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.
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 ..
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”
the media coverage of Suharto’s death has been ridiculously soft. the guy came to power in a US-UK backed bloodbath that killed between 600,000-1m people. He was as bad as Saddam Hussein. I hope Rudd doesn’t send any official representative to his funeral, but he probably will.
Suharto is identified with a lot that is bad and some good things. Providing near universal education to Indonesian kids a good thing.
His death in Indonesia is assessed with much more ambivalence than in the western media.
I notice Paul Keating went to his funeral.
Who is the more responsible for killing? The President or General who orders deaths or all the individuals in the ranks and gangs who pull the triggers? So long as we fixate on the crimes of leaders we will forget about our own capacity for crime and fail to take responsibility for our own actions.
History is not actuated by leaders but by the combined actions of all people. 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.
Murder is always murder. Whether you sneak down an alley and stab someone or you march in a regiment, shoot someone and come home and get a medal. It’s all murder and each murdering individual is responsible for his or her own actions. Don’t try to absolve the little people by pointing to a man with salad on his chest and saying, “He ordered them to do it.” That is bunkum.
the media coverage of Suharto’s death has been ridiculously soft
Or in the case of the Wall Street Journal, positively acclamatory.
I’m not sure why you think the Bali 9 will make any difference to the Australia-Indonesia relationship. It seems to me that they’re already pretty much forgotten to most people. In addition, I’m not sure how they will influence people’s prejudices towards Indonesia (its not like people complain about other countries like the US executing people). I imagine that if Indonesia does end up executing some of them, we’ll get a few loonies saying we should have the death penalty for drug imporation (and whatever else) in Australia, a few people saying how bad it is, and they’ll be forgotten very quickly.
BBC is reporting both ambivalence and even nostalgia for the Suharto regime *amongst Indonesians* (while listing some of the murders and a lot of the corruption that went on in his 30 years).
I recall, being quite young at the time, wondering whether a strongman was necessary to bring a country from a basketweaving subsistence economy to something of an economic powerhouse.
I haven’t reached a conclusion on that, although strongman to me now means not only trampling rights, but false imprisonment, torture, murder, corruption, self aggrandisement and self interest.
ikon, you’re right. and wrong.
two thugs get together, and recruit a third person by threatening death. they recruit a fourth, and soon they have an army, whose sergeants are tasked with shooting reluctant participants. half of military training is making recruits more afraid of their officers than of god, the sergeants being at hand and powerful, god distant and not apparently interested.
since many of the recruits are eating better than they have in civvy street, and they are continually told that god’s on their side, it’s not easy to resist domination.
your point is valid, safe at home in a prosperous society, but humanity lives more often in a tougher world. so i give private atkins a provisional ‘pass’, reserving my contempt for the politicians who sool him on the pollies enemies.
i’m not greatly respectful of the people who vote for pollies, either. they are the ultimate killers. so when islam manifests its opinion of australian soldiers in foreign lands, i’ll put an asterisk next to the resulting ‘innocent victims’.
as long as you support the rule of politicians, you are the ultimate ‘enabler’, the engine-room of their aggression and self-aggrandizement.
whatever suharto did, he did as commander of the ruling army. the ordinary indonesian had no input. when the australian army kills, it’s with the acquiescence of the electorate. when you stop voting for pollies, you can chide the soldiers who do their dirty work.
some progress has been made in Papua
it’s always really hard to tell what’s going on in papua, but i think this is the one area where indonesia has gone backward since suharto’s fall.
noted independence leader theys eluay was murdered by kopassus in 2001. a “special autonomy” agreement was reached in 2002, which amongst other things rid the province of the hated name “irian jaya.” the agreement was then effectively stalled by the central government’s refusal to pass the enabling regulations, including those to set up a local legislature.
while this was happening the central government tried to gut special automony completely by splitting the province in 3 (and reinstating for 2 of the new provinces the name “irian jaya”). this was later declared unlawful by the constitutional court, which however upheld part of the split (creating the “bird’s head” as the new province of west irian jaya) on the basis that it was already a fact on the ground.
the legislature has now been created, but i think it’s fair to say there remains a deep distrust between papuans and the central government.
Good post, John.
