Suharto dead

I don’t imagine many readers will be shedding tears at the death of former Indonesian dictator Suharto, and certainly I won’t be. The bloody massacres in which he rode to power amid the collapse of the Sukarno regime, and the brutal invasion and occupation of East Timor, not to mention his spectacular corruption, mark him down among the worst political criminals of a terrible century, and have coloured Australian attitudes to Indonesia in the decade since his fall from power.

Now that he’s gone, I hope Australians will begin to recognise the immense progress Indonesia has made against daunting odds

From one of the tightest dictatorships in our region, with a military caste heavily embedded in both politics and business, the country has made a successful transition to democracy, with, in my judgement, each succeeding government better than the last. While the current president Yudhoyono is a former general he also seems to be both competent and a genuine democrat.

When Suharto fell, Indonesia was plagued with civil conflcts including the failing occupation of East Timor, the Aceh and West Papua separatist movement and religious strife promoted by groups within the regime, as well as growing movement towards extreme Islamism, again with support from within the government. Today East Timor is independent, the Aceh conflict has been settled, and some progress has been made in Papua. The fight against Islamist terrorism has been far more successful than in any other Islamic country I can think of, and has been pursued through proper legal processes, despite criticisms from those in Australia and elsewhere who would prefer Suharto-style abandonment of the rule of law.

Unfortunately, media attention to Indonesia has been dominated by a series of court cases, in which the predominant Australian attitude has been one of childish petulance, demanding that the Indonesian legal system deliver the result we want, whether it means reversing properly-reached convictions on the basis of little more than the fact that the defendant is a photogenic Australian (the Corby case) or delivering convictions on cases that would probably never have made it to court in Australia, such as the terrorism trial of Abu Bashir[1].

This came up again in relation to the Bali Nine case, where the Australian authorities played a deplorable role in tipping the Indonesians off for arrests that should have been made here in Australia, then complaining hypocritically about the imposition of the death penalty,. Fnally, during the election campaign, we saw people playing cheap politics to score points off anyone who argued consistently against the dealth penalty. I sincerely hope that President Yudhoyono will commute these sentences. It would certainly help relations between our countries, and perhaps shake some Australians out of their prejudices against Indonesia. If you want to help, you can get some useful links here .[2].

fn1. The one witness who might have implicated Bashir directly, Hambali, couldn’t be called because the Americans have him in custody and wouldn’t make him available. If anyone deserves blame for the fact that Bashir is walking free, it’s the Bush Administration.

fn2. I’ll delete any comments on this topic that support the death penalty in this case, or are otherwise not constructive. If you don’t like this, read the comments policy first and please remember that people’s lives are at stake.

41 thoughts on “Suharto dead

  1. “The anti communist purge of Indonesia started under Sukarnos watch not Soehart’s (although Soeharto was a part of the military that led the purge)

    When Sukarno gave orders to the military to restore peace and order the country was on the brink of total economic and social chaos and civil war.”

    This is simply not true.

    Please provide a link to support this claim.

  2. “What we all need to appreciate is we’re not responsible for the killing fields of many of these countries, despite the best attempts of leftists to lay their guilt trips on us all the time. True, Colonialism has its critics,…”

    Ever hear of the Dutch “Cultivation System” in Indonesia?

  3. Rog (quoting selectively): “the economic stagnation of 1930–66 was caused in part by a transition of regime and a nationalistic development ethos…�

    Yes and in much greater part by the worst depression in world history; the Japanese invasion (along with the deportation of hundreds of thousands of KNIL POWs to their deaths on the Burma railway) and the war between the Indonesians and the Dutch between 1945 and 1948.

  4. Ian,
    Thanks for the link. On that basis we can modify my previous statement to “with most measures of human development being worse than they were even under Dutch colonialism – the only exceptions being a slight increase in educational attainment and life expectancy.”
    Not much of a change, really. Particularly as the new nations around it did better.
    Dutch colonialism and the Japanese invasion deserve the blame for the poor starting position. Sukarno and his team deserve the blame for the poor improvement.
    Oil prices deserve both the blame for sustaining Suharto and the credit for his removal.
    The Indonesian people deserve the credit for living through it all and coming out with what is proving to be a workable democracy.
    Having lived through a part of Suharto’s Indonesia and been there for work recently it is good to see the change.
    What I am not confident of is that, had the PKI succeeded, Indonesia would be anywhere as good as it is now.
    As I said before, the real tragedy of Sukarno is that he probably made either Suharto or the PKI inevitable.

