He had a lot of blood on his hands. A mass murderer. But he was held in high esteem by Western leaders (and Asean leaders too: they were practically falling over one another to pay tribute to him). Why?
More than 500,000 – perhaps close to a million – were massacred in the mid-1960s, as a result of a purge on suspected communists and sympathisers, which also targeted peasants. The CIA even chipped in by supplying a list of people it wanted eliminated, as John Pilger describes:
The US 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 time… There was a deal, you see.”
Then came the invasion of East Timor, which led to a loss of some 180,000 lives. This was carried out with a wink and a nod from then President Ford and his Secretary of State Henry Kissinger.
Tens of thousands of Indonesians were also killed in places like Aceh and West Papua.
Mainstream foreign commentators tend to say, well, okay, he was responsible for mass murder, but look, he improved and modernised the Indonesian economy – as if that could somehow compensate for mass murder.
But really, did he improve the lot of Indonesia’s poor?
Many of the poor over there don’t seem to think so.
Listen to Allan Nairn, an award-winning journalist who has reported from Indonesia, speaking on Democracy Now! on the reaction to Suharto’s death:
Well, among the people in the poor compounds where I was, I guess the reaction was summed up by one woman who works in the market. She sells vegetables and cakes in one of the traditional markets. And she said, “Oh, Suharto, he died of overeating. He ate too much money. He ate so much that there wasn’t enough left for anybody else to eat.” People didn’t care, or they said good riddance. That seems to be the reaction among the poor.
But among those who made money off of Suharto, there seems to be some sadness. There also seems to be some sadness for the US ambassador. That quote you read defending Suharto, that’s the same argument that was used to defend Stalin. They said, oh, he killed a lot of people, but he developed the country economically. So if you buy that logic, the US should have been defending Stalin, as well.
In fact, if you compare Indonesia this day to Malaysia, a neighboring country which started out at the same economic level, after Suharto and the army got done with Indonesia, wages in Indonesia are about a sixth of what they are in Malaysia. There was growth in the sense—in Indonesia, in the sense of multinationals like Exxon coming in and taking the gas. People were coming in and taking the gold, new mines coming in and taking out their minerals, creating an export platform for Nike, etc. But in terms of lives of the poor—hunger, life expectancy, health, nutrition—people in Malaysia ended up doing much better, because there they took away power from the army, they put restrictions on the multinationals, and they had a different form of development. So the idea that Suharto’s mass murders were somehow balanced by economic progress he gave to the people is just factually incorrect, and it’s not surprising that poor people don’t seem bothered by his passing.
And I just want to add, if Suharto’s economic performance was that impressive, why then has there been a continuing exodus of poor Indonesians leaving their shores in search of jobs abroad – jobs that are often dirty, dangerous and degrading – leaving them pitifully vulnerable to exploitation?
John Pilger describes what the deal was, and why exactly Suharto was held in high esteem by Western leaders:
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 south-east 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 and US Steel and many others. Across the table sat Suharto’s US-trained economists who agreed to the corporate takeover of their country, sector by sector. The Freeport company got a mountain of copper in West Papua. A US/ European consortium got the nickel. The giant Alcoa company got the biggest slice of Indonesia’s bauxite. America, Japanese and French companies got the tropical forests of Sumatra. When the plunder was complete, President Lyndon Johnson sent his congratulations on “a magnificent story of opportunity seen and promise awakened”. Thirty years later, with the genocide in East Timor also complete, the World Bank described the Suharto dictatorship as a “model pupil”.