Transition to the New Order

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Indonesia's transition to the "New Order" in the mid-1960s, ousted the country's first president, Sukarno, after 22 years in the position. One of the most tumultuous periods in the country's modern history, it was the commencement of Suharto's 31-year presidency.

Described as the great dhalang ("puppet master"), Sukarno drew power from balancing the opposing and increasingly antagonistic forces of the army and Indonesian Communist Party (PKI). By 1965, the PKI extensively penetrated all levels of government and gained influence at the expense of the army.[1]

On 30 September 1965, six of the military's most senior officers were killed in an action (generally labelled an "attempted coup") by the so-called 30 September Movement, a group from within the armed forces. Within a few hours, Major General Suharto mobilised forces under his command and took control of Jakarta. Anti-communists, initially following the army's lead, went on a violent purge of communists throughout the country, killing an estimated half million people and destroying the PKI, which was officially blamed for the crisis.[2][3]

The politically weakened Sukarno was forced to transfer key political and military powers to General Suharto, who had become head of the armed forces. In March 1967, the Indonesian parliament (MPRS) named General Suharto acting president. He was formally appointed president one year later. Sukarno lived under virtual house arrest until his death in 1970. In contrast to the stormy nationalism, revolutionary rhetoric, and economic failure that characterised the early 1960s under the left-leaning Sukarno, Suharto's pro-Western "New Order" stabilised the economy but continued the policies of Pancasila.


Sukarno, President of Indonesia (1945-1967) in undated photo

Nationalist leader Sukarno had declared Indonesian independence in 1945 and was appointed president. Following an internal national revolution and struggle against the former Dutch colonial government, Sukarno had managed to hold together the disparate country; however, his administration had not been able to provide a viable economic system to lift its citizens out of severe poverty. He stressed socialist policies domestically and an avidly anti-imperialist international policy, underpinned by an authoritarian style of rule dependent upon his charismatic personality. Pursuing an independent Indonesian foreign policy, Sukarno developed friendly ties with the Eastern Bloc, the People's Republic of China, whilst courting friendly relations with the United States at the same, in his efforts to maximise Indonesian bargaining power in its foreign policy. Sukarno was also a pioneering figure in developing the Non-Aligned Movement, playing a lead role in hosting the Bandung Conference in 1955. In Indonesia's domestic politics, Sukarno also carefully balanced Indonesia's various political parties, including the PKI.

From the late 1950s, political conflict and economic deterioration worsened. By the mid-1960s, the cash-strapped government had to scrap critical public sector subsidies, estimates put annual inflation at 500-1,000%, export revenues were shrinking, infrastructure crumbling, and factories were operating at minimal capacity with negligible investment. Severe poverty and hunger were widespread, and Sukarno led his country in a military confrontation with Malaysia whilst stepping up revolutionary and anti-western rhetoric.[4]

Described as the great dhalang ("puppet master"), President Sukarno's position came to depend on balancing the opposing and increasingly hostile forces of the army and the PKI. His anti-imperial ideology saw Indonesia increasingly dependent on the Soviet Union and China. By 1965, at the height of the Cold War, the PKI penetrated all levels of government extensively. With the support of Sukarno and the air force, the party gained increasing influence at the expense of the army, thus ensuring the army's enmity.[5] By late 1965, the army was divided between a left-wing faction allied with the PKI, and a right-wing faction that was being courted by the United States.[6]

Military split

These same policies, however, won Sukarno few friends and many enemies in the Western world. These especially included the United States and United Kingdom, whose investors were increasingly angered by Sukarno's nationalisation of mineral, agricultural, and energy assets. In need of Indonesian allies in its Cold War against the Soviet Union, the United States cultivated a number of ties with officers of the military through exchanges and arms deals. This fostered a split in the military's ranks, with the United States and others backing a right-wing faction against a left-wing faction overlapping with the PKI.

When Sukarno rejected food aid from USAID, thereby exacerbating famine conditions, the right-wing military adopted a regional command structure through which it could smuggle staple commodities to win the loyalty of the rural population. In an attempt to curtail the right-wing military's increasing power, the PKI and the left-wing military formed a number of peasant and other mass organisations.

