Nov 1, 1997

Five More Years of Living Dangerously | by Jerry Meldon | Published in Peacework, November 1997


At the ASEAN meeting in Malaysia in late July, US Secretary of State Albright scolded southeast Asian governments for accepting Myanmar (formerly Burma) into their association, asserting that Myanmar’s government was the only one in the region that lacked the support of its constituents. By singling out Myanmar’s brutal, drug-profiteering military dictatorship, Albright was merely following the Clinton administration’s hear-no-evil, see-no-evil, speak-no-evil policy towards human rights violators with more open markets—like Singapore and this article’s primary focus, Indonesia.

            Singapore may be more notorious for caning than the extreme and systematic forms of brutality practiced in Indonesia. But the clock seems to have stopped there in 1984. During the general election campaign leading up to January’s vote, Singapore prime minister Goh Chok Tong and his people’s action party labeled opposition candidate Tang Liang Hong a “Chinese nationalist bigot.” Following a libel suit, a court in Singapore awarded $1 million – not to Mr. Tang, but to Mr. Goh, and three in another $1.6 million to former Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew – on the Orwellian grounds that when Tang denied the bigotry charge, he damaged the plaintiffs’ credibility with voters.

            Then in August, local Foreign Correspondents Associations caved in to the Singapore government’s demand that it cancel a speaking invitation to Indonesian opposition leader, Megawati Sukarnoputi, daughter of former President Sukarno. Like republicrat Bill Clinton’s Administration, the mainstream US media have largely looked the other way regarding brutality in both Singapore and Indonesia, a major US trading partner.

            Indeed, in May, leading US dailies gave front-page coverage to France’s national election, leaving readers to search for election news from Indonesia – a country far more important to US corporate balance sheets. Then again, perhaps the dearth of news reflected the foreordained result of Indonesia’s exercise in mock democracy.

            Millions of anti-government protesters – including the 133 who died when arson gutted a Borneo mall on May 23 – had no hope for change following the May 29th vote. In fact, whether or not anyone at all voted for President Suharto’s party, Golkar – and 3/4 of the voters reportedly did – the Parliament next year will name the 75-year-old Suharto or his hand-picked successor as president for the next five years. For the military (read Golkar) selects 7.5% of Parliament and the ruling party (Golkar) selects 50%.

            The stacked deck’s beneficiary, Suharto, has ruled with an iron hand over the world’s fourth most populous nation – including its largest Moslem community – since a 1965 coup and an ensuing purge that ranks with history’s worst bloodbaths. His armed forces have brutally crushed independence movements on three of Indonesia’s larger islands. And the Mobutu-esque Suharto and his family are worth an estimated $40 billion.

            Through it all, Uncle Sam has been Suharto’s steadfast friend. And with Indonesia’s economy jumping 7% annually, the White House views the oil-rich, 13,000-island nation as it does China: an emerging market first, a police state second.

            But the relationship wasn’t always so amicable. When Suharto’s predecessor, Sukