Suharto: The Book of Slaughter and Forgetting

[This essay was written just before Suharto’s death on January 27.]

Certainly there will be a reckoning. But it will not be soon, no thanks to intrepid members of so-called Western journalism who are today bravely sifting through the minutiae of the despot Suharto’s medical condition even as they avoid the anatomy of how and why he remained in power for so long.

Since the Indonesian tyrant was rushed to a hospital in Jakarta on January 4, we have been introduced to an army of details about swollen intestines and weakened kidneys. We know of the fluid that accumulated in Suharto’s lungs and his anemia. Even the ready tomb "in a mausoleum at the peak of a small mountain … surrounded by shimmering green rice terraces." But of Suharto’s crimes, and about those who were in a position to prevent them and who chose instead to look away or profit from them, we are told little. We are told, for instance, by the New York Times, of the dictator’s "severe human rights abuses and prodigious corruption," as if the extermination of a third of East Timor’s population could be qualified as "severe abuse" and the wholesale plunder of the Indonesian archipelago a dishonest act that resulted in illicit gain.

Whether Suharto dies within days or weeks, or survives to live for a few more years is immaterial. Obituaries have already been written, to be released likely with few revisions within minutes after the dictator’s death by the biggest institutions of Free World punditry. What they will not say will echo more loudly than what they will articulate, and they would not be inconsistent with past practice.

How did the leading journalistic lights of the West write about the massacres in Indonesia in 1965 and 1966, using "systematically compiled comprehensive lists" supplied by US officials to Suharto and his generals and described by the CIA as "one of the greatest mass murders in the 20th century."

In June 1966, star columnist James Reston of the New York Times portrayed Suharto’s cleansed republic as "a gleam of light in Asia." A month later Time magazine lauded "The West’s best news for years in Asia" under the heading "Vengeance with a Smile," and depicted the rampaging army as "scrupulously constitutional" and "based on law not on mere power," led by the "quietly determined" Suharto, with his "almost innocent face."

There is always a reason for fawning when combined with hard-nosed business journalism and real politik.

Who will tell us of Australian Prime Minister Harold Holt’s remarks, on his visit to the US in 1966, "With 500,000 to a million communist sympathizers knocked off, I think it’s safe to assume a reorientation has taken place"? And who will recall the advise to Washington by the New York Times in December 1965 — as the carnage was underway — that it "would do well to encourage the International Monetary Fund, the new Asian Development Bank and, perhaps, an international consortium to take the lead." A year later, the Times would follow up and counsel Washington "to retain a neutralist posture. There is an urgent need for a large international loan — perhaps as much as a half-billion dollars…. [I]t is vital that the United States play a positive role in building an international aid consortium."

Two decades after, the Economist of London would describe Suharto as "at heart benign" and the Christian Science Monitor would call the dictator a "moderate leader." As far as official lines go, they were not far off the mark. Margaret Thatcher called Suharto "one of our very best and most valuable friends," and with good reason. "With it’s 100 million people and its 300-mile arc of islands containing the region’s richest hoard of natural resources," said Richard Nixon in 1967, "Indonesia is the greatest prize in South-East Asia."

Time-Life Corporation itself organized "an extraordinary conference" in Geneva in 1967, which, according to dissident writer, John Pilger, "designed the corporate takeover of Indonesia." Everyone was there, from major oil companies and banks to firms such as General Motors, American Express, and Goodyear.

"We are trying to create a new climate," said the president of Time Inc., James Linen, as he opened the Geneva meet, "in which private enterprise and developing countries work together … for the greater profit of the free world. This world of international enterprise is more than governments … It is the seamless web of enterprise, which has been shaping the global environment at revolutionary speed."

Linen’s speech was visionary, as if it were a manifesto of corporate globalization issued from the Davos Forum. With a few changes in dates, perhaps it was.

On the second day of the gathering in Geneva, "the Indonesian economy was carved up, sector by sector," said Jeffrey Winters, a Northwestern University of Chicago professor who studied the Geneva conference papers. Won by Suharto, Southeast Asia’s greatest prize was "divided up into five different sections: mining and finance in one room, services in another, light industry in another, banking and finaince in another; and what Chase Manhattan did was sit with a delegation and hammer out policies that were going to be acceptable to them and other investors. You had these big corporate people going around the table, saying this is what we need: this, this and this, and they basically designed the legal infrastructure for investment in Indonesia."

There was a deal, recounted the BBC Southeast Asia correspondent Roland Challis, who admitted that he had unwittingly used as news official hogwash fed to him by the British government’s Foreign Office. "It was only much later that we learned the American embassy was supplying names and ticking them off as they were killed…. In establishing the Suharto regime, the involvement of the IMF and the World Bank was part of it. Sukarno had kicked them out; now Suharto would bring them back. That was the deal." #



1. Seth Mydans, "Respects paid to dying Suharto," New York Times, 8 January 2008.

2. Seth Mydans, "Suharto suffers more setbacks," New York Times, 9 January 2008.

3. Seth Mydans, "Indonesia watches as an ailing suharto clings to life," New York Times, 15 January 2008.

4. Seth Mydans, "Suharto’s victims not so ready to forgive," International Herald Tribune, 17 January 2008.

5. See Central Intelligence Agency, Directorate of Intelligence, Intelligence Report: Indonesia 1965, The Coup That Backfired, Langley, CIA, 1968, cited in John Pilger, The New Rulers of the World (Verso, London: 2002).

6. See James Reston, "Washington: A Gleam of Light in Asia," New York Times, 19 June 1966, cited in Footnotes for: Understanding Power: The Indispensable Chomsky, ed. Peter R. Mitchell and John Schoeffer (The New Press, New York: 2002)

7. "Vengeance with a Smile," Time, July 15, 1966, cited in Understanding Power.

8. See Economist (London), "The extended family; Two fathers: Sukarno and Suharto," 15 August 1987, and John Murray Brown, "Bringing Irian Jaya into 20th century," Christian Science Monitor, 6 February 1987. Cited in Understanding Power.

9. John Pilger, The New Rulers of the World (Verso, London: 2002).


This is a footnoted version of an article in BusinessMirror (Philippines), Jan. 29, 2008.

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