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Declassified Documents Show How British Propagandists Covertly Incited Widespread Killings Of Communists In Indonesia In The 1960s

According to appalling new evidence, Britain’s propaganda effort had a critical role in one of the most horrific murders of the postwar twentieth century. In the 1960s, British authorities covertly used black propaganda to persuade influential Indonesians to “cut out” the “communist cancer.” Between 1965 and 1966, it is estimated that at least 500,000 individuals – some estimates go as high as three million – associated with the Indonesia Communist Party (PKI) were killed.

As per newly released Foreign Office papers, British propagandists surreptitiously incited anti-communists, including army generals, to destroy the PKI. The CIA later labeled the seemingly spontaneous mass murder campaign, now known to have been coordinated by the Indonesian army, as one of the greatest mass killings of the century. When the killings began in October 1965, British diplomats demanded that “the PKI and all communist organizations” be “eliminated.” They warned that the country would be in danger “as long as the communist leaders are at large and their rank and file go unpunished.”

Britain conducted a propaganda effort against Indonesia in reaction to President Sukarno’s opposition to the merger of its former colonies into the Malayan federation, which culminated in a low-level confrontation and armed incursions across the border beginning in 1963. Specialist propagandists from the Foreign Office’s information research department (IRD) were dispatched to Singapore in 1965 to create black propaganda to destabilize Sukarno’s administration. The PKI was a staunch backer of both the president and the Confrontation movement.

A modest team created a newsletter ostensibly issued by Indonesian émigrés and aimed at important and powerful people, including army generals. It also launched a Malaysian-run black radio station transmitting into Indonesia. By mid-1965, the operation was in full swing, but an attempted coup by leftwing army commanders and, covertly, PKI operatives, which resulted in the death of seven generals, offered an opportunity to have a major effect on events. The coup was quickly suppressed by Indonesia’s future president, General Suharto, who then began a gradual takeover of power from Sukarno and the abolition of the PKI, the world’s largest communist party at the time.

British propagandists demanded that “the PKI and everything it stands for” be “eliminated for all time,” warning prominent readers that “procrastination and half-hearted measures can only lead to our ultimate and complete destruction.” Massacres of suspected PKI members, few if any of whom were involved in the failed coup, and other leftists spread across the archipelago in the weeks that followed. There is no question that British officials were aware of what was going on. Not only did GCHQ intercept and read Indonesian government communications, but its Chai Keng monitoring station in Singapore also allowed the British to track the movements of army troops participating in the PKI’s suppression.

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