How we destroyed Sukarno

Foreign Office `dirty tricks' helped overthrow Indonesia's President Sukarno in 1966. Over the next 30 years, half a million people died.
In autumn 1965, Norman Reddaway, a lean and erudite rising star of the Foreign Office, was briefed for a special mission. The British Ambassador to Indonesia, Sir Andrew Gilchrist, had just visited London for discussions with the head of the Foreign Office, Joe Garner. Covert operations to undermine Sukarno, the troublesome and independently minded President of Indonesia, were not going well. Garner was persuaded to send Reddaway, the FO's propaganda expert, to Indonesia. His task: to take on anti-Sukarno propaganda operations run by the Foreign Office and M16. Garner gave Reddaway pounds 100,000 in cash "to do anything I could do to get rid of Sukarno", he says.

Reddaway thus joined the loose amalgam of groups from the Foreign Office, M16, the State Department and the CIA in the Far East, all striving to depose Sukarno in diffuse and devious ways. For the next six months he and his colleagues chipped away at Sukarno's regime, undermining his reputation and assisting his enemies in the army. By March 1966 Sukarno's power base was in tatters and he was forced to hand over his presidential authority to General Suharto, the head of the army, who was already running a campaign of mass murder against alleged communists.

According to Reddaway, the overthrow of Sukarno was one of the Foreign Office's "most successful" coups, which they have kept a secret until now. The British intervention in Indonesia, alongside complimentary CIA operations, shows how far the Foreign Office was prepared to go in intervening in other countries' affairs during the Cold War. Indonesia was important both economically and strategically. In 1952 the US noted that if Indonesia fell out of Western influence, neighbours such as Malaya might follow, resulting in the loss of the "principal world source of natural rubber and tin and a producer of petroleum and other strategically important commodities".

The Japanese occupation during the Second World War, which to the Indonesians amounted to another period of colonial rule, had revitalised the nationalist movement which after the war, declared independence and assumed power. Ahmed Sukarno became Indonesia's first president. Western concern regarding Sukarno's regime grew owing to the strength of the Indonesian communist party, the PKI, which at its peak had a membership of over 10 million, the largest communist party in the non-communist world. Concerns were not allayed by Sukarno's internal and external policies, including nationalising Western assets and a governmental role for the PKI.

By the early Sixties Sukarno had become a major thorn in the side of both the British and the Americans. They believed there was a real danger that Indonesia would fall to the communists. To balance the army's growing power, Sukarno aligned himself closer to the PKI.

The first indication of British interest in removing Sukarno appears in a CIA memorandum of 1962. Prime Minister Macmillan and President Kennedy agreed to "liquidate President Sukarno, depending on the situation and available opportunities".

Hostility to Sukarno was intensified by Indonesian objections to the Malaysian Federation. Sukarno complained the project was "a neo-colonial plot, pointing out that the Federation was a project for Malayan expansionism and continuing British influence in the region.

In 1963 his objections crystallised in his policy of Konfrontasi, a breaking off of all relations with Malaysia, soon coupled with low-level military intervention. A protracted border war began along the 700-mile-long front in Borneo.

According to Foreign Office sources the decision to get rid of Sukarno had been taken by Macmillan's Conservative government and carried through during Wilson's 1964 Labour government. The Foreign Office had worked in conjunction with their American counterparts on a plan to oust the turbulent Sukarno. A covert operation and psychological warfare strategy was instigated, based at Phoenix Park, in Singapore, the British headquarters in the region. The M16 team kept close links with key elements in the Indonesian army through the British Embassy. One of these was Ali Murtopo, later General Suharto's intelligence chief, and M16 officers constantly travelled back and forth between Singapore and Jakarta.

The Foreign Office's Information Research Department (IRD) also worked out of Phoenix Park, reinforcing the work of M16 and the military psychological warfare experts.

IRD had been established by the Labour government in 1948 to conduct an anti-communist propaganda war against the Soviets, but had swiftly become enlisted in various anti-independence movement operations in the declining British Empire. By the Sixties, IRD had a staff of around 400 in London and information officers around the world influencing media coverage in areas of British interest.

According to Roland Challis, the BBC correspondent at the time in Singapore, journalists were open to manipulation by IRD, owing, ironically, to Sukarno's own policies: "In a curious way, by keeping correspondents out of the country Sukarno made them the victims of official channels, because almost the only information you could get was from the British ambassador in Jakarta." The opportunity to isolate Sukarno and the PKI came in October 1965 when an alleged PKI coup attempt was the pretext for the army to sideline Sukarno and eradicate the PKI. Who exactly instigated the coup and for what purposes remains a matter of speculation. However, within days the coup had been crushed and the army was firmly in control. Suharto accused the PKI of being behind the coup, and set about suppressing them.

Following the attempted coup Britain set about exploiting the situation. On 5 October, Alec Adams, political adviser to the Commander-in-Chief, Far East, advised the Foreign Office: "We should have no hesitation in doing what we can surreptitiously to blacken the PKI in the eyes of the army and the people of Indonesia." The Foreign Office agreed and suggested "suitable propaganda themes" such as PKI atrocities and Chinese intervention.

One of the main themes pursued by IRD was the threat posed by the PKI and "Chinese communists". Newspaper reports continually emphasised the danger of the PKI. Drawing upon their experience in Malaya in the Fifties, the British emphasised the Chinese nature of the communist threat. Roland Challis said: "One of the more successful things which the West wished on to the non-communist politicians in Indonesia was to transfer the whole idea of communism onto the Chinese minority in Indonesia. It turned it into an ethnic thing. It is a terrible thing to have done to incite the Indonesians to rise and slaughter the Chinese."

But it was the involvement of Sukarno with the PKI in the bloody months following the coup that was to be the British trump card. According to Reddaway: "The communist leader, Aidit, went on the run and Sukarno, being a great politician, went to the front of the palace and said that the communist leader Aidit must be hunted down and brought to justice. From the side door of the palace, he was dealing with him every day by courier."

This information was revealed by the signal intelligence of Britain's GCHQ. The Indonesians didn't have a clue about radio silence and this double-dealing was picked up by GCHQ; the British had its main eavesdropping base in Hong Kong tuned into events in Indonesia.

The discrediting of Sukarno was of fundamental importance. Sukarno remained a respected and popular leader against whom Suharto could not move openly until the conditions were right. The constant barrage of bad international coverage and Sukarno's plummeting political position fatally undermined him. On 10 March 1966, Sukarno was forced to sign over his powers to General Suharto. Now perceived as closely associated with the attempted coup and the PKI, Sukarno had been discredited to the point where the army felt able to act. The PKI was eliminated as a significant force and a pro-Western military dictatorship firmly established.

It was not long before Suharto quietly ended the inactive policy of Konfrontasi resulting in a swift improvement in Anglo-Indonesian relations, which continue to be close to this day.

From: `Britain's Secret Propaganda War 1948-77', by Paul Lashmar and James Oliver, to be published by Sutton on 7 December