Indonesia–Malaysia confrontation

1966 ABC report discussing the Indonesian political context of Konfrontasi

In 1963, a policy of Konfrontasi (Confrontation) against the newly formed Federation of Malaysia was announced by the Sukarno regime. This further exacerbated the split between the left-wing and right-wing military factions, with the left-wing faction and the Communist Party taking part in guerrilla raids on the border with Malaysia, while the right-wing faction was largely absent from the conflict (whether by choice or orders of Sukarno is not clear).

The Confrontation further encouraged the West to seek ways to topple Sukarno, viewed as a growing threat to Southeast Asian regional stability (as with North Vietnam under the Domino theory). The deepening of the armed conflict, coming close to all-out warfare by 1965, both increased popular dissatisfaction with the Sukarno regime and strengthened the hand of the right-wing generals whose forces were still close to the centre of power in Jakarta.

The collapse of Guided Democracy

30 September Movement

Main article: 30 September Movement
As Major General, Suharto (at right, foreground) attends the funeral of assassinated generals 5 October 1965. (Photo by the Department of Information, Indonesia)

On the night of 30 September1 October 1965 six senior army generals were kidnapped and executed in Jakarta by a battalion of soldiers from the Presidential Guard in an "attempted coup." The right faction among the top generals was wiped out, including the powerful Army Chief of Staff, Ahmad Yani. Around 2,000 troops from coup groups occupied three sides of Merdeka Square, and commanded the Presidential Palace, radio station, and telecommunications centre, but did not occupy the east side, site of Kostrad headquarters.[7] Calling themselves the "30 September Movement", the group announced on radio around 7am that they were trying to stop a military coup backed by the US Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) that was planned to remove Sukarno from power.[7]

They claimed to have arrested several generals belonging to a conspiracy, the "Council of Generals", that had plotted a military coup against the government of President Sukarno. They further alleged that this coup was to take place on "Army Day" (5 October) with the backing of the CIA, and that the Council would then install themselves as a military junta.[8][9] Furthermore, the soldiers proclaimed the establishment of a "Revolutionary Council" consisting of various well-known military officers and civilian leaders that would be the highest authority in Indonesia. Additionally, they declared President Sukarno's Dwikora Cabinet as invalid ("demisioner").[10]

According to one chief conspirator, Lt. Col. Latief, the Palace Guards had not attempted to kill or capture Major General Suharto, commander of Kostrad (Komando Strategi dan Cadangan TNI Angkatan Darat the Army Strategic and Reserves Command), because he was considered a Sukarno loyalist.[11] Suharto, along with the surviving General Nasution, made the counter-allegation that the G30S was a rebellious movement that sought to replace President Sukarno's government with a Communist government. Upon hearing of the radio announcement, Suharto and Nasution began consolidating their forces, successfully gaining the loyalty of Jakarta Garrison Commander Maj. Gen. Umar Wirahadikusumah and Colonel Sarwo Edhie Wibowo, the commander of army special forces RPKAD (Resimen Para Komando Angkatan Darat the Army's Para-Commando Regiment).

During the evening of 1 October, RPKAD soldiers recaptured RRI and Telecommunications Building without any resistance as the rebel soldiers had retreated back to Halim Air Force Base. RPKAD forces proceeded to attack Halim Perdanakusumah AF Base on the morning of 2 October, but was stopped by the rebel soldiers in a fierce gunbattle in which several fatalities were inflicted on both sides. A direct order from President Sukarno managed to secure the surrender of the rebel soldiers by noon, after which Suhartoist forces occupied the base. On 3 October, the generals' bodies were discovered at Halim and on 5 October (Armed Forces Day) a large public funeral was held.[12]

Internal military power-struggle

The killing of the generals saw influence in the Army fall to those more willing to stand up to Sukarno and the Army's enemies on the left.[13] After the assassinations of those generals, the highest-ranking officer in the Indonesian military, and third highest in the overall chain-of-command, was Defense Minister and Armed Forces Chief-of-Staff Gen. Abdul Haris Nasution, a member of the right-wing camp. On 2 October, Suharto accepted Sukarno's order for him to take control of the army, but on the condition that Suharto personally have authority to restore order and security. 1 November formation of Kopkamtib (Komando Operasi Pemulihan Keamanan dan Keteriban, or Operational Command for the Restoration of Security and Order), formalised this authority.[12] However, on 5 October Sukarno moved to promote Maj. Gen. Pranoto Reksosamudra, considered a Sukarno loyalist, to Army Chief of Staff.