Here’s a link to reaction from John Pilger. I’ll quote a few paras if I may:
In 1993, the Foreign Affairs Committee of the Australian Parliament reported that “at least 200,000” had died under Indonesia’s occupation: almost a third of the population. And yet East Timor’s horror, which was foretold and nurtured by the U.S., Britain, and Australia, was actually a sequel. “No single American action in the period after 1945,” wrote the historian Gabriel Kolko, “was as bloodthirsty as its role in Indonesia, for it tried to initiate the massacre.” He was referring to Suharto’s seizure of power in 1965-1966, which caused the violent deaths of up to a million people…
Suharto was our model mass murderer â€“ “our” is used here advisedly. “One of our very best and most valuable friends,” Thatcher called him, speaking for the West. For three decades, the Australian, U.S., and British governments worked tirelessly to minimize the crimes of Suharto’s Gestapo, known as Kopassus, who were trained by the Australian SAS and the British army and who gunned down people with British-supplied Heckler and Koch machine guns from British-supplied Tactica “riot control” vehicles. Prevented by Congress from supplying arms directly, U.S. administrations from Gerald Ford to Bill Clinton provided logistic support through the back door and commercial preferences. In one year, the British Department of Trade provided almost a billion pounds worth of so-called soft loans, which allowed Suharto to buy Hawk fighter-bombers. The British taxpayer paid the bill for aircraft that dive-bombed East Timorese villages, and the arms industry reaped the profits. However, the Australians distinguished themselves as the most obsequious…
Ralph McGehee, a senior CIA operations officer in the 1960s, describes the terror of Suharto’s takeover of Indonesia as “the model operation” for the American-backed coup that got rid of Salvador Allende in Chile seven years later. “The CIA forged a document purporting to reveal a leftist plot to murder Chilean military leaders,” he wrote, “[just like] what happened in Indonesia in 1965.” The U.S. embassy in Jakarta supplied Suharto with a “zap list” of Indonesian Communist Party (PKI) members and crossed off the names when they were killed or captured. Roland Challis, the BBC’s south east Asia correspondent at the time, told me how the British government was secretly involved in this slaughter. “British warships escorted a ship full of Indonesian troops down the Malacca Straits so they could take part in the terrible holocaust,” he said. “I and other correspondents were unaware of this at the timeâ€¦. There was a deal, you see.”
The deal was that Indonesia under Suharto would offer up what Richard Nixon had called “the richest hoard of natural resources, the greatest prize in southeast Asia.” In November 1967, the greatest prize was handed out at a remarkable three-day conference sponsored by the Time-Life Corporation in Geneva. Led by David Rockefeller, all the corporate giants were represented: the major oil companies and banks, General Motors, Imperial Chemical Industries, British American Tobacco, Siemens, U.S. Steel, and many others. Across the table sat Suharto’s U.S.-trained economists who agreed to the corporate takeover of their country, sector by sector.
Ikonoclast: “Murder is always murder. Whether you sneak down an alley and stab someone or you march in a regiment, shoot someone and come home and get a medal. Itâ€™s all murder and each murdering individual is responsible for his or her own actions. Donâ€™t try to absolve the little people by pointing to a man with salad on his chest and saying, â€œHe ordered them to do it.â€? That is bunkum.”
Ah the unambiguous moral purity of someone who’s toughest ethical choice has probably been answering “You want fries with that?”
In the case of Suharto’s regime, people literally had guns shoved against their temples and machetes
shoved into their hands as they were forced to choose between killing their “Communist” neighbours and dying themselves – probably after being forced to watch as their families were killed.
Those with their ‘Saddam was always the best option’ mantra, could well understand the need for Suharto as a man of his times, given the overall track record of leftist dictators. Life’s a tradeoff as they say and so Suharto was our best bastard at the falling domino time. It’s always a case of judgement in these delicate matters of selecting the best bastard option and weighing up the alternative killing fields. We’re walking that tightrope with Afghanistan and Pakistan right now.
John Pilger has long been cast as a lunatic Conspiracy Theorist, but events are proving him to be a great unsung Australian hero who had the courage to speak truth to power when it was not fashionable to do so. His great crime was probably to be a leftwing critic of supposedly leftwing governments.
