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
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
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
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
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]
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
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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