After the promotion, The New York Times reported that an unnamed Western "diplomatic report" alleged that Pranoto was a former member of the PKI. Pranoto's alleged communism, as well as his timely promotion, led them to promote the view that the PKI and Sukarno conspired to assassinate the generals to consolidate their grip on power.[14]

In the aftermath of the assassinations, however, Major Gen. Suharto and his KOSTRAD (Army Strategic Reserves) units were closest to Jakarta. By default, Suharto became the field general in charge of prosecution of the G30S. Later, at the insistence of Gen. Abdul Haris Nasution, Pranoto was removed and Suharto was promoted to Army Chief-of-Staff on 14 October 1965.[15]

Anti-communist purge

In early October, a military propaganda campaign began to sweep the country, successfully convincing both Indonesian and international audiences that it was a Communist coup, and that the murders were cowardly atrocities against Indonesian heroes.[16] 30 September Movement was called Gestapu (from Gerakan September Tigapuluh, "30 September Movement"). The Army, acting on orders by Suharto and supervised by Nasution, began a campaign of agitation and incitement to violence among Indonesian civilians aimed at the Communist community and toward President Sukarno himself. The PKI's denials of involvement had little effect.[17] The regime was quickly destabilised, with the Army the only force left to maintain order.[18]

At the funeral of Nasution's daughter Irma, Navy commander Admiral Eddy Martadinata gave Muslim leaders the signal to attack Communists. On 8 October, the PKI head office was ransacked and burned to the ground while firefighters stood by idly.[19] They then marched demanding the dissolution of the Communist Party. The homes of senior party figures, including PKI chairman D. N. Aidit, M. H. Lukman and Nyoto were also torched. The army led campaign to purge Indonesian society, government and armed forces of the communist party and other leftist organisations. Leading PKI members were immediately arrested, some summarily executed.[16]

On 18 October, a declaration was read over the army-controlled radio stations, banning the PKI. The ban included the party itself, and its youth and women's wings, peasant associations, intellectual and student groups, and the SOBSI union. At the time, it was not clear whether this ban applied only to Jakarta (by then controlled by the Army), or the whole Republic of Indonesia. However, the ban was soon used as a pretext for the Indonesian Army to go throughout the country carrying out extrajudicial punishments, including mass arrest and summary executions, against suspected leftists and Sukarno loyalists. As the violence spread, Sukarno issued orders to try to stop it, but he was ignored. He also refused to blame the PKI for the coup, let alone ban it as the Army demanded. However, although Suharto and Nasution were increasingly suspicious about Sukarno's role in the affair, the Army was reluctant to confront the president directly because of his still widespread popularity.[19]

Beginning in later October 1965, and feeding off pent-up communal hatreds, the Indonesian army and its civilian allies (especially Muslim vigilante groups) began to kill actual and suspected[12] members and associates of the PKI. The U.S. government covertly supported the massacres, providing extensive lists of suspected communists to be targeted.[20][21] The killings started in the capital Jakarta, spread to Central and East Java, and later Bali. Although killings occurred across Indonesia, the worst were in PKI strongholds of Central Java, East Java, Bali, and northern Sumatra.[22] The massacres reached their peak over the remainder of the year before subsiding in the early months of 1966.[23] The estimates of the death toll of the violence range from over 100,000 to 3 million, but most scholars accept a figure of around 500,000.[24] Many others were also imprisoned and for the next ten years people were still being imprisoned as suspects. It is thought that as many as 1.5m were imprisoned at one stage or another.[25] As a result of the purge, one of Sukarno's three pillars of support, the PKI, had been effectively eliminated by the other two, the military and political Islam.


