The Consortium

Indonesia: Five More Years of Living Dangerously

By Jerry Meldon

As May drew to a close, leading U.S. dailies gave front-page coverage to France's national election. But readers had to scour the international briefs for election news about much larger Indonesia -- a country of striking importance to U.S. corporations interested in cheap labor, minerals and oil.

Then again, perhaps the dearth of news reflected the foreordained result of Indonesia's mock exercise in democracy. Millions of anti-government protesters -- including the 133 who died when arson gutted a Borneo mall on May 23 -- also must have known that there was no hope for change following the vote on May 29.

Indeed, whether or not anyone voted for President Suharto's party, "Golkar" -- and three-quarters of the voters reportedly did -- the parliament is certain to name the 75-year-old Suharto or his hand-picked successor as president for the next five years. The deck was stacked. Under Indonesia's complex election laws written by Suharto's allies, the pro-Suharto military (read Golkar) will pick 7.5 percent of the parliament and the ruling party from the previous parliament (Golkar) will select 50 percent.

The election charade guaranteed that Suharto will continue to rule the world's fourth most populous nation -- of 200 million -- with an iron hand, as he has for three decades, since a 1965 coup that led to one of history's worst bloodbaths. Since then, Suharto's armed forces also have crushed independence movements on three of Indonesia's larger islands, as the Mobutu-esque Suharto and his family have amassed a fortune estimated at $40 billion.

Through those three decades of Indonesians living dangerously, Uncle Sam has remained Suharto's steadfast friend, viewing him as a Cold War bulwark against Asian communism. And now with American oil companies exploring for oil off the coast of East Timor and Indonesia's booming economy providing cheap labor for U.S. manufacturers, the White House sees the vast archipelago as it does China: an emerging market first, a police state second.

The official relations between Washington and Jakarta were not always so warm. Suharto's predecessor, Sukarno, was considered unacceptably neutral in the Cold War, refusing to take the U.S. side as it confronted the spread of communism in China, Korea and Indochina. Sukarno saw little gain for Indonesia and other Asian countries which had lived under European colonialism and then Japanese occupation.

After the Japanese collapse in 1945, Sukarno, a staunch nationalist, stepped forward as the first president of the Republic of Indonesia and resisted efforts by the Dutch to reestablish control over their old colony.

In 1949, after a series of violent clashes with independence forces, the Dutch relinquished their colonial claim. The world recognized Indonesia as an independent nation and Sukarno as its leader. Suharto, meanwhile, had collaborated with the Dutch as he had with the Japanese occupiers.

Over the next decade, Sukarno struggled to achieve effective political control over the archipelago which consists of 13,000 islands and a diverse population, including the world's largest Moslem community. But Sukarno frequently annoyed Washington because he adopted a neutral stance in the Cold War and promoted anti-colonialism throughout the Third World. In 1957, his government also began to seize foreign-owned plantations and industries, while promoting ambitious development projects.

Concerned about Sukarno's political direction and the powerful Indonesian Communist Party (PKI), President Eisenhower ordered the CIA to foment a coup in 1958. The coup failed, but its planning linked the CIA and Pentagon with Suharto and other Indonesian military officers who saw an opening to power.

In the early 1960s, as the CIA took the point leading the United States into the Indochina wars, politicians back in Washington pointed to Indonesia as a key "domino" that would fall to communism if Vietnam toppled. In Indonesia, the CIA also was hard at work, cementing ties with anti-communist military officers.

On Oct. 1, 1965 a series of dramatic events began that would permanently alter Washington-Jakarta relations -- and the lives of millions of Indonesians. That morning, under circumstances still shrouded in mystery, junior Indonesian military officers kidnapped and murdered six generals they believed were preparing a CIA-sponsored coup. The rebel officers then occupied parts of Jakarta.

General Suharto claimed the rebels were in league with the PKI, and he counter-attacked with troops loyal to the senior officers. By nightfall, Suharto's troops had managed to subdue the junior officers and were effectively in control of the capital.

In events later fictionalized in the movie, The Year of Living Dangerously, Suharto followed up his military success by overthrowing Sukarno and launching a nationwide purge of suspected communists. Soldiers, police and pro-Suharto vigilantes slaughtered an estimated half a million Indonesians in what an official CIA report called "one of the worst mass murders of the twentieth century." Many of the victims were peasants and workers who supported the PKI, plus their families. Others were ethnic Chinese who were targeted primarily for economic and racial reasons.

