Subject: Suharto’s deadly legacy ­ and ours

also - Observer: Out in the open 

Progressive Media Project

Suharto’s deadly legacy ­ and ours

By Brad Simpson, January 28, 2008

The death of former Indonesian dictator Suharto should prompt some self-reflection in Washington since, for 32 years, the United States played an unforgivable part in his brutal rule.

Gen. Suharto seized power in October 1965 in the wake of an alleged coup attempt by the Indonesian Communist Party. Under his control, the military proceeded to slaughter perhaps 500,000 alleged communists.

The United States backed this slaughter. The CIA gave the Indonesian military the names of thousands of these victims, and declassified documents show that the Johnson administration provided crucial military and economic assistance to Suharto and his generals.

Leading members of the media in the United States backed the policy. For example, Time magazine crudely cheered the “boiling bloodbath” in Indonesia as “the West’s best news for years in Asia.”

As early as 1970, the U.S. Embassy concluded that “resentment of military power and privilege and the all-pervasive involvement of the military in government, business, education and politics and in the daily lives of the people” would lead to endemic corruption, ultimately undermining Suharto’s rule.

But the Nixon administration disregarded this warning and all but sneered at the lack of democracy. “We should judge the political performance of the government on its contribution to long-range growth and modernization, and not on its support for the paraphernalia or formal procedures of parliamentary democracy,” wrote U.S. Ambassador to Indonesia Francis Galbraith in a Feb. 16, 1970, cable back to the State Department.

The bloody trail Suharto blazed during these decades shocks the conscience. Perhaps 100,000 people died in West Papua under Indonesian rule following its fraudulent 1969 annexation of the territory, according to Yale’s Genocide Documentation Project. Between 100,000 and 180,000 died in East Timor as a direct result of Indonesia’s 1975 invasion and subsequent occupation, while tens of thousands more perished in a brutal counterinsurgency war in Aceh and in massacres large and small across the archipelago.

No less shocking was the consistent U.S. support for Suharto.

From 1974 through the 1990s, Washington was Indonesia’s largest supplier of military aid, resisting efforts by human rights groups and Congress to staunch the deadly flow. In a 1977 meeting with Suharto, for example, then Assistant Secretary of State Richard Holbrooke (now an advisor to Hillary Clinton) offered no criticism of the dictator’s human rights record and actually “applauded” his policy on East Timor. Until virtually his last moments in power in May 1998, Suharto enjoyed the backing of the Clinton Administration.

Suharto was no mere thug. His regime elevated corruption, cronyism and nepotism to an art. Transparency International estimates that Suharto stole perhaps $35 billion, a figure equivalent to the sum of international development assistance to the regime during his 32-year reign.

Far from being the “father of Indonesian development,” as supporters would have it, Suharto’s theft squandered Indonesia’s best chance at balanced development, while political repression enervated civil society and retarded the flowering of democratic institutions in ways that continue to distort economic and political life.

In death, Suharto eluded justice. His victims had filed numerous human rights lawsuits against him, and even the Indonesian government brought a case against him for embezzling nearly half a billion dollars from state coffers. But Indonesia’s still weak judiciary turned back virtually all attempts to punish Suharto, usually citing his poor health.

Suharto's crimes were international ones, enabled by the guns, aid, and diplomatic backing of the United States and other powerful nations. Those who backed Suharto, including and especially us, owe the people of Indonesia an apology and a plea for forgiveness, at the very least.

Suharto may be off the hook now, but Washington’s complicity remains.

Brad Simpson is a historian at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, and author of “Economists with Guns: Authoritarian Development and U.S.–Indonesian Relations, 1960-1968” (Stanford, 2008). He can be reached at


Financial Times (UK) January 30, 2008

Observer: Out in the open

Human rights activists hoping a Hillary Clinton administration will be more pliant to their lobbying than the current government should perhaps damp their expectations.

Recently declassified documents from the Carter presidency suggest that Richard Holbrooke, then assistant secretary of state, now a key Clinton adviser (and possible secretary of state if she wins the election), may not push the rights agenda that hard.

During a meeting in 1977 in Jakarta with Suharto, then the Indonesian dictator, Holbrooke acknowledged "efforts President Suharto appeared to be making to resolve Indonesian problems" and offered some praise for the retired general, who died on Sunday, for allowing a congressional visit to East Timor.

Omitted from the embassy's summary of the meeting were atrocities in the territory that Jakarta invaded in 1975, killing thousands of civilians in the process. No mention either of a crackdown across Indonesia at the time of his visit against Suharto opponents.

These omissions were in spite of US embassy advice that the meeting would be an "unusual opportunity" to raise human rights and democracy concerns.

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