In October 1965, students in Jakarta formed KAMI (Kesatuan Aksi Mahasiswa Indonesia, Indonesian Students Action Front), which called for the banning of the PKI.[26] It was soon joined by a host of similar organisations made up of high school students, workers, artists and labourers and the like. Other targets for the demonstrators were rising prices and government inefficiency.[19] They also demonstrated against Subandrio, the foreign minister and head of the BPI intelligence agency and the number two man in the government.[9]

On 10 January 1966, demonstrators, including KAMI, demonstrated in front of the Provisional legislature and announced what became known as the Three Demands of the People (Tritura):

In February 1966, as anti-communist demonstrations continued, Sukarno tried to placate Suharto by promoting him. On 21 February, he tried to regain the initiative by announcing a new cabinet, which included former Air Force chief Omar Dani, who had issued a statement on 1 October 1965 initially supporting the coup. More provocatively still, Sukarno fired General Nasution from his cabinet post. The new cabinet immediately became known as the Gestapu cabinet, after the acronym coined by the military for 30 September Movement.[19]

Two days after the announcement, a huge crowd attempted to storm the presidential palace. The next day, while the new cabinet was being inaugurated, soldiers from the presidential guard opened fire on a crowd in front of the palace, killing student protester Arif Rachman Hakim, who was turned into a martyr and given a hero's funeral the following day.[19][26]

On 8 March 1966, students managed to ransack the foreign ministry, and held it for five hours. They daubed slogans, one accusing Subandrio of murdering the generals, and drew graffiti showing Subandrio as a Pekingese dog (a reference to his perceived closeness to communist China) or hanging from gallows.[19]

Sukarno then planned a three-day series of meetings to restore his authority. The first, on 10 March, involved the leaders of political parties. He managed to persuade them to sign a declaration warning against the undermining of presidential authority by student demonstrations. The second stage was a cabinet meeting planned for 11 March. However, as this meeting was underway, word reached Sukarno that unidentified troops were surrounding the palace. Sukarno left the palace in haste for Bogor, where later that night, he signed the Supersemar document transferring authority to restore order to Major General Suharto. Suharto acted quickly. One 12 March he banned the PKI. The same day, there was a "show of force" by the Army in the streets of Jakarta, which was watched by cheering crowds.[19] On 18 March, Subandrio and 14 other ministers were arrested., including third deputy prime minister Chairul Saleh. That night, the radio announced that the ministers were in "protective custody".[19]

Suharto later admitted in his autobiography that he frequently liaised with the student protesters throughout this period and Sukarno often pleaded with him to stop the demonstrations.

Political manoeuvring

General Suharto is sworn in as Indonesia's second president on 27 March 1968 (Photo by the Department of Information, Indonesia)

On 27 March, the new cabinet line-up, agreed between Suharto and Sukarno, was announced. It included the key figures of Suharto himself as interim deputy prime minister for security and defence affairs, tasked with preventing the resurgence of communism, the Sultan of Yogyakarta Sri Sulan Hamengkubuwono IX as deputy prime minister for economic, financial and development affairs, tasked with solving the nation's economic problems and Adam Malik as deputy prime minister for social and political affairs, whose job it would be to manage foreign policy.[19][27]

On 24 April 1966, Suharto gave a speech to members of the Indonesian National Party in which he spoke of the "three deviations" that would have to be corrected by the youth of the country in co-operation with the Armed Forces. These were:

The new regime turned away from China and began moves to end the Indonesia-Malaysia confrontation, in defiance of Sukarno's wishes.[19]

Meanwhile, Suharto and his allies continued to purge state institutions of Sukarno loyalists. The Tjakrabirawa palace guard was disbanded, and following further student demonstrations in front of the legislature building on 2 May, the leadership of the Mutual Cooperation House of Representatives (DPR-GR) was replaced and Sukarnoist and pro-communist members were suspended from the DPR-GR and the Provisional People's Consultative Assembly (MPRS), the supreme lawmaking body. Pro-Suharto replacements were appointed.[8][19]

A session of the MPRS was scheduled to open 12 May, but eventually began on 20 June and continued until 5 July. One of its first actions was to appoint General Abdul Haris Nasution as chairman. It then set about dismantling the apparatus Sukarno had built around himself. It passed several decrees, one of which was the ratification of the Supersemar, thus making revocation of it almost impossible. It also ratified the banning of the PKI and the teaching of Marxist ideology, instructed Suharto to form a new cabinet, called on Sukarno to provide an explanation for the economic and political situation in the nation and stripped him of the title "president for life". It also passed a decree stating that if the president was unable to carry out his duties, the holder of the Supersemar would assume the presidency.[19][26] Suharto did not seek Sukarno's outright removal at this MPRS session due to the remaining support for the president amongst elements of the armed forces (particularly the Marines, the navy, and some regional army divisions).

