In late 1998, the world watched with concern a sinister wave of killings against moderate Muslim clerics in East Java, Indonesia. The killings had the marks of a psychological terror campaign, much like that waged in 1965 by the Indonesian Army. By its use of “psywar,” the Army was able to kill off its Communist political opposition and at the same time reinforce a desire for rule by a strongman regime. In that Army campaign at least 500,000 civilians were killed.
The analogies between 1965 and 1998 are many: the distribution of death lists to terrify the public, the arrival of assassins in trucks, mutilation of corpses and display of body parts in public places. This led observers inside and outside Java to speculate that, once again, Army elements were fomenting terror to justify a military crackdown. In fact, Army members have already been arrested by local authorities for the killings, and then mysteriously released (Singapore Straits Times, 10/30/98).
In the October 20 New York Times, Nicholas Kristof presented an almost completely backwards analysis of the killings, attributing them not to the army but to social upheaval in the transition away from military dictatorship. “With the decline of strongman rule,” he wrote, “there seems to be an increasing willingness to attribute a problem to a sorcerer’s magic–and to settle the problem immediately by picking up a sickle.”
To support the case that killings began from below, not above, Kristof supplied a falsified chronology. He wrote that the “killings began with the slayings of dozens of Muslim leaders,” which then led to retaliations against suspects with alleged “supernatural powers.” In fact, the original victims were traditional sorcerers (dukuns), who are part of the Javanese culture. Their practice is offensive to sectarian Muslims, but is tolerated by the clerics of the more moderate Nahdlatul Ulama (NU) organization. These became targeted after some of them had come to the sorcerers’ aid.
Mob violence only began after killers dressed in black, whom the public called “ninjas,” had killed almost 100 NU clerics, and even thrown parts of dismembered corpses into mosques (a gesture certain not only to terrorize but to infuriate). Kristof writes that “the original ninja were secret Japanese fighters,” not mentioning that in Java the term is applied to killers trained by the ruthless Army Special Forces–now called Kopassus–who organized the great massacre of 1965.
To quote from a warning distributed by pro-democracy activists in Jakarta last May, “‘Ninja’ is the term popularly used to designate the Army Special Forces (Kopassus) in disguise. Ninjas usually do the killing and destruction covertly.” The warning added that Kopassus started using ninjas when the U.S.-trained General Prabowo, until this spring a Pentagon golden boy, was Kopassus commander.
In his article, Kristof accurately reported that many believe the killings are an extension of those engaged in by “the ruling political apparatus” in the Suharto era, “either to eliminate Muslim critics or else to sow chaos and the conditions for a coup.” But this language avoided mentioning the Army. Indeed, the only reference to the army in his three-column story was as a force entering the area belatedly, “pledged to solve all the killings.”
In short, the Kristof story presents a picture of mob violence requiring army intervention, where reporters from AsiaWeek (10/31/98) to the London Sunday Times (10/25/98) have seen yet another covert army intervention to induce mob violence.
Nostalgia for order
Much more so than other New York Times reporters, Kristof’s stories on Indonesia have consistently betrayed the same propagandistic bias. This was his first Indonesia story since last May, when, after anti-Chinese violence for which Kopassus and its former general Prabowo have been blamed, Kristof wrote that “new freedoms” were responsible for the ethnic frictions (5/25/98). And he showed his nostalgia for army rule four days earlier (5/21/98), when he belittled the student protest movement in Jakarta and approvingly described the Army as “the institution that used to keep the passengers in the back seat and maintain order.” This was shortly after exposures of Kopassus atrocities for which General Prabowo was demoted and eventually fired.
This nostalgia for the Indonesian Army’s version of “order” has been a recurrent feature of New York Times reporting (and misreporting) about Indonesia in the past. Just as for decades the Army and its U.S.-trained Kopassus Special Forces were the preferred assets of the CIA and Pentagon, so were their propaganda campaigns faithfully parroted by the Times.
