- Sukarno and the Indonesian Coup: The Untold Story
This book ought to have been published with two warnings. First, in all its 201 pages, there is not a single footnote, bibliographical reference or specification of a source. Remarkably, Helen-Louise Hunter and Praeger publishers offer the reader a narrative of the tangled and immensely significant events in Indonesia in 1965 — an abortive coup whose suppression cleared the way for the overthrow of President Soekarno, the rise to power of General Soeharto and the destruction of the Indonesian Communist Party (PKI) — that is completely without the usual apparatus of scholarly accountability.
The second warning would have partly explained the first: this is not a new piece of scholarship at all. Rather it is a slightly reworked version of a Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) intelligence report which was released in December 1968 with the title “Indonesia — 1965: The coup that backfired” and which is widely available in university libraries. Hunter, who is acknowledged in the preface of this report as its author, was then a CIA analyst; she had not previously worked on Indonesia, but was set to analysing the Indonesian coup on the basis of previous experience in dissecting the 1963 revolution in Zanzibar. It is not clear whether she visited Indonesia for her study but she certainly had access to Agency materials and to materials supplied to the CIA by the Indonesian military.
None of this background is mentioned in the book itself, but it was revealed at the launch of the book in Washington in July 2007. On that occasion, former CIA officer Hugh Tovar described [End Page 332] Hunter’s original report as “still … the best paper” on the topic of the coup. As one might expect after such praise, and from the fact that Hunter left the CIA in the 1980s to work for a Washington law firm, the book is a copy-edited and slightly censored version of the 1968 report, rather than a revision or elaboration. Here and there sentences have been omitted or spruced up, but what is new in the book seems to be limited to three and a half pages at the very end, headed “The coup in perspective”.
Two issues arise concerning the 1968 report. First, was it a genuine internal CIA intelligence report that was subsequently declassified, or was it produced for public consumption? In other words, does it tell us what the CIA really believed had happened in Jakarta in September–October 1965? Or was it merely a piece of propaganda intended to reinforce the Indonesian military’s claim that the coup was “in every respect the planning of the PKI” (p. 265)? Hunter implies the former, while CIA whistle-blower Ralph McGehee suggests the latter, so the question is perhaps still open.
Second, assuming the report reflected the CIA judgement, how reliable was the material on which it was based? In the 1968 report, Hunter includes a five-page appendix which begins with the statement “our knowledge of the coup preparations that were being made in late August and September 1965 comes mainly from the confessions and interrogation reports of those involved”. She acknowledges that the interrogations were sometimes carried on by means of torture, but goes on to argue that the character of these reports precludes the possibility that they were the result of any “carefully concocted fabrication”. They reveal, she suggests, a story too complex in its details to have been fabricated. It is not an implausible line of reasoning, but without a better account of the material, it is not convincing. For reasons not made clear, moreover, this discussion of sources is omitted from the 2007 re-published version of the report.
The chief weakness of Hunter’s account lies, however, in two aspects of her analysis. First, she falls into the classic error of conspiracy theorists by pinning key elements of her argument on anomalies. Scattered through accounts of complex events such as the 11 September 2001 World Trade Center attacks or the assassination of Lin Biao, there are...