Today ICH hosts Pilgers video Death of a Nation, plus Pilger’s response to Suharto’s death:
Here lies a clue as to why Suharto, unlike Saddam Hussein, died not on the gallows but surrounded by the finest medical team his secret billions could buy. Ralph McGehee, a senior CIA operations officer in the 1960s, describes the terror of Suharto’s takeover of Indonesia as “the model operation” for the American-backed coup that got rid of Salvador Allende in Chile seven years later. “The CIA forged a document purporting to reveal a leftist plot to murder Chilean military leaders,” he wrote, “[just like] what happened in Indonesia in 1965.” The U.S. embassy in Jakarta supplied Suharto with a “zap list” of Indonesian Communist Party (PKI) members and crossed off the names when they were killed or captured. Roland Challis, the BBC’s south east Asia correspondent at the time, told me how the British government was secretly involved in this slaughter. “British warships escorted a ship full of Indonesian troops down the Malacca Straits so they could take part in the terrible holocaust,” he said. “I and other correspondents were unaware of this at the timeâ€¦. There was a deal, you see.”
The deal was that Indonesia under Suharto would offer up what Richard Nixon had called “the richest hoard of natural resources, the greatest prize in southeast Asia.” In November 1967, the greatest prize was handed out at a remarkable three-day conference sponsored by the Time-Life Corporation in Geneva. Led by David Rockefeller, all the corporate giants were represented: the major oil companies and banks, General Motors, Imperial Chemical Industries, British American Tobacco, Siemens, U.S. Steel, and many others. Across the table sat Suharto’s U.S.-trained economists who agreed to the corporate takeover of their country, sector by sector…
Those with their â€˜Saddam was always the best optionâ€™ mantra, could well understand the need for Suharto as a man of his times, given the overall track record of leftist dictators. Lifeâ€™s a tradeoff as they say and so Suharto was our best bastard at the falling domino time.
trade offs? sukarno’s “guided democracy” wasn’t the greatest thing in the world, but it looks pretty good when set against suharto’s rule. and i think it’s a bit of a stretch to reduce sukarno to “leftist dictator.”
“Those with their â€˜Saddam was always the best optionâ€™ mantra, could well understand the need for Suharto as a man of his times, given the overall track record of leftist dictators.”
In what way was Suharto “leftist”?
“…wondering whether a strongman was necessary to bring a country from a basketweaving subsistence economy to something of an economic powerhouse. I havenâ€™t reached a conclusion on that…”
That’s not how it was. Rather, even before the Dutch started moving in, the East Indies had a range all the way from tribal subsistence economies, through economies with a strong subsistence element but with specialisation and trade, to developed cash economies (by the standards of Europe then). Under the Dutch, the balance shifted more to a cash economy in places where there was a cultural basis to build on, and elsewhere they brought in slave plantations. Subsistence economies were still around in places after independence, but from those places’ point of view they weren’t getting strongman rule, they were getting Javanese Empire. So the strongman stuff was the interface to the more developed parts, largely but not just Java.
Suharto is identified with a lot that is bad and some good things.
You can say that about virtually any monster. Back in the 80s days I’m sure you’d be saying the same about Saddam. Although once he became an official enemy you’d probably jump down the throat of any who did same.
Ian Gould – I think observa was simply making the assumption that
Sukarno = Stalin/Mao
He was a ‘leftist’ after all.
ergo Suharto deserved a bit of leeway in murdering a few hundred thousand, given the Cold War etc etc. Don’t forget Sukarno’s hypothetical victims!! They COULD have been even MORE numerous!!
Err no. I wasn’t implying Suharto was a lefty. Rather that he could have been a Mao, Pol Pot or Kim Jong Il.
I think you have confused Suharto with Sukarno above.
The PKI was the second largest in the world (after that of China) in 1963. It was well financed and led by a cadre trained under Mao in China. Sukarno had effectively destroyed the economy in the 18 years he had been in power, with all measures of human development being worse than they were even under Dutch colonialism.
It is not a stretch to say that there was not at least a danger of a Maoist government coming to power, nor is it a stretch to say that a Maoist government would have been worse for the Indonesian people than the corrupt, murderous kleptocracy they got under Suharto.
To me, the real pity of the Sukarno years was that he probably made either Suharto or Maoism inevitable.
The real pities of the Suharto years was the enormous waste of life at the start and that they went on for far too long.
It is good to see Indonesia moving on from the frightened, insular and corrupt country it was when I lived there as a child.
“Sukarno had effectively destroyed the economy in the 18 years he had been in power, with all measures of human development being worse than they were even under Dutch colonialism.”
Really, please feel free to provide a link.
Also what period of Dutch colonialism are you sing as the base-line. There was a rather large war going on at the end of the Dutch colonial era and the dawn of Indonesian independence.
