Indonesian Communist Party (PKI)

PKI in Batavia (now Jakarta) - 1925
PKI in Batavia (now Jakarta) - 1925

The left movement in Indonesia began within the Sarekat Islam (Islamic Association), established in 1911. Henk Sneevliet established the Indische Sociaal Democratische Vereenigin (ISDV, Indies Social Democratic Association) in 1914 and worked within the Sarekat Islam.

After the Russian Revolution of 1917 the ISDV increased its membership, and in May 1920 it changed its name to Partai Kommunist Indonesia (PKI, Communist Party of Indonesia), which became the first communist party in Asia.

It was expelled by the Sarekat Islam. The PKI organized strikes, and Dutch authorities, alarmed, expelled leaders like Sneevliet and Tan Malaka. The policy of repression by the government made the PKI popular, and it organized large-scale strikes in 1926.

In November the Republic of Indonesia was proclaimed. After proclamation of the Republic of Indonesia on August 17, 1945, by Ahmed Sukarno (1901–70) the PKI believed it to be Japanese sponsored and fascist. The republic successfully crushed two communist rebellions in 1946 and 1948.

There was a change in PKI’s direction after 1950 under the leadership of Dipa Nusantara Aidit. It had an agenda of nationalist commitment and supported Sukarno’s anticolonial policy. In the first general elections of 1955 the PKI was aligned with the Perserikatan Nasional Indonesia (PNI, Indonesian Nationalist Union), founded by Sukarno in June 1927.

The PKI received 16.4 percent of the votes, and in the newly elected parliament it had 39 seats. With maneuvering and a dedicated party cadre, the PKI had become a political force to be reckoned with in the country.

Dipa Nusantara Aidit
Dipa Nusantara Aidit

n July 1957 the PKI made advances in municipal elections. The PKI had become vocal about the Dutch control of West New Guinea (Irian Jaya/Papua). In the wake of a campaign to annex it, the members of PKI as well as PNI seized control of Dutch industries in December 1957.

The PKI’s voice against the dominance of foreign capital in Indonesia gradually led to the nationalization of major industries. Religious parties like Islamist Masyumi were in favor of declaring the PKI illegal. The party had found Sukarno as an ally and supported his Guided Democracy.

The PNI, PKI, and Nahdatul Ulema were among the major political parties that were allowed to function. After the abortive coup of February 1958, martial law was imposed by Sukarno, and the PKI supported it. By 1960 the PKI could influence Sukarno on internal and foreign policy of the country.

The situation in Indonesia during the 1960s was ripe for a communist insurrection, and the PKI exploited the situation to its maximum potential. The crop failure in central Java in February 1964 resulted in a starving population of 1 million.

Both Sukarno and the PKI launched the Crush Malaysia campaign. PKI cadres crossed over the border and took part in guerrilla warfare in Sarawak and north Borneo. The United States terminated military aid in September 1963.

The PKI had begun a program of arming the people. It had become the third-largest communist party in the world, with a membership of 3.5 million. It had the direct support of 20 million people through its varied organizations. On the night of September 30, 1965, six top army generals were rounded up, taken to the Halim Air Force Base, and brutally killed.

The identity of the perpetrators of the crime was not known, but blame was placed on the PKI. The Gerakan on September 30 resulted in violent retribution against the PKI. There was a slaughter of a half-million Communists, including the Chinese. The PKI was outlawed in March 1966.

General Haji Mohamed Suharto (1921– ), who had taken leadership in crushing the coup, became the acting president in March 1967. Sukarno remained under house arrest until his death on June 21, 1970. Suharto established the Kopkamtib (Operational Command for the Restoration of Security and Order) to scuttle the opposition, muzzle the press, and prevent the reemergence of the PKI.

There was otokritik (selfcriticism) by exiled PKI members in Beijing. In 1999 President Abdurrahman Wahid asked the exiled PKI leaders to come back to open a dialogue, but the proposal did not find favor with fundamentalist Islamic groups.