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Pretext for Mass Murder

The September 30th Movement and Suharto's Coup d'Etat in Indonesia

John Roosa

Publication Year: 2006

In the early morning hours of October 1, 1965, a group calling itself the September 30th Movement kidnapped and executed six generals of the Indonesian army, including its highest commander. The group claimed that it was attempting to preempt a coup, but it was quickly defeated as the senior surviving general, Haji Mohammad Suharto, drove the movement’s partisans out of Jakarta. Riding the crest of mass violence, Suharto blamed the Communist Party of Indonesia for masterminding the movement and used the emergency as a pretext for gradually eroding President Sukarno’s powers and installing himself as a ruler. Imprisoning and killing hundreds of thousands of alleged communists over the next year, Suharto remade the events of October 1, 1965 into the central event of modern Indonesian history and the cornerstone of his thirty-two-year dictatorship.

Despite its importance as a trigger for one of the twentieth century’s worst cases of mass violence, the September 30th Movement has remained shrouded in uncertainty. Who actually masterminded it? What did they hope to achieve? Why did they fail so miserably? And what was the movement’s connection to international Cold War politics? In Pretext for Mass Murder, John Roosa draws on a wealth of new primary source material to suggest a solution to the mystery behind the movement and the enabling myth of Suharto’s repressive regime. His book is a remarkable feat of historical investigation.


Finalist, Social Sciences Book Award, the International Convention of Asian Scholars

Published by: University of Wisconsin Press

List of Illustrations

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pp. ix

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pp. xi-xii

I began writing about the September 30th Movement while a Rockefeller Foundation postdoctoral fellow at the Institute of International Studies at the University of California–Berkeley, as part of its Communities in Contention Program in 2001–2002. I am grateful to the institute’s director, Michael Watts, for providing such a lively environment...

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pp. 3-33

For historians who have tried to make sense of the course of modern Indonesian history, a matter of some frustration is that the most enigmatic episode happens to be one of the most significant. In the early morning hours of October 1, 1965, the commander of the army, Lieutenant General Achmad Yani, and five generals on his staff were kidnapped from...

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1. The Incoherence of the Facts

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pp. 34-60

The September 30th Movement first made itself known by a broadcast over the national radio station on the morning of October 1, 1965. Troops loyal to the movement occupied the station and forced the announcer to read a typed document for the broadcast. Those tuning in to their radios at about 7:15 a.m. heard a ten-minute announcement that seemed to be a...

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2. Interpretations of the Movement

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pp. 61-81

A question mark has hung over just about every aspect of the September 30th Movement. Why would a movement that announced itself to the public on October 1 name itself after the previous day? Why would a movement that proclaimed itself to be a purely internal army action also decide to decommission President Sukarno’s cabinet and form a...

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3. The Supardjo Document

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pp. 82-116

Torture-induced confessions, dissimulating testimonies, fabricated media stories by army psychological warfare specialists—amid the abundance of information about the movement, precious little can be considered reliable evidence. Analysts have been unable propose anything more than educated guesses about the identity of the real leaders...

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4. Sjam and the Special Bureau

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pp. 117-138

The Supardjo document enables us to solve one mystery: the relationship between the military officers (Untung, Latief, and Soejono) and civilians (Sjam and Pono) within the leadership of the movement. Of the five core leaders, Sjam was the most important one. Unfortunately, the document does not help us answer the questions that logically...

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5. Aidit, the PKI, and the Movement

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pp. 139-175

The evidence so far suggests that Aidit at least approved of Sjam’s collaboration with military officers for staging a preemptive strike against the army high command. Sjam was the primary organizer of the movement, according to the Supardjo document. He was Aidit’s loyal subordinate, according to Hasan. If these two claims are true, one has to...

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6. Suharto, the Indonesian Army, and the United States

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pp. 176-201

For Aidit the covert use of progressive officers to dislodge the rightwing army high command must have seemed a clever strategy. Both the party and President Sukarno could be saved from the Council of Generals with one swift, backhanded stroke. In its first stages the movement was on its way to success: it mobilized troops without being detected...

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7. Assembling a New Narrative

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pp. 202-225

The literary theorist Tzvetan Todorov has noted that works of detective fiction combine two different narrative forms: the “story of the investigation” (how the detective comes to know what happened) and the “story of the crime” (what actually happened).¹ The usual pattern of a detective novel, as Slavoj Žižek notes, is to follow the detective in the...


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pp. 227-260


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pp. 261-303


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pp. 305-318


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pp. 319-329

E-ISBN-13: 9780299220334
Print-ISBN-13: 9780299220341

Publication Year: 2006