The Bloody Legacy of General Suharto

January 18, 2008 12:00 am Published by Leave your thoughts

When most people think of the Cold War, thoughts tend to go to the Iron Curtain, Cuban Missile Crisis, and the hotter parts of the conflict such as the Korean War, and the Vietnam War and its overspill. Some may think of other conflicts in the Americas, especially Nicaragua, or conflicts in Africa such as that in Angola. Many may think about the Arab-Israeli conflict, which was much more political rather than religious back then.

Few people think of Indonesia however. Indonesia was one of the most significant fault lines in the struggle, where more people died than in all but the most vicious of the Cold War conflicts. Few people think about it largely because the conflict there never went “hot” in the way that others did – largely because there was only one side doing all the killing, and so it received much less media attention. The main perpetrator of the bloodshed in Indonesia is now on his deathbed, and it’s worth a quick reflection on some of the heinous crimes committed by Suharto and to wonder why he has been able to avoid trial in the last decade of his life since being deposed by popular protest.

Suharto is a man who has committed most of the worst crimes in the book of international law. If you were to hear about his crimes without his name being mentioned, you might think you were hearing about Saddam Hussein, except in this case of course, USAID resumed operations after some of the worst of his crimes brought “stability”, and continued as ethnic cleansing and racial discrimination, foreign invasions and massive corruption ensued. At no point though did he seem in danger of a noose being placed around his neck in front of a baying crowd.

Suharto came to power after the mysterious murder of six right-wing anti-communist generals in 1965. There is considerable historical dispute over the true circumstances of these murders, but the Communist Party of Indonesia (PKI) got the blame. Suharto, a Major-General at the time, led a purge against them which undermined President Sukarno, who had always tried to balance left and right under his rule and was reliant on the support of the PKI. Suharto swiftly widened this purge to take aim at the ethnic-Chinese in Indonesia and Sukarno’s supporters. Suharto had gained effective control of the country in a few months, and in 1967 his position as head of state was confirmed. These initial crimes were some of the most brutal of the bloody 20th century, with some estimating millions dead.

The United States was quite happy to not simply ignore the killings but to assist in them, and then reward them. 1965-67 was a period in which the war in Vietnam was becoming an ever greater problem for the US, and in the PKI Indonesia had the world’s largest non-ruling communist party. The US was worried about the possibility of the PKI gaining more influence in Indonesia, and was not keen on Sukarno anyway. Sukarno was friendly with Communist China, and received aid from the USSR, and was a co-founder of the non-aligned movement. Long before George Bush proclaimed that “you are either with us or against us”, this was a major part of US foreign policy, and the non-aligned movement was not looked on kindly. So the CIA provided Suharto’s military with 10,000 odd names of suspected communists, even though its own assessment of the situation called the anti-PKI massacres “one of the worst mass murders of the 20th century”.

Established in power on the back of these murders, Suharto turned on the ethnic Chinese, in part because they had been strong supporters of the PKI and because of their links to Communist China. As well as being victims in the early massacres, ethnic Chinese were now banned from politics and the military, and their language, culture and religious beliefs were all proscribed, as they were forcibly assimilated into Indonesian society. It is thought that millions of ethnic Chinese may have died under Suharto’s rule. Then, in 1975, nine days after East Timor declared its independence from Portugal, led by the left-wing FRETILIN movement, Suharto ordered an invasion. This led to an extremely brutal occupation in which over 200,000 people died – more than a third of the population. He also ordered brutal suppression of other freedom movements in West Irian and Aceh.

On top of all this, Suharto has been named by Transparency International as the most corrupt leader in history, with an estimated $15-35 billion embezzled during his rule, an amount that means that untold amounts of people must have gone without the proper education or health care that they otherwise would have done. The result of all this? A persistent failure to get Suharto to trial for any of these crimes, and an inability to reclaim even a small fraction of the Indonesian people’s money that he has hoarded.

Suharto has usually avoided trial on health grounds, and now that his health is genuinely in decline, he has been visited by the country’s political and business elite. President Yudhoyono talked of Suharto’s “mistakes” before saying that people should “remember his achievements” and “give our gratitude”. Thankfully for Indonesia, the people showed less gratitude when the Asian financial crisis of 1997 bit hard and showed the structural weakness of the corrupt economic system that Suharto presided over. He was forced to resign in 1998 due to the popular protests that ensued. Hopefully future generations of Indonesians will take their lesson from this event rather than looking back on Suharto’s “achievements”.

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This post was written by Ian Broughton

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