  5. Ian, you should read your links before posting them, 1966 was when Sukarno was stripped of power.

    There is no doubt that Soeharto was tough but Sukarnos irresponsible behaviour created the environment for a bloody reprisal.

  6. What we all need to appreciate is we’re not responsible for the killing fields of many of these countries, despite the best attempts of leftists to lay their guilt trips on us all the time.

    What garbage. Obviously, Australians were not directly torturing and executing, but there is plenty of evidence that firstly, Australian Governments not only turned a blind eye to Indonesian abuses, but actively sought to minimise them, and, secondly, the CIA provided the Suharto regime with a list of troublemakers, thousands of whom were subsequently executed. Furthermore, it was a range of Western interests who directly profited from the regime.
    The minimising of Suharto’s abuses on economic grounds follows a familiar theme with respect to dead dictators and incompetents. Pinochet, Yeltsin, and now Suharto, all inducted into the ‘economic recovery’ Hall of Fame, though strangely, not by their own countrymen…

  7. As I said before, the real tragedy of Sukarno is that he probably made either Suharto or the PKI inevitable.

    So let’s ignore the Dutch and their centuries-old regime of colonial slavery – that didn’t make anything inevitable. And their post 1945 war against Indonesia, financed entirely by the Marshall Plan? Why would that have made any difference?

    What specific measures of human development were worse under Sukarno than under the Dutch/Japanese anyway?

    Are you saying that Sukarno had to be removed because he wasn’t willing to exterminate the PKI – a hugely popular anti-colonial movement with enormous support across the country?

    Since the PKI could not have been crushed without mass murder on a horrific scale, are you saying that Suharto represented an improvement over Sukarno because he was willing to commit this atrocity – one of the twentieth century’s worst?

    Is Indonesia is a ‘democracy’ today because Suharto murdered hundreds of thousands and spent decades imprisoning, torturing and murdering Indonesian democrats, while embezzling billions for his family and selling off the country’s assets?

    And it’s not as if Suharto’s reign of terror can be considered any sort of ‘human development’ success – what are you comparing it to? Zaire? Certainly much less successful than China over the same time period.

  8. IG, you write “Per capita incomes in Indonesia declined in the 1930’s, collapsed during WWII (so far as we can tell given the limited data); recovered in the 1960’s, then declined again in the 1960’s. Food consumption shows a similar pattern.”

    The former is not a relevant measure for developing economies, because it goes up when people get more cash income even if they are losing even more non-cash subsistence resources that don’t show up as formal GDP. The latter measure is more useful, if it is reliable enough.

    You also write ‘Ever hear of the Dutch “Cultivation [or Culture] Systemâ€? in Indonesia?’ – ah, but, the Dutch replaced it with the “Ethical System”! The wars continued after 1948, incidentally – there was another flare up in the early ’50s (all called police actions, of course).

  9. Obviously Indonesia, being a largely artificial post-colonial construct covering thousands of diverse islands and cultures, with little in common but a shared subjection to Dutch tyranny, was never going to have an easy time sticking together as a unified country, let along a democratic one. Conflicts continued throughout the 50s but the most significant rebellions occured in the late 50s, with the covert support of the US-UK who were in no mood to accept an oriental Nasser controlling an area of such strategic importance, with such valuable natural resources, while failing to stem a rising labor movement that was challenging foreign ownership of the country, and refusing to accept the borders of Britain’s own post-colonial construct of Malaysia and the division of Borneo.

    from Le Monde Diplomatique ten years ago http://mondediplo.com/1998/06/02chomsky

    In 1958 US Secretary of State John Foster Dulles informed the National Security Council that Indonesia was one of three major world crises, along with Algeria and the Middle East. He emphasized that there was no Soviet role in any of these cases, with the “vociferous” agreement of President Eisenhower. The main problem in Indonesia was the Communist party (PKI), which was winning “widespread support not as a revolutionary party but as an organization defending the interests of the poor within the existing system,” developing a “mass base among the peasantry” through its “vigor in defending the interests of the…poor (2)”.

    The US embassy in Jakarta reported that it might not be possible to overcome the PKI “by ordinary democratic means”, so that “elimination” by police and military might be undertaken. The Joint Chiefs of Staff urged that “action must be taken, including overt measures as required, to ensure either the success of the dissidents or the suppression of the pro-communist elements of the Sukarno government.”

    The “dissidents” were the leaders of a rebellion in the outer islands, the site of most of Indonesia’s oil and US investments. US support for the secessionist movement was “by far the largest, and to this day the least known, of the Eisenhower administration’s covert militarized interventions,” two leading Southeast Asia specialists conclude in a revealing study (3). When the rebellion collapsed, after bringing down the last residue of parliamentary institutions, the US turned to other means to “eliminate” the country’s major political force.

