The 1965-66 Indonesian killings occurred against the backdrop of the Cold War, extreme political tension and economic hardship. In 1959 President Sukarno implemented the system of ‘Guided Democracy’. He claimed that since the Indonesian revolution against the Dutch (1945-49), the system of parliamentary democracy had failed. Sukarno proposed an alternative in which the president would play a greater role. In addition he called for a ‘return to the rails of the revolution’ and began to focus increasingly on implementing the next stage of the revolution, a form of socialist populism. During the period of Guided Democracy Sukarno played a delicate balancing act by supporting both the largely anticommunist army and the Indonesian Communist Party (PKI - Partai Komunis Indonesia).
The PKI was one of the few mass political forces whose influence grew during this period. By 1965 the party claimed to have three and a half million members, thereby making it the largest Communist Party in any non-communist country. The PKI offered a new modernist ideology and sought to address inequalities and generate support among the people by exploiting existing fractures in society. The PKI pressured Sukarno to move ahead in implementing the system of land reform. Following the government’s delays in implementing land reform, based on the 1959 Crop Sharing Law and the 1960 Basic Agrarian Law, the PKI called for peasants to begin to implement their own land reforms. In regions such as East Java and parts of Bali the land reforms were a major cause of conflict.
At an ideological level there were also growing tensions resulting from the increased influence of the PKI. Although there were communist supporters in the military, the army had long standing suspicions of the PKI, based on the perception that the communists had led a rebellion against the Republic in 1948 during the struggle against the Dutch (known as the Madiun Affair). Religious groups ranging from Muslims to Catholics were also suspicious of the PKI’s stance on religion, fearing that with the increasing influence of the party religious beliefs and practices would be marginalised.
Sukarno became increasingly strident in his condemnation of the Western powers and neo-imperialist agendas in the 1960s, culminating in the 1963-65 military operation to crush the formation of Malaysia, which in his view was a ‘neo-colonial’ creation.
Sukarno focused intensely on the ideological direction of Indonesia, paying less attention to the economy. He divided the world into NEFOS (Newly Emerging Forces) and OLDEFOS (Old Established Forces), drawing sharp lines between neo-colonial and progressive world forces.
In the late 1950s Sukarno had nationalised many remaining Dutch assets, emphasising the need for economic independence but producing no clear policies for the economy. This resulted in the deterioration of infrastructure, a fall in agricultural production, escalating inflation and severe economic hardship for most Indonesians. In 1965 he famously told the US to ‘go to hell’ with its aid.