The new cabinet, announced by Sukarno on 20 June, was led by a five-man presidium headed by Suharto, and including Malik and Sri Sultan Hamengkubuwono IX.

On 11 August, against the wishes of Sukarno, a peace treaty was signed, formerly ending Konfrontasi. Indonesia announced it would rejoin the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund and the United Nations. It released political prisoners and paid compensation to the British and American governments for the damage caused to their diplomatic buildings during the demonstrations of the Sukarno era.

On 17 August, in his annual independence day speech, Sukarno claimed that Indonesia was not about to recognise Malaysia nor rejoin the UN. He also stated that he had not transferred power to Suharto. This provoked an angry reaction in the form of demonstrations, and Indonesia did indeed rejoin the UN in September, participating in the General Assembly on 28 September.[26] Meanwhile, criticism from demonstrators became increasingly vociferous and personal, and there were calls for him to be put on trial.

On 10 January 1967, Sukarno wrote to the MPRS, enclosing a document known as Nawaksara giving his version of the events surrounding the 30 September Movement. In it, he said the kidnappings and murders of the generals had been a "complete surprise" to him, and that he alone was not responsible for the nation's moral and economic problems. This led to demonstrators calling for Sukarno to be hanged.[19]

The MPRS leadership met on 21 January and concluded that Sukarno had failed to fulfill his constitutional obligations. In a resolution passed on 9 February, the DPR-GR rejected the Nawaksara and asked the MPRS to convene a special session.[26]

April 1967 ABC report of the political tensions at end of the Sukarno era

On 12 March 1967, the special session began. After heated debates, it agreed to strip Sukarno of his power. On 12 March, Suharto was appointed acting president. Sukarno went into de facto house arrest in Bogor. A year later, on 27 March 1968, another session of the MPRS appointed Suharto the second president of Indonesia.[26]

General Nasution was believed to have launched his own bid for power on 16 December 1965, when he won appointment to the Supreme Operations Command, and gained a grip over the traditionally civilian-held portion of the military hierarchy. It was reported that Nasution would have preferred forming a military junta to replace Sukarno.[29] (New York Times, 16 December 1965.)


Anti-Chinese laws

While resentment toward Chinese Indonesians by indigenous Indonesians-descended peoples of the archipelago dated back to the Dutch East Indies era, the New Order instigated anti-Chinese legislation following the quashing of the Communists. Stereotypes of the Chinese as disproportionately affluent and greedy were common throughout the time (both in Indonesia as well as Malaysia), but with the anti-communist hysteria, the association of the Chinese Indonesians with the People's Republic of China caused them to also be viewed as a communist fifth column.[30][31]

Indonesia's hitherto friendly diplomatic relations with mainland China were severed, and the Chinese Embassy in Jakarta burnt down by a mob. New legislation included the banning of Chinese language signs on shops and other buildings, and the closure of Chinese language schools, adoption of "Indonesian" sounding names, and limits on Buddhist temple construction.

A new political system

The liquidation and banning of the Communist Party (and related organisations) eliminated one of the largest political parties in Indonesia. It was also among the largest Communist Parties in the Comintern, at an estimated 3 million members. Along with the subsequent efforts by Suharto to wrest power from Sukarno by purging loyalists from the parliament, civilian government in Indonesia was effectively put to an end by the coup countermeasures.

Strident anti-communism remained a hallmark of the 31-year regime.[32]

The new regime that emerged from the upheavals of the 1960s was dedicated to maintaining political order, promoting economic development, and excluding mass participation from the political process. The military was given a strong role in politics, political and social organisations throughout the country were bureaucratised and corporatised, and a selective but effective and sometimes brutal repression was used against opponents of the regime.[32]

A number of seats in the Parliament were set-aside for the military under as part of the dwifungsi (dual function) doctrine. Under the system, the military took roles as administrators in all levels of government. The political parties not banned outright were consolidated into a single party, the Party of the Functional Groups (Indonesian: Partai Golongan Karya), more commonly known as Golkar. Though Suharto would allow for the formation of two non-Golkar parties, these were kept weak during his regime.

