The recent death of Indonesia’s ex-president Suharto has been the basis of a number of newspaper articles in recent weeks. This is understandable, Indonesia is one of Australia’s nearest neighbours, and is seen as very important to Australia’s future. As would be expected, most of the reports and obituaries glossed over many of Suharto’s major failings, but one in particular is of note. On 2 February 2008, the Sydney Morning Herald published a long obituary by ex-Prime Minister Paul Keating. (1)
Keating was Australian Treasurer during the 1980s, and became Prime Minister in late 1991, until his defeat by John Howard in 1996. He is often remembered deregulating the Australian economy, advancing the cause of the Australian republic, and refocusing Australia’s foreign policy towards Asia, away from Britain and the US.
During this time, Keating got to know Suharto quite well, and describes him as ‘clever and utterly decisive … [with] a kind view of Australia.’ Further, Keating believes the ‘peace and order of his country, its religious and ethnic tolerance and peace and the order of South-East Asia came from his goodwill towards neighbouring states and from his wisdom.’ It is hard to equate this description with a CIA study into the massacre of opposition party members that followed Suharto’s elevation to power in 1966:
in terms of the numbers killed, the anti-PKI [Indonesian Communist Party] massacres rank as one of the worst mass murders of the twentieth century, along with the Soviet purges of the 1930s, the Nazi mass murders during the Second World War, and the Maoist bloodbath of the early 1950s (2)
Keating believes that had it not been for Suharto’s ‘displacement’ of the previous Sukarno government ‘a communist-dominated Indonesia would have destabilised Australia and all of South-East Asia’. By assuming power, ‘Soeharto took a nation of 120 million people, racked by political turmoil and poverty, from near-disintegration to the orderly, ordered and prosperous state that it is today.’
Considering the gratefulness that Australian’s should therefore feel towards Suharto, Keating wonderings ‘why have Australians regarded Indonesia so suspiciously’?
His answer for this is a campaign by major segments of the media to misrepresent ‘the true state of Indonesian social and economic life’, in retaliation for the death of five Australian journalists in Indonesia in 1975. The Balibo Five, as they are now called, were, according to Keating, ‘encouraged to report from a war zone by their irresponsible proprietors and … shot and killed by the Indonesian military in East Timor’. For some reason ‘this event was sheeted back to Soeharto by journalists’, who was now seen as a ‘cruel and intolerant repressor whose life’s work in saving Indonesia from destruction was to be viewed only through the prism of East Timor’.
It is true that many Australian’s view of Indonesia is through East Timor, and more recently Bali. But to suggest that the newspaper proprietors were responsible for the killing of the journalists by the Indonesian military, rather than Soeharto. Keating’s belief is whitewashing at its worst – Suharto was ultimately responsible for the death of the Balibo Five, as head of the military, as well as the hundreds of thousands of Indonesians killed during his reign.
It wasn’t only Suharto’s mass human right’s violations that Keating glossed over. He also attempted to explain the many corruption charges against Suharto and his family:
‘his son Tommy, might have elbowed his way into some carried equity with an American telephone company or his daughter something with a road builder. True as those generalisations might have been, in terms of the weight of Australia’s interests, the deeds of Soeharto’s public life massively outweigh anything in is private affairs’.
It is true that his deeds in public life do outweigh his private affairs, the hundreds of thousands of deaths are ultimately more important than the corruption charges, but this statement seriously misrepresents the up to $35 billion that the UN believes Suharto and his regime stole during his three decades in power.
Although Keating was correct in his wish to improve Australia’s relationships with its Asian neighbours, his whitewashing of the crimes of one of the world’s most despotic leaders his extreme, and is reminiscent of much written about Augusto Pinochet and his impact upon Chile.
(1) Paul Keating, ‘The nation builder’, Sydney Morning Herald, 2-3 February 2008, p. 24.
(2) Quoted in Clinton Fernandes, Reluctant Indonesians: Australia, Indonesia, and the future of West Papua, Scribe, Carlton North, 2006, p. 41.