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How The US Came to Declassify 30,000 Pages of American Embassy in Indonesia Files

FILE - Members of the Youth Wing of the Indonesian Communist Party (Pemuda Rakjat) taken to prison in Jakarta, Oct. 30, 1965, after an abortive coup against President Sukarno's government earlier in the month.
FILE - Members of the Youth Wing of the Indonesian Communist Party (Pemuda Rakjat) taken to prison in Jakarta, Oct. 30, 1965, after an abortive coup against President Sukarno's government earlier in the month.

On Tuesday, nearly 30,000 pages of declassified records from the U.S. Embassy in Jakarta between 1964 and 1968 were published in a collaboration between the National Declassification Center (a body within the National Archives) and the nonprofit National Security Archive, located at George Washington University. The period includes the Indonesian military’s mass killing of 500,000 to 1 million suspected Communists in 1965-66, which the U.S. materially supported at the time.

It is the largest and most significant release from the National Declassification Center, which was created by a 2009 Executive Order from then-President Barack Obama in order to improve transparency. The files provide further detail on how the U.S. Embassy kept track of the mass killings, as well as hoped to undermine labor movements, as the country transitioned into the Suharto military dictatorship.

An Ambitious Undertaking

“The National Declassification Center responded to our and other scholars' criticism over several years… that the Center shouldn't just work on the low-hanging fruit, the classified ‘administrivia,’ but take public interest, and scholarly interest, into account, and set priorities with public input,” said Tom Blanton, director of the nonprofit National Security Archive. “My early impression had been that the NDC was avoiding the highest-level and most highly classified files,” he said. “Many scholars had asked for the Indonesia embassy files from the 1960s to be declassified, because of the mass murders and historical turning points that took place then.”

“This is the first time the National Declassification Center has pursued a project due to public interest,” said Bradley Simpson, a University of Connecticut professor who founded the Indonesia/East Timor Documentation Project. He said that two high-impact documentaries from Joshua Oppenheimer on the mass killings, a subsequent resolution from Oppenheimer’s Senator Tom Udall (D-NM) to President Obama, and a formal request from Indonesia’s Human Rights Commission to the U.S. government were all factors in their release.

Simpson led a team of seven volunteers who helped scan and digitize the documents, which will be posted online in a searchable database. It was a labor of love, but worth it given the nature of modern research, said Simpson, who founded the Documentation Project in 2002. The government is only required to hand over physical files that are marked for declassification, which is unwieldy for subsequent scholars interested in the material.

“This is a good blueprint for how the National Archive can make formerly classified documents available to the public for posterity,” he said.

Documentaries’ Ongoing Impact

It is hard to overstate the impact of the documentaries The Act of Killing and The Look of Silence, which are respectively about the perpetrators and victims of the 1965-66 killings, on the renewed conversation over Indonesia's mid-century anti-Communist purge. For a long time the issue was verboten, even though so many families were personally impacted by it.

Barack Obama, who moved to Jakarta as a child in 1967, later recalled in his memoir how news of the very recent killings only reached his mother as “innuendo, half-whispered asides.”

“I am especially grateful to Joshua Oppenheimer for his work to bring this moral outrage into the public view,” said Senator Udall, in a statement released on Tuesday.

“Today represents real progress,” said Udall. “But in Indonesia, many of the individuals behind these murders continue to live with impunity, and the victims and their descendants continue to be marginalized and unrecognized… Here in the United States, we must encourage the continued democratic progress of a vital ally, and we must confront our own role in these terrible acts.”

Gaps Remain

The release of files on US involvement in Indonesia began in 2000, when the American State Department released Foreign Relations of the United States, 1964-1968.

The major extant question, even after this new dump of Embassy files, is about the complete nature and extent of American support for the Indonesian military during the killings.

It is already known that the CIA provided radios, for the military to coordinate murders across the archipelago, and “kill lists” of Communist Party-affiliated individuals. The full story would require the further declassification of CIA and Defense Attache files from the period, said Simpson. “But the raw material of intelligence gathering is among the most closely held secrets in the U.S. government. There is no guarantee that those documents will ever see the light of day.”

There is precedent for the U.S. government to use declassified files as a diplomatic tool: in 2015, Secretary of State John Kerry delivered hard disks of CIA records on Chile’s Gen. Augusto Pinochet and Argentina’s “Dirty War” of military repression to those countries’ governments.

“So it could happen with Indonesia too,” said Simpson. “But it’s unlikely at the moment. I don’t think the Trump Administration is interested in questions of human rights or historical accountability, regarding Indonesia or otherwise.”