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Jakarta 1965 and the foreign correspondent

Michael Hegarty
Michael Hegarty

The Jakarta Post

Jakarta | Mon, June 19, 2017 | 11:06 am
Jakarta 1965 and the foreign correspondent

On the rise: A communist symbol dominates Gelora Bung Karno Stadium, Senayan, in 1965 at a massive Indonesian Communist Party (PKI) rally. (Frank Palmos/File)

When the events of 1965 in Indonesia are discussed, they are almost always seen through the prism of what happened on Oct. 1 and in the weeks and months that followed — focusing on the purge of communists and suspected communists that followed the kidnapping and murder of the Army generals on that fateful day.

In that narrative, the Indonesia Communist Party (PKI) is always painted as the victim and the Army is cast as the villain. However, while there is great sympathy — as there should be — for people who suffered injustices in those days, we rarely hear of what led up to the bloodletting.

It is simply presented as Indonesians doing what they do, running amok in an orgy of inexplicable violence and butchering entirely innocent people who posed no threat to Indonesia or its unity and security as a nation.

So it was that the lecture given by veteran Australian journalist, and now historian, Frank Palmos at Plataran Menteng recently provided an incredibly stark counter to this narrative by explaining the context of the chaos into which Indonesia had descended in 1964 and 1965 caused by the PKI’s pursuit of a radical Maoist ideology at the instigation of China, itself going through a similar period of insanity at the hands of the Red Guards.

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Using dozens of his own photographs (including a delightful shot of the stunning Dewi Sukarno holding a teddy bear he had presented her), Palmos spoke for well over two hours, and his audience would have happily listened for two hours more. He explained in fascinating detail how the PKI, and more importantly president Sukarno — of whom Palmos had once been “a devoted fan” — in his support for the party, pushed Indonesia to the brink of disaster, a disaster that Palmos described as “inevitable.”

On the rise: A communist symbol dominates Gelora Bung Karno Stadium, Senayan, in 1965 at a massive Indonesian Communist Party (PKI) rally.(Frank Palmos/File)

Palmos, the inspiration for the main character in the book and movie The Year of Living Dangerously, was a witness to the madness, brutality and visceral hatred that was being whipped up daily on the streets, in communities and schools against westerners and anyone perceived as being “imperialists” by the PKI’s masters in Beijing.

“Imperialists” included not only the usual suspects, the United States, the United Kingdom, Australia and of course Malaysia, against whom Sukarno was “fighting” a largely non-existent war, but even at one point India, which was in conflict with China’s ally Pakistan and whose embassy was ransacked by a PKI-led mob.

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Along with stunts like the Indian Embassy episode, Sukarno’s decision, again at Beijing’s behest, to pull out of the United Nations alienated even Indonesia’s friends in the Non-Aligned Movement, in which Indonesia had once strode as a colossus following the Bandung conference 10 years earlier.

As Indonesia’s international standing plummeted, so did its economy with the rupiah becoming virtually worthless, foreign aid drying up (to no one’s surprise shouting “Go to Hell with your aid!” had consequences) and Western businesses being harassed and attacked on a regular basis and their staff being threatened and abused.

Beauty: Sukarno’s Japanese-born wife Dewi clutches a teddy bear presented to her by Frank Palmos during an interview in 1965.(Frank Palmos/File)

Amid this frenzy, being a journalist in Jakarta became an extremely stressful job, with consequences ranging from being expelled because some story offended Sukarno’s amour propre, to being beaten and having one’s camera smashed for taking a photograph at the wrong place or wrong time.

In the face of this Palmos and his colleagues founded the then Djakarta Foreign Correspondents Club (DFCC, later JFCC). Now a convivial club for expats to meet and chat over a drink, the JFCC was then a shelter for foreign correspondents, including many Eastern Bloc journalists who also felt the need to seek refuge from the craziness among their “imperialist” colleagues.

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Palmos spoke of those days with intense clarity, and at times great humor, regularly leaving his audience bellowing in laughter at the absurdities that arose during this time of madness.

He was a journalist and did what journalists nowadays so often fail to do; he went out looking for the story, including the site of the ludicrous Indonesian atomic bomb project.

Not so ludicrous was his reporting on “the Long March of May 1965,” which convinced Palmos that the PKI had no massed army in the Javanese heartland but would instead rely on a single powerful — what Palmos described as a “stiletto” — blow in Jakarta if it wished to achieve power and defeat the Army before the expected imminent demise of Sukarno.

While Palmos does not underestimate or dismiss the horrors of the subsequent purge, he is blunt in his estimation of the place that Oct. 1, 1965, occupies in the history of Indonesia. It was a defining moment that saved the nation, equivalent to the Declaration of Independence and the Battle of Surabaya. Had Beijing succeeded in neutralizing the Army and getting the PKI into government, Indonesia would have disintegrated and those parts of Java under PKI control would have suffered horrors akin to Pol Pot’s later rule in Cambodia. A stark and sobering assessment indeed.

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