In 1965, as the Special Forces proceeded to massacre thousands of Communists and others, the New York Times (10/30/65) repeated the Army claim that it was Communists who were massacring their enemies. In 1975, seven weeks after CIA reports that the Indonesian Army had begun fighting overtly in East Timor, a Times correspondent (11/26/75) wrote of Indonesia’s “hands-off policy with regard to the civil war that is engulfing Portuguese Timor.”
To its credit, some New York Times coverage of Indonesia and East Timor has recently improved. For example, a story by Seth Mydans (8/25/98) frankly acknowledged the terroristic military practices which led to the dismissal of General Prabowo.
But just as Prabowo and Kopassus are still feared in Indonesia as possible manipulators of the ninja terror campaign, so there still appear to be those in Washington, and at the New York Times, who wish to remain close to them.
In November an official fact-finding team in Jakarta accused Prabowo and other officers of planning for the creation of the May riots at the “highest decision-making level.” But the New York Times (11/4/98), suppressing Prabowo’s name, reported that the team found that “the military had been effective in controlling the chaos.”
Such stories are much worse, and more ominous, than a piece of bad journalism. They suggest that, once again, the Times has become an instrument in a psywar campaign to protect state terrorism.
An Index of Misrepresentation
Through three crucial months in 1965, the New York Times repeated Indonesian Army propaganda about a Communist-directed terror campaign and massacre following a failed coup by leftist military officers.
The alleged Communist campaign never existed: “The collapse of the coup in Jakarta demoralized the leading military conspirators in Central Java,” wrote M.C. Ricklefs in his History of Modern Indonesia. “During the night of 12 October they withdrew to the Mount Merapi-Merbabu area with two companies of soldiers. The officers they left behind realized that the cause was lost and begged forgiveness. Jakarta thus regained control of the region.”
Here is the record of the Times‘ misrepresentation, as summarized in the Times‘ own index. The first hint that Communists were, in reality, the victims of the massacre was published on November 27, 1965.
* 10/8: Army seen curbing drive against Communists and heeding Sukarno plea for unity
* 10/19: Mobs reported burning and sacking country
* 10/25: Army seen as bulwark against take-over by Communists
* 10/28: Army declares martial law in central Java; alleges Communists massacre civilians there
* 11/1: Communist rebels reportedly seize two areas; martial law earlier imposed and troops sent in to halt terrorism
* 11/3: Communist revolt rapidly spreads from central to E and W Java; 500 rebels battling
* 11/15: Communists in central Java, under army pressure broken into small-scale bands capable only of small-scale terrorism
* 11/27: Roman Catholic newspaper reports 71 Communists captured, many killed by army troops…many Catholic youths killed by Communists
* 12/20: Singapore sources say Communists planned large-scale terror campaign if coup succeeded
The Times and East Timor
In 1975, the New York Times (often relying on British sources) repeated Indonesian Army lies about the new government of East Timor, as “Communists” (9/14/75) receiving arms from Communist bloc countries (12/13/75), who in seizing power “had cut the throats of babies” (8/26/75), and who were violating the Indonesian territory of West Timor (9/27/75).
Former Australian diplomat James Dunn, who was in East Timor at the time, has since denounced these claims as either “macabre fantasy” or else fabrications from the Indonesian Army intelligence agency Bakin. (See James Dunn, Timor.)
Meanwhile, an extraordinary dispatch (11/26/75) from the Times‘ own correspondent, David Andelman, spoke of Indonesia’s “hands-off policy with respect to the civil war that is engulfing Portuguese Timor,” and noted that “the Indonesian forces…have been showing remarkable restraint.”
This was seven weeks after the Indonesians, as the CIA had reported internally on October 10, had launched an overt military attack from West Timor, in order (according to Dunn’s Timor) “to keep up the fiction that the civil war was continuing to rage.”
Peter Dale Scott is the co-author of Cocaine Politics, and has written other studies of U.S. covert operations.