Indonesia described General Suharto, whose military regime was doubtlessly one of the cruellest governments of the 20th century, as a “moderate, sensible, and progressive leader.” At the United Nations, Canada offered diplomatic support to the country’s brutal repression of separatist and leftist movements in Papua New Guinea and East Timor, which resulted in around 300,000 deaths. During the genocide in East Timor, one Canadian official at the UN mocked critics of the Indonesian military regime, saying that “there may be attempts by the high priests of decolonization to take the Indonesians to task [but we should] not do anything to increase Indonesian difficulties [emphasis added].”
One of the most important actions implemented by the Suharto government following the destruction of the left was the “Stabilization Plan.” The Stabilization Plan was a boon to foreign capitalists. It established “tax holidays, provisions for unrestricted repatriation of profits, exemptions from import duties, and cutbacks in government participation in the economy.” As a result, transnational capital poured in. Companies that invested in Indonesia in the aftermath of the massacres were “Caltex (a subsidiary of Standard Oil of California and Texaco), Stanvac (another American joint venture), and Shell, all in petroleum; Freeport Copper and Rio Tinto Zinc in mining; and Imperial Chemical Industries and [Toronto-based] Bata Shoes.” One of the most important Canadian companies to enter the Indonesian markets was the International Nickel Company (Inco), a company which grew out of nickel deposits in Sudbury, Ontario and grew to dominate the global nickel market, well-served by repressive US-backed regimes such as the Guatemalan military dictatorship.
The Romance of Nickel, a pamphlet produced by Inco in 1955, describes the business model of Canadian mining in the following propagandistic terms: “Canada’s premier place in nickel production has been maintained by the constant effort to discover and develop new ore bodies [and] to devise better methods of getting that ore out of the earth.” Understandably, this white-washing effort does not mention the necessary precursor of Western governments imposing violent and undemocratic forces to crush leftist forces within the targeted countries.
Inco’s investments in Indonesia required the events of 1965. Three years after the politicide, the company received exclusive exploration rights to 25,000 miles of land on Sulawesi, a nickel-rich island in central Indonesia. Inco soon developed the Soroako mine, the second multinational-owned mine to open under Suharto’s regime. The Canadian government gave Inco handouts of taxpayer money to begin production at the site. Export Development Canada (EDC) gifted a total of $57.25 million to an Inco subsidiary to fund the Soroako mine. The Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA) also poured public funds into Indonesia for “surveys of resources and infrastructural needs on several islands of the archipelago, including Sulawesi.” Suharto was pleased by this Canadian investment. In March 1977, he personally unveiled a plaque at the Canadian-owned Soroako mine.
A Brazilian mining company called Vale purchased Inco in 2006. Vale is now the largest nickel producer in Indonesia, and Canada still manages the Soroako mine through the subsidiary Vale Canada. 80% of Vale’s annual output in Indonesia goes to Vale Canada. Meanwhile, local communities are currently engaged in protests at Soroako against the adverse environmental and socioeconomic impacts of the project. These impacts include:
Air pollution, Biodiversity loss (wildlife, agro-diversity), Desertification/Drought, Food insecurity (crop damage), Loss of landscape/aesthetic degradation, Noise pollution, Soil contamination, Soil erosion, Deforestation and loss of vegetation cover, Surface water pollution / Decreasing water (physico-chemical, biological) quality, Reduced ecological / hydrological connectivity…Displacement, Lack of work security, labour absenteeism, firings, unemployment, Loss of livelihood, Loss of traditional knowledge/practices/cultures, Militarization and increased police presence, Specific impacts on women, Violations of human rights, Land dispossession.
The military remains the dominant political force in Indonesia. As demonstrated by Oppenheimer’s films, the perpetrators of the violence live with total impunity, while the relatives of victims suffer in silence every day. Military repression continues behind a democratic façade, and it is currently illegal for Indonesians to publicly support communism.
In Jakarta, there is a museum that stands to this day called the Museum of Communist Betrayal. Vincent Bevins describes visiting: “As you walk down a bizarre series of darkened halls, a series of diorama installations take you through the history of the [PKI], demonstrating each and every time they betrayed the nation, or attacked the military, or plotted to destroy Indonesia, down to reproducing Suharto’s propaganda narrative about the events of October 1965. There is no reference to the up to one million civilians killed as a result.” At the exit, there is a large sign that reads “Thank you for observing some of our dioramas about the savagery carried out by the Indonesian Communist Party. Don’t let anything like this ever happen again.”
On the Government of Canada webpage for Canada-Indonesia relations, there is no mention of the massacres. One would think that bilateral relations began in peace and harmony in 1952 and have only improved since then. The final paragraph reads, “Canada and Indonesia share over 60 years of collaboration in areas including decentralization and local governance, natural-resource management, inclusive economic growth, human rights, gender equality [and] enterprise development.”
 Peter Dale Scott, “Still Uninvestigated After 50 Years: Did the U.S. Help Incite the 1965 Indonesia Massacre?,” The Asia-Pacific Journal, 3 Aug 2015, https://apjjf.org/2015/13/31/Peter-Dale-Scott/4351.html.
 Yves Engler, Lester Pearson’s Peacekeeping: The Truth May Hurt (Winnipeg: Fernwood Publishing, 2012), 65.
 Engler, The Truth May Hurt, 66.
 Engler, The Truth May Hurt, 65.
 Louis A. Delvoie, Canada and Indonesia: Perturbed Engagement (Kingston: Queen’s University, 2010), 4.
 Tyler Shipley, Canada in the World: Settler Capitalism and the Colonial Imagination (Winnipeg: Fernwood Publishing, 2020), 283.
 Yves Engler, “Canada and the 50-year anniversary of Indonesian slaughter,” Rabble, 23 Oct 2015, https://rabble.ca/blogs/bloggers/yves-engler/2015/10/canada-and-50-year-anniversary-indonesian-slaughter.
 Delvoie, Canada and Indonesia, 4.
 Shipley, Canada in the World, 284.
 Shipley, Canada in the World, 286.
 Jamie Swift and the Development Education Centre, The Big Nickel: Inco at Home and Abroad (Kitchener: Between the Lines, 1977), 88.
 Swift, The Big Nickel, 88.
 The International Nickel Company of Canada, Limited, “The Romance of Nickel,” 1955.
 Swift, The Big Nickel, 94.
 Swift, The Big Nickel, 95.
 Swift, The Big Nickel, 93.
 “Karonsi’e Dongi people and Vale mine in Sorowako, Sulawesi, Indonesia,” Environmental Justice Atlas, 20 Mar 2019, https://ejatlas.org/conflict/karonsie-dongi-people-and-vale-mine-in-sorowako-sulawesi-indonesia.
 Vincent Bevins, The Jakarta Method: Washington’s Anticommunist Crusade & the Mass Murder Program that Shaped Our World (New York: PublicAffairs, 2020), 256.
 “Canada-Indonesia Relations,” Government of Canada, May 2019, https://www.canadainternational.gc.ca/indonesia-indonesie/bilateral_relations_bilaterales/canada-indonesia-indonesie.aspx?lang=eng.
Owen Schalk is a writer based in Winnipeg. His areas of interest include post-colonialism and the human impact of the global neoliberal economy. His political analyses have appeared in Canadian Dimension, Dissident Voice, and People’s Voice, and his short stories have been published by Fairlight Books, antilang., whimperbang, and more.
Featured image: Former Indonesian dictator Suharto.