Sun, 23 Mar 2003

1965 putsch remains a mystery

Harry Bhaskara, The Jakarta Post, Berkeley, California

Southeast Asia: A Testament; By George McT. Kahin; Publisher Routledge Curzon (2003), 373pp

Scholars often have to face awkward situations for their independent views. George Kahin is no exception. For 15 years the noted American scholar was barred from Indonesia by the New Order military government. Back home, he was banned from leaving America for five years on charges that he was a communist. The real reasons were that he was critical of pro-Dutch, U.S. officials posted in a new independent Indonesia and, regarding the ban on visiting Jakarta, because of his reservations over the military government's line that the communists were to blame in the 1965 coup d'etat.

In the early 1950s the Indonesian Communist Party and U.S. government went as far as to share a common charge against Kahin, saying that he represented himself as an American agent in Indonesia. Kahin showed how folly and personal grudges contributed to this confusion and, in the process, unveiled the intricacies of Cold War politics. Fortunately, Kahin's friends, who shared his vision and principles, stood firmly beside him throughout all his difficult years.

All this is laid bare in this fascinating book. A testament in the true sense of the word, it contains a lot of interesting historical tidbits that would help readers better understand the context of any given event. The book has been published posthumously by his wife, Audrey, two years after his demise.

The book not only captures the historical pinnacles of Indonesia but also those of Vietnam and Cambodia, two countries in which Kahin got more and more interested in the latter part of his life. Kahin had been critical of U.S. policies in those countries.

Virtually all the notable events that occurred in the fledgling Indonesia are touched upon, including the Madiun communist rebellion, the Dutch military actions, the Republican troop attacks on Yogyakarta and the Renville and the Roem Royen agreements. Kahin puts a human face on virtually the who's who in Indonesia's history, a rare treat indeed, talking about crocodiles while hunting with Sukarno during the latter's exile in Bangka island, and a glimpse of the late communist leader, Amir Sjarifuddin, reading a bible on a ship's deck.

Readers will find history an intimate subject as it unveils itself in a way a diary does. The Madiun rebellion could not have occurred if the U.S. had not reneged on the Renville agreement, he said. A UN official believed that the rationalization of the military under General Sudirman was another reason why the rebellion took place. Civilian workers had been worried that they would lose their jobs once the military took over their jobs.

Kahin was not only a scholar par excellence for his determination always to recognize the power of knowledge, as the difficult political conditions of the time also drove him to become a journalist and diplomat. The book speaks for itself -- he answered those calls with flying colors.

The reason for writing the book, Kahin said, was because he felt that significant events were often missing in today's history books. Many were also incompatible with what he found in American and British archives, as well as with his direct experience in Southeast Asia.

"All too much of significance, it seems to me, has been consciously or unconsciously swept under the carpet, or tailored to fit in with perdurable and broadly accepted myths as to the past roles of the American government," he says.

On the CIA, he says, he had tried for more than 20 years without success to find out whether the agency had been involved in a number of assassination attempts on several foreign heads of state, including Indonesia's first president, Sukarno. This was after U.S. Senator Frank Church dropped his committee's investigation into the allegations in 1975 under pressure from Henry Kissinger and CIA director William Colby.

"The committee's staff in 1997 so fully stonewalled my efforts that I was unable even to get copies of the record of testimony I myself had given before the committee more than two decades earlier (in 1973)," Kahin says.

The Senate Select Committee on Intelligence continues to this day but its mandate to investigate these charges was not restored.

That experience illustrates well his decades of effort to find out the true story behind the 1965 coup d'etat in Indonesia, blamed on the communists.

The government, under Soeharto, which ruled Indonesia from 1966 to 1998, never wanted the outside world to know the real story behind the 1965 putsch. It repeatedly promised to deliver pertinent documents Kahin had been asking for to facilitate a further study on the coup. The Army's judge advocate general, Gen. I.J. Kanter, was initially upbeat on helping him but the documents were never delivered. In November 1976 Soeharto sent a military delegation to Cornell that delivered 200 pounds of documents but none was what Kahin had been asking for.

Kahin devotes a three-page chapter to the Cornell paper, drafted by Kahin's graduate students soon after the putsch, and based on Indonesian newspapers available at Cornell University. The paper, intended for limited internal use by scholars, promoted the belief that the coup was the result of a dispute within the Army. It somehow leaked out and received instant fame within Indonesia. Kahin had sought the pertinent documents from the Soeharto government in order to rectify the paper that he said had been "misquoted, doctored and misrepresented" by other parties.

These two episodes may give rise to the dreaded question: How come then the U.S. and the Indonesian governments differed from each other? At the same time, they showed that Kahin's response to events swirling around him was based on humanistic principles, hence his refusal to be swayed by either communist or imperialist ideology.

With regard to pre-independence days, Kahin found the Dutch government's plan to grant independence to Indonesia to be genuine. He held Governor General Van Mook in high regard, saying that the latter had a genuine affection for the country. But seen from today's perspective, Van Mook's comments on his government's plan to establish a federal united states of Indonesia are disturbing because they strike a chord regarding every regime change that subsequently occurred in the country. Van Mook alluded to the obstacles to a federalist state in an Aug. 2, 1948, interview with Kahin when he said that there were too many people in the Republic with "vested interests in the present political setup." He added, "Those people knew that under a Dutch-sponsored federation they would have lost their arms and thus their power."

On a lighter side, Kahin recounted his first encounter with Javanese mysticism when he drove his two, Western-trained Indonesian friends and their wives from Cirebon to Bandung. He was puzzled by the dramatic silence from his usually talkative friends on the two-hour trip, only to discover the reason why when they were close to Bandung.

They said that they had been advised against the trip by their spiritual guru as they might be attacked by antigovernment Darul Islam troops on the way. To ward off any possible danger, they had been asked to concentrate intensely on the way to Bandung, thus rendering themselves mute companions for Kahin.

Kahin, who died in January 2000, also mentions his family background to help readers understand his views better. He was raised, he said, in a free-thinking family. To many Indonesians he was more than a true friend for his outstanding contributions to the fledgling country. Kahin is best remembered for his contributions in setting up the Modern Indonesia project in Cornell, to date one of the largest centers for Indonesian studies in the world.

Harry Bhaskara ( is a visiting scholar at the University of California, Berkeley.