Click to access Updatepaper.pdf
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.
Educational achievement rose throughout the Sukarno period as did life expectancy while infant mortality fell.
Sukarno was flawed in many ways but HE didn’t instigate the killing of a million people.
You also have to wonder how accurately the statistics for the Suharto period reflect the living standards of the several million (not an exaggeration)political prisoners exiled to the outer islands.
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.
Sukarnos “guided democracy” relied on the military and the communists for support and through his own actions, or lack of action, Sukarno lost the support of the military.
Ian, your link provides much of the information, economic growth has been confined to the periods 1900â€“30 and 1967â€“97.
“the economic stagnation of 1930â€“66 was caused in part by a transition of regime and a nationalistic development ethos…”
Good obit. JQ. I would add the following:
Suharto’s responsibility for Indonesia’s economic performance after 1966 has been grossly exaggerated. Basically nothing useful happened until the oil shocks of the 1970s. Then they lived on the windfall profits and got Dutch Disease. When the oil price collapsed in the mid-80s the loss of revenues was massive and the financial problems began – from which it took a change of regime to even begin to recover.
Indonesia was also a long way behind the rest of the region in moving towards universal education, health care, etc. A decade of massive oil revenues was basically frittered away on personal enrichment of his children (who continue to benefit) and other cronies.
The ambivalence towards him today has nothing to do with any good he might have served, it has to do with powerful vested interests in the armed forces and among the circles who benefitted from ‘crony capitalism’ during his rule. The fact that the transition after his fall was so incredibly bloody testifies to the unbearable tensions that his leadership allowed to build up.
If I may quote an Asian reader who commented on the BBC website, “May history blacken his name with odium”.
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, but the alternatives to the Ian Smiths are often the Mugabes and it remains to be seen whether South Africa follows suit. The exodus of Seth Efrikens now suggests it will, just as soon as Mandela drops off. Whether we intervene in the Rwandas, Darfurs, Kosovos, Iraqs and Afghanistans, is entirely up to us and certain imperatives or threats we see from time to time. Often damned if you do and damned if you don’t, not that the gaggle of gangsters in the UN can offer a skerrick of moral guidance here, for their obvious self interested reasons. Still, if we’re going to go for beacons of light and nation building occasionally, we’d better be prepared for the hard yards and staying the course, or else opt for the Ghaddafi shock and awe, let that be a lesson to the regime approach. Clearly economic sanctions can’t be brought to bear on dictatorial regimes as they simply pass the burden on. That’s the simple tradeoffs we face and they’re not of our making but just our undoing.
it’s sort of funny that people would justify suharto by saying, “yeah, he was a vicious tyrant, but he saved indonesia from maoism and look how much wealthier they are now.”
china is a richer country than indonesia.
“The anti communist purge of Indonesia started under Sukarnos watch not Soehartâ€™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.
“What we all need to appreciate is weâ€™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?
Rog (quoting selectively): â€œthe economic stagnation of 1930â€“66 was caused in part by a transition of regime and a nationalistic development ethosâ€¦â€?
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.
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.
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.
Link to purge?
The September 30th Movement was on September 30, 1965 and Sukarno gave orders on March 11, 1966
Because Sukarno had removed the elected govt and put in his own cronies he was an autocrat – he became “the weakest link.”
What we all need to appreciate is weâ€™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…
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.
IG, you write “Per capita incomes in Indonesia declined in the 1930â€™s, collapsed during WWII (so far as we can tell given the limited data); recovered in the 1960â€™s, then declined again in the 1960â€™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 â€œCultivation [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).
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 Indonesiaâ€™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 administrationâ€™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 countryâ€™s major political force.
That goal was achieved when Suharto took power in 1965, with Washingtonâ€™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 Westâ€™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 Suhartoâ€™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 Indonesiaâ€™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”.
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.
Sorry for the double post on Pilger above – my comments got blocked in the internets pipe.
“Thanks for the link. On that basis we can modify my previous statement to â€œwith 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?
“All of which is to say for heavenâ€™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.
Here is a post on Suharto’s record of economic development. I think it explains why, in Southeast Asia, Indonesia lagged behind pretty much everyone except the Philippines.
Your old friend Dick Woolcott is back in the news, heading up Rudd’s AsiaPac diplomatic push. Greg Sheridan is delighted.