Rise of Islamism

The purging of two secularist parties, the Nationalists and the Communists, had a notable side effect of giving greater space for the development of Islamism in Indonesia. This included liberal, conservative, and extremist groups practising Islam in Indonesia. It is widely believed by observers of Indonesian history and politics that Suharto's forces whipped up anti-Communist sentiment in part by exploiting conservative Muslims' enmity of "godless" Communism to instigate a jihad against the leftists.

Improved ties with the West

The change in regime brought a shift in policy that allowed USAID and other relief agencies to operate within the country. Suharto would open Indonesia's economy by divesting state owned companies, and Western nations in particular were encouraged to invest and take control of many of the mining and construction interests in Indonesia. The result was stabilisation of the economy and the alleviation of absolute poverty and famine conditions that had resulted from shortfalls in the rice supply and Sukarno's reluctance to take Western aid.

As a result of his elimination of the communists, Suharto would come to be seen as a pro-Western and anti-Communist. An ongoing military and diplomatic relationship between the Indonesia and the Western powers was cemented, leading to American, British, and Australian arms sales and training of military personnel.

US assistance to Suharto

See: Foreign involvement in Indonesian killings of 1965–66


This period is depicted in the 1982 film The Year of Living Dangerously.



  1. Ricklefs (1991), pp. 271-283
  2. Chris Hilton (writer and director) (2001). Shadowplay (Television documentary). Vagabond Films and Hilton Cordell Productions.; Ricklefs (1991), pages 280–283, 284, 287–290
  3. Robert Cribb (2002). "Unresolved Problems in the Indonesian Killings of 1965-1966". Asian Survey. 42 (4): 550–563. doi:10.1525/as.2002.42.4.550.; Friend (2003), page 107-109, 113.
  4. Schwarz (1994), pages 52–57, Sheriden, Greg (28 January 2008). "Farewell to Jakarta's Man of Steel". The Australian. Retrieved 30 December 2008.
  5. Ricklefs (1991), page 282
  6. Ricklefs (1991), pages 272–280
  7. 1 2 Ricklefs (1991), p. 281
  8. 1 2 Ricklefs (1982)
  9. 1 2 Roosa (2007)
  10. Sekretariat Negara Republik Indonesia (1994) Appendix p19 (verbatim record of radio announcement)
  11. Latief (1999) p279
  12. 1 2 3 Ricklefs (1991), p. 287.
  13. Ricklefs (1991), page 281
  14. New York Times, 6 October 1965
  15. New York Times, 15 October 1965
  16. 1 2 Vickers (2005), page 157
  17. Ricklefs (1991), page 287
  18. New York Times, 19 October 1965
  19. 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 Hughes (2002)
  20. Kadane, Kathy (20 May 1990). "Ex-agents say CIA compiled death lists for Indonesians". States News Service. Retrieved 30 December 2015.
  21. Blanton, Thomas, ed. (27 July 2001). "CIA stalling State Department histories: State historians conclude U.S. passed names of communists to Indonesian Army, which killed at least 105,000 in 1965-66". National Security Archive. Retrieved 30 December 2015.
  22. Ricklefs (1991), page 287; Schwarz (1994), p. 20.
  23. Cribb (1990), p. 3; Ricklefs (1991), p. 288; McDonald (1980), p. 53.
  24. Robert Cribb, "Genocide in Indonesia, 1965-1966," Journal of Genocide Research 3 no. 2 (June 2001), pp. 219-239; Ricklefs (1991), p. 288; Friend (2003), p. 113; Vickers (2005), p. 159; Robert Cribb (2002). "Unresolved Problems in the Indonesian Killings of 1965–1966". Asian Survey. 42 (4): 550–563. doi:10.1525/as.2002.42.4.550.
  25. Vickers (2005), pages 159–60
  26. 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 Sekretariat Negara Republik Indonesia (1975)
  27. Simanjuntak(2004)
  28. Feith & Castles (Eds) (1970)
  29. New York Times, 16 December 1965
  30. Leo Suryadinata (2008). Ethnic Chinese in Contemporary Indonesia. Institute of Southeast Asian Studies. p. 125. ISBN 978-981-230-835-1.
  31. "China". Library of Congress.
  32. 1 2 Aspinall (1999), p i
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