Suharto: made and broken by the West

The bloody dictator was not overthrown by Indonesian ‘people power’, as the obits claim; he was sacked by his Western backers when his face no longer fitted.

James Heartfield

Topics World

General el-Haj Mohammed Suharto came to power in Indonesia in 1965 in a US-backed coup against the popular nationalist leader Sukarno (1). Suharto’s bloody dictatorship – though in fact he had no official title – lasted until 1998, when it was destabilised by a concerted Western effort. At the time, they called it ‘People’s Power’. But the anti-government protests were little more than a stage army; the real overthrow was organised at the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the United Nations. Today, Western observers are surprised to see the crowds mourning Suharto. But Indonesians never really owned the campaign against him, and for that reason they do not share its judgement.

In 1941 the Japanese army kicked the Dutch and English out of East Asia. Indonesian nationalists found an early opportunity in the Japanese administration. With his Dutch military training, Suharto served in the Japanese Peta militia, before switching sides to the Indonesian partisans. When the Japanese retreated, Suharto earned admiration for blocking a Dutch reoccupation of Yogyakarta, the ‘war capital’ of Indonesia, in 1946.

In the hiatus between Japan’s retreat and the United Nations’ preferred option of a Dutch re-colonisation, the Indonesian leader Sukarno seized the opportunity to set his country free. Sukarno’s bid for freedom was undoubtedly popular, and a beacon to Third World nationalists, who founded the Non-Aligned Movement at a conference that Sukarno hosted in Bandung in 1955. But challenged on the left by a mass Communist Party and on the right by US-backed rebels, Sukarno came to rely on military rule at the expense of political representation.

It was a weakness that the US exploited when it backed a coup by Sukarno’s military chief Major General Suharto in 1965. US president John F Kennedy and British prime minister Harold Macmillan had ‘agreed to liquidate President Sukarno’ in 1962, according to a CIA memorandum (2). Suharto’s forces slaughtered half a million communists and Sukarno loyalists, using a US Embassy-provided list to identify the communists. ‘I probably have a lot of blood on my hands’, said the embassy official, who crossed names off the list as the Indonesian forces reported the communists killed (3).

There were plenty of financial motives for the West to back a coup. Of Indonesia, Richard Nixon wrote: ‘With its 100million people and its 300-mile arc of islands containing the region’s richest hoard of natural resources, Indonesia is the greatest prize in South-East Asia.’ (4) In the end, though, it was Sukarno’s affront to white prestige that gnawed at Western leaders. Challenged by radical nationalists in China, Korea and Vietnam, Suharto’s rise over Sukarno was a moral victory for the West, and his regime a welcome ally.

In 1975, the officers’ revolution in Portugal destabilised her overseas Empire, leaving East Timor without a colonial ruler. The West backed an Indonesian invasion, fronted by Adam Malik, who was rewarded with a seat on Willy Brandt’s North-South Commission. According to the British Foreign Office: ‘The arguments in favour of [East Timor’s] integration into Indonesia are all the stronger. Developments in Lisbon now seem to argue in favour of greater sympathy towards Indonesia… Certainly it is in Britain’s interests that Indonesia should absorb the territory as soon and as unobtrusively as possible.’ (5) Tens of thousands of East Timorese were killed.

Suharto’s long decades of service to the West, though, were no guarantee of continuing support. Like many Cold War strongmen, Suharto was less use to the West once the Cold War abated. The toppling of Stalinist leaders in the East was the opportunity for the West to dump their own bloody-handed dictators. US and European leaders set about destabilising these local hard men, one by one.

Despite rewriting the constitution to help Western investors rip off the country with impunity, Suharto was still leant on by the IMF in the 1990s, which effectively pulled the plug on his economy. The IMF used Indonesia’s debts to demand price rises and the selling off of state assets. Suharto took the blame for the price rises, but was privately condemned for dragging his feet over the IMF restructuring demands (6). In 1998, US National Security Council spokesman Larry Summers said Jakarta needed ‘a more open, pluralistic and accountable political system’. He hinted that Washington was already looking to an era in which Suharto was no longer the dominant figure.

The younger generation of leaders who took power in the West in the decade after the Cold War ended wanted to install a new vision of humanitarianism worldwide, and looked upon the West’s old allies with distaste. Robin Cook, Labour’s foreign secretary when Tony Blair became PM in 1997, was embarrassed to have to justify the preceding Tory government’s deal to supply Indonesia with fighter jets. In October 1996, the Norwegian Nobel Committee had decided to award the Nobel Peace Prize, in two equal parts, to Carlos Filipe Ximenes Belo and José Ramos-Horta ‘for their work towards a just and peaceful solution to the conflict in East Timor’. This was a signal that the West was about to turn its back on Suharto, backing separatist rebels against him.

Rioting in Indonesia in early 1998 made it clear that the population understood that he was no longer to be feared. Some optimistic radicals saw a revolution in the rioting, but it would be closer to a medieval peasant ‘Jacquerie’ with mobs turning quickly to attack Chinese traders. In March 1998, Suharto was bundled out of office, in favour of his deputy, Habibie; but that did not stop the West’s continuing campaign to dismember Indonesia’s drifting regime.

In July 1998, the European Union sent a delegation to East Timor. Robin Christopher, the British ambassador to Indonesia, told independence protesters there: ‘Your voice has been heard. We all have taken your messages away with us. We congratulate this good and disciplined demonstration … We want the future of East Timor to be peaceful.’ But they had to cut the trip short after Indonesian intelligence agents accompanying the diplomats opened fire on a crowd of pro-independence supporters in Dili, killing a man in his twenties and injuring five other men.

After Suharto’s departure, Indonesia was not stabilised. With the support of the West, Sukarno’s daughter Megawati Sukarnoputri came to power, but could not quell the separatist movements that were gathering across the archipelago state.

The UN’s hasty declaration of East Timorese independence led to thousands more deaths as the separatist movement was pushed prematurely to take power in the face of a vicious rearguard defence by the Indonesian militia. Worse still, her independence too quickly proved to be little more than a cover for a UN-backed rule by the Australian military. Many are shocked by the way that Australia grabbed East Timor’s offshore oil and gas fields. In March 2007, Australian troops opened fire on supporters of rebel leader Alfredo Reinado, killing four people.

Following his death, Indonesians are confused about Suharto’s record, because they were never truly the architects of his downfall (nor, indeed, his rise). A degree of nostalgia for the ‘stability’ he brought seems perverse, until you understand that most Indonesians were made bystanders in the struggle for their country’s future, and never had the opportunity to form their own judgement on Suharto.

James Heartfield is author of Green Capitalism: Engineering Scarcity in an Age of Plenty, published next month. Visit his website here.

Previously on spiked

James Heartfield saw the Bali nightclub bombings presaging greater Western intervention in Indonesia Mischa Moselle criticised perceptions of Indonesia as a hotbed of Islamic fundamentalism. Or read more at spiked issue Asia.

[1] The el Haj Mohammed is a later addition, like many Javanese, Suharto was born with just one name.

[2] Quoted in Mark Curtis, The Ambiguities of Power, 1995, p. 217

[3] Quoted in Mark Curtis, The Ambiguities of Power, 1995, p. 218

[4] Spoils of a Massacre, John Pilger, Guardian, 14 July 2001

[5] Curtis, The Ambiguities of Power, p. 220

[6] Geoff Forrester and R. J. May, The Fall of Soeharto, 1998, p. 25, 98; and see Howard Dick et al, The Emergence of a National Economy, 2002, p 237

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