Pleased that the troublesome Sukarno was out of the way, the U.S. government hailed the transfer of power and muted any criticism of the massacres which left the rivers of Indonesia running red with blood. Initially, Washington denied playing any role in the coup. But in 1990, U.S. diplomats admitted to a reporter that they had handed lists of suspected communists to the rampaging Indonesian army.

Robert Martens, who headed the Jakarta embassy team that compiled the lists, told Kathy Kadane of States News Service: "It really was a big help to the army. ... I probably have a lot of blood on my hands, but that's not all bad. There's a time when you have to strike hard at a decisive moment."

When the States News story appeared in 1990, the reaction of the Washington press corps was telling. In a Washington Post column, senior editorial writer Stephen S. Rosenfeld accepted that American officials had lent a hand to "this fearsome slaughter" and then proceeded to justify the Indonesian massacre. Rosenfeld argued that the slaughter "was and still is widely regarded as the grim but earned fate of a conspiratorial revolutionary party that represented the same communist juggernaut that was on the march in Vietnam."

In a column fittingly entitled "Indonesia 1965: The Year of Living Cynically?" Rosenfeld reasoned that "either the army would get the communists or the communists would get the army, it was thought; Indonesia was a domino, and the PKI's demise kept it standing in the free world. ... Though the means were grievously tainted, we -- the fastidious among us as well as the hard-headed and cynical -- can be said to have enjoyed the fruits in the geopolitical stability of that important part of Asia, in the revolution that never happened."

With "a little shaking of the head, a little wondering about the bloody ways of history," Rosenfeld judged that Indonesia's massacre "is a good one to turn over to the historians." To Rosenfeld, it also was a positive sign of American maturity that the States News story caused little public stir when it appeared in 1990. "Not too many people these days can summon up the outrage that was the common coin of protests in the Vietnam War period," Rosenfeld wrote. [WP, July 13, 1990]

More Death

For the Indonesians and their neighbors, the three decades of Suharto rule are not so easily forgotten. In December 1975, Suharto's forces invaded the recently liberated Portuguese colony of East Timor. On a visit to Jakarta the day before, President Gerald Ford and Secretary of State Henry Kissinger gave the invasion a wink and a nod, according to an article by John Pilger in the British journal, The New Statesman [Sept. 22, 1995].

The clearance was just one more favor to a strategic ally. But the hapless East Timorese resisted the invasion, at a cost of 200,000 lives, one-third of their population.

Suharto's repression of the East Timorese continues to this day, although receiving little attention from the U.S. media. One exception came in November 1991 when Indonesian forces made the mistake of including Americans among their victims. Soldiers used M-16 rifles to bash the heads of on-the-scene reporters, including Amy Goodman of Pacifica radio and Allan Nairn of the New Yorker magazine who suffered a broken skull. The troops then opened fire, killing 271 peaceful demonstrators in the East Timorese capital of Dili. Goodman and Nairn survived to tell their story to the international press.

Those reports helped persuade Congress to cut off International Military Education and Training (IMET) funds and the sale of small arms and armored vehicles to Indonesia. This, in turn, sparked a counter-offensive by well-heeled pro-Indonesian interests, including lobbyists for the Clinton-friendly Lippo Group and Sen. Bennett Johnston, D-La., whose state is home to the Freeport-McMoran mining company that owns rights to Indonesian gold, silver and copper deposits valued at $50 billion.

Congress responded by restoring IMET funding, while Clinton approved the sale of F-16 fighters to Indonesia. (Incidentally, the Lippo Group's Borneo branch bank was set ablaze by election protesters on May 23.) On June 2, Indonesia rescinded its F-16 order, citing anticipated opposition to the sale in Congress based on Jakarta's human rights record.

To many Indonesians and East Timorese, Suharto and his military-dominated government remain the biggest barrier to democracy and freedom. But in Washington, the endless "year of living cynically" continues despite the end of the Cold War. Only now, the bipartisan political consensus is economic.

With few voices of dissent, Republicans and Democrats alike favor continued U.S. support for Suharto, who can justify his government's repression not in the language of anti-communism, but in the rhetoric of free trade and stability. ~

(c) Copyright 1997

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