In the recent brouhaha over whether or not Adam Malik had links to the CIA, I was struck by the absence of any commentary on a possible British role in efforts to undermine and overthrow President Sukarno.
Why would the British not have joined with the Americans in their subversion of the “left-leaning” Sukarno? After all, Britain had a long record of colonial-imperial adventures from the creation of the states of Iraq and Jordan, for example, to the role played by British Intelligence in the overthrow of the elected Iranian government of Mohammed Mossadeq in 1953. Mossadeq’s “crime” was to nationalize the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company in an effort to divert revenues for the benefit of the Iranian people.
Then there was Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser and his nationalization of the Suez Canal for which “crime” the British response was the Suez invasion.
Mossadeq, Nasser and Sukarno had something in common: They opposed European colonialism and neocolonialism. Had Mossadeq been strong enough to ward off the coup that overthrew him and installed the Shah on the Peacock Throne he might very well have been in Bandung for the founding of the Non-Aligned Movement.
Formal decolonization, such as Malaysian independence in 1957, did not bring an end to British interests in Southeast Asia. Far from it, as Sukarno recognized. The terms of the independence agreement negotiated with Malaysian Prime Minister Tunku Abdul Rahman were favorable to British companies such as Sime Darby in the plantation sector.
Any movement to the left in Southeast Asia raised alarms in London.
As the British researcher Mark Curtis has shown from his study of declassified documents in the UK Public Records Office in London, British Intelligence, specifically MI6, had Sukarno in their sights right through the 1950s and 1960s. In 1962 British Prime Minister Harold “Winds of Change” MacMillan and US President John Kennedy came to an agreement to “eliminate” Sukarno, should “the opportunity arise.” We are speaking here of assassination, of course.
If I may introduce some anecdotal evidence of British intelligence gathering in Indonesia, it applies to my father, a middle-ranking British Royal Air Force officer stationed in Singapore for almost three years in the 1950s. He told me much later that an RAF colleague of his sent on a logistics purchasing trip to Palembang had been “buttonholed” by British Intelligence to gather information about the city.
A small detail, perhaps, but one that indicates efforts were afoot to project a possible direct intervention against Indonesia.
Of course, it all came to a head with Konfrontasi in 1963 when British, Australian and New Zealand troops faced off against the Indonesians in Borneo. Konfrontasi was still going on when the epoch-making events that followed the botched power play of Sept. 30-Oct. 1, 1965, got under way. What Curtis shows is that the British then used the power struggle and the anti-leftist bloodbath in Indonesia both to strengthen their own hand and to facilitate the mass murders going on under the direction of Gen. Suharto.
What British declassified items show, most interestingly, is that British Royal Navy vessels escorted Indonesian troops aboard a Panamanian-flagged ship down the Strait of Malacca to Java to strengthen Suharto’s hand.
This brings us to the small matter of the role played in 1965 by the British ambassador to Jakarta, Sir Andrew Gilchrist. Curtis alleges that Gilchrist, having learned of the mass killings, could scarcely contain his glee and wrote to the Foreign Office in London on Oct. 5 to say, “I have never hidden from you my belief that a little shooting in Indonesia would be an essential preliminary to change.”
At least one source disputes this. If you go to a search engine you will see that there is a Wikipedia entry referring to Gilchrist that claims the cable was a forgery dreamed up by an agent of what was then Communist Czechoslovakia.
How then did it pass Foreign Office scrutiny?
There is clear evidence of MI6 activity directed at Indonesia in this bloody period. An anti-Sukarno propaganda campaign was run from the MI6 listening post at Phoenix Park in Singapore under the leadership of Norman Reddaway, a top operative.
Britain’s role in subverting Sukarno is unmistakable and goes back to the early 1950s when the president moved to nationalize Dutch interests in Indonesia, causing serious alarm in London. What Curtis has done is to demonstrate the continuum.
David Jardine is a freelance writer based in Indonesia.