    That goal was achieved when Suharto took power in 1965, with Washington’s strong support and assistance. Army-led massacres wiped out the PKI and devastated its mass base in “one of the worst mass murders of the 20th century,” comparable to the atrocities of Hitler, Stalin, and Mao, the CIA reported, judging “the Indonesian coup” to be “certainly one of the most significant events of the 20th century (4)”. Perhaps half a million or more were killed within a few months.

    The events were greeted undisguised euphoria. The New York Times described the “staggering mass slaughter” as “a gleam of light in Asia,” praising Washington for keeping its own role quiet so as not to embarrass the “Indonesian moderates” who were cleansing their society, then rewarding them with generous aid (5). Time praised the “quietly determined” leader Suharto with his “scrupulously constitutional” procedures “based on law, not on mere power” as he presided over a “boiling bloodbath” that was “the West’s best news for years in Asia” (6).

    The reaction was near uniform. The World Bank restored Indonesia to favour. Western governments and corporations flocked to Suharto’s “paradise for investors,” impeded only by the rapacity of the ruling family. For more than 20 years, Suharto was hailed as a “moderate” who is “at heart benign” (The Economist) as he compiled a record of slaughter, terror, and corruption that has few counterparts in postwar history.

    Suharto is also hailed for his economic achievements. An Australian specialist who participated in economic modeling in Indonesia dismisses the standard figures as “seriously inaccurate”: the regularly reported 7% growth rate, for example, was invented on government orders, overruling the assessment of the economists (7). He confirms that economic growth took place, thanks to Indonesia’s oil reserves and the green revolution, “the benefits of which even the massive inefficiency of the system of corruption could not entirely erode.” The benefits were enhanced by extraction of other resources and the supply of super-cheap labour, kept that way by the labour standards that impress Washington. Much of the rest is “a mirage,” as was quickly revealed when “foreign investors stampeded.”

    The estimated $80 billion private debt is held by at most a few hundred individuals, Indonesian economists estimate, perhaps as few as fifty. The wealth of the Suharto family is estimated at roughly the scale of the IMF rescue package. The estimates suggest simple ways to overcome the “financial crisis,” but these are not on the agenda. The costs are to be borne primarily by 200 million Indonesians who borrowed nothing, along with Western taxpayers, in accord with the rules of “really existing capitalism”.

  10. Ian Gould at comment 10 assumed I was evincing “unambiguous moral purity”. Yet, in the context of talking about murder I said,

    “When massacres occur they are not caused by one bad leader. They are caused by masses of ordinary people turning murderous. That capability exists in all humans.”

    In other words, I said “all humans are capable of committing murder.” It is pretty obvious I am including myself in that judgement.

    Mr Gould has also made the assumptions that I have not been under the extreme duress he describes (a correct assumption) and that I have not the general life experience, learning and imagination to picture the difficulties such duress would cause me (an incorrect assumption).

    I still hold that there is no philosophical, historical or sociological justification in ascribing all or even the bulk of “causational responsibility” for such widespread violence to one convenient-to-label leader or even bothering to talk about him. It’s essentially pointless to do so. It’s just another piece of personality politics.

    The precursor conditions for what happened “under Suharto” are no doubt extremely complex. However, I would hazard the guess that execessive and entrenched disparities in wealth and power coupled with mass poverty at the lowest end of the scale are significant precursor conditions.

    We might also want to look at how inherent and inculcated resistances to murderous behaviours are overcome and how these murderous behaviours are legitimised (downwards and laterally) and propagated on a “contagion” model through both insitutional and impromptu channels.

    All of which is to say for heaven’s sake let us remain aware of how complex such phemomena are.

    Finally, history shows us that there are always a few people who refuse orders to kill others even when it is obvious that this will lead immediately to their own death. This high but real moral standard of those who can resist both authority and mob influence on their behaviour demonstrates the label that the rest of us deserve when we fail to meet that test.

  11. “Thanks for the link. On that basis we can modify my previous statement to “with most measures of human development being worse than they were even under Dutch colonialism – the only exceptions being a slight increase in educational attainment and life expectancy.â€?
    Not much of a change, really. Particularly as the new nations around it did better.”

    How many of those countries experienced a full-scale war between a colonial power attempting to re-establish power and a local independence movement that had already declared independence and had a significant armed force?

  12. “All of which is to say for heaven’s sake let us remain aware of how complex such phemomena are.”

    Yes and therefore let us refrain from making simplistic moral judgments about the moral culpability of the people caught up in those events.

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