Death of a murderous tyrant
The media neglected to report the crimes of the Indonesian dictator Suharto in its obituaries.
THE INDONESIAN dictator Gen. Suharto, a darling of the U.S. government since he came to power in 1965, died on January 27 without ever having to take responsibility for his crimes against the people of Indonesia and East Timor.
Suharto's years in office were a disaster for all of Indonesia--with the exception of a small ruling circle that extracted billions from the poor and working class and his Western economic and political allies who never forgot Suharto's service in crushing what was then the world's largest non-governing Communist Party.
In the words of Amnesty International, a "pattern of systematic human rights violations...characterized former President Suharto's 32-year rule." But obituaries in the establishment press systematically minimized Suharto's crimes, and praised him for the "stability" he brought to Indonesia.
The New York Times obituary--headlined "Indonesian Dictator Brought Order and Bloodshed"--exemplifies the mythology: even though his "32-year dictatorship was one of the most brutal and corrupt of the 20th century," the Times explained, "[h]is rule was not without accomplishment; he led Indonesia to stability and nurtured economic growth."
In reality, Suharto presided over instability for most of Indonesia's population, a country in which production workers made an average of 40 cents an hour while Suharto and his family amassed tens of billions in wealth.
As Indonesia specialist Jeffrey Winters wrote of the supposed "miracle" economy in Indonesia in the 1990s under Suharto, "On close scrutiny, the picture is much less impressive. Economic development has brought staggering wealth for a few (especially the president and those close to him) amid widespread poverty."
While the media often quote per capita GDP figures, which soared in Indonesia, to support the claim that ordinary Indonesians did well under Suharto, Winters rightly notes that "Per capita figures tell us nothing about the concentration of prosperity" in a few hands.
The World Bank, for example, used fabricated statistics to cover for the reality of Indonesian poverty, according to the Wall Street Journal. "The bank went along with government estimates that showed epic improvements in living standards, despite indications the numbers were inflated," the Journal reported.
World Bank officials touted Suharto's success at reducing the number of Indonesians below the poverty level to 30 million, "even though the World Bank was in the middle of a three-year study that showed 60 million poor," the story continued. As Winters said, "It was a huge collusive effort...The number has been reported over and over, but it's a lie.'"
SUHARTO FIRST became president on the back of what the New York Times acknowledged was "one of the most savage mass slaughters of modern political history." Between 500,000 and 1 million members of the Indonesian Communist Party (PKI) were killed when Suharto, an army general who had served Dutch colonialists before Indonesian independence, led an anti-communist witch-hunt.
According to historian William Blum, "American diplomats...compiled comprehensive lists of 'Communist' operatives...and turned over as many as 5,000 names to the Indonesian army, which hunted those persons down and killed them." The Johnson administration, which had been worried that the PKI might be allowed to share power with the nationalist leader Sukarno, a key figure in the Non-Aligned Movement, then installed Suharto as president.
At the time, the New York Times praised the move, noting that the Indonesian military had "defused the country's political time-bomb, the powerful Indonesian Communist Party," wiping out "virtually all the top- and second-level leaders of the PKI."
Indonesia in 1965 was already the world's fourth-most-populous-nation and seen as a potential bulwark against Communist influence in Asia. Richard Nixon called Indonesia "by far the greatest prize in the Southeast Asian area," referring not only to its geo-strategic location, but its vast natural resources and potentials as an economic market.
Indonesia was seen as pivotal in the battle between the U.S. and then-USSR. "In the context of the Cold War, those who would not stand with the United States were viewed as standing against it," note historians Audrey and George Kahin. "In mid-1957, President Eisenhower, Secretary of State John Foster Dulles and CIA Director Allen Dulles had become deeply worried that the Indonesian government...and especially its president, Sukarno, were under growing Communist influence and drifting dangerously to the left."
By 1965, the PKI had a membership of 3 million, and it was affiliated with peasant and popular groups numbering nearly 10 million. Only the USSR and China--where the Communist Parties were the rulers of society--had larger parties.
The U.S. government was determined not to let another country "fall" to the Communists. And Suharto provided the perfect solution.
Once in power, Suharto ruled Indonesia with an iron fist, using the military to repress all dissent and crushing popular movements and trade unions.
TEN YEARS into his presidency, Suharto presided over one of the worst genocides of the 20th century, carried out against the people of the small island nation of East Timor. Suharto invaded the former Portuguese colony in 1975, after it had declared independence, and began a brutal and illegal occupation that lasted until the country voted for independence in 1999 (gaining formal independence in 2002).
Amnesty International and other human rights groups estimate that more than 200,000 East Timorese -- roughly one-third of the population -- were killed by the Indonesian military or died from the effects of its harsh occupation.
A day before the invasion, President Gerald Ford and Henry Kissinger, then secretary of state, gave Suharto a green light. Ford told Suharto, "We will understand and will not press you on the issue. We understand the problem and the intentions you have." And Kissinger explained, "It is important that whatever you do succeeds quickly."
After approving the invasion, the U.S. government supplied the vast majority of the Indonesian military's arms and military training, a policy continued under Presidents Carter, Reagan, Bush Sr. and Clinton. As the world learned of the crimes committed in East Timor, the U.S. helped protect Indonesia from censure--and repeatedly shielded Suharto from international pressure to end the occupation.
When Suharto came for a "state visit" to the Clinton White House in October 1995, he was received like a hero. As the New York Times' David Sanger reported:
[When] the aging, military-backed leader of Indonesia, and a man who also knows a good deal about how to keep dissenters under control...arrived at the White House on Friday for a "private" visit with the president, the Cabinet Room was jammed with top officials ready to welcome him.
Vice President Gore was there, along with Secretary of State Warren Christopher; the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. John Shalikashvili; Commerce Secretary Ronald H. Brown; the United States trade representative, Mickey Kantor; the national security adviser, Anthony Lake, and many others. "There wasn't an empty chair in the room," one participant said.
The reason, as Sanger pointed out, was clear:
Suharto...is sitting on the ultimate emerging market: some 13,000 islands, a population of 193 million and an economy growing at more than 7 percent a year. The country remains wildly corrupt, and Mr. Suharto's family controls leading businesses that competitors in Jakarta would be unwise to challenge...
But Mr. Suharto...has been savvy in keeping Washington happy. He has deregulated the economy, opened Indonesia to foreign investors and kept the Japanese, Indonesia's largest supplier of foreign aid, from grabbing more than a quarter of the market for goods imported into the country.
So Mr. Clinton made the requisite complaints about Indonesia's repressive tactics in East Timor, where anti-government protests continue, and moved right on to business, getting Mr. Suharto's support for market-opening progress during the annual Asian Pacific Economic Cooperation meeting in Osaka in mid-November.
"He's our kind of guy," a senior administration official who deals often on Asian policy, said.
Suharto used systematic repression to maintain his rule until a popular revolution forced him from power in 1998. U.S. officials only began to distance themselves from Suharto once it became apparent that his corrupt rule was coming to an end, and that it would be best not to go down on any sinking ship with him.
Fearing that the popular struggles in Indonesia could go much farther than the toppling of Suharto, they quickly moved to ensure that the Indonesian oligarchy and military establishment would remain in power and preserve "stability" in U.S. interests.
The world is finally rid of Suharto, but the struggle to hold him and his family to account--and to free Indonesia from his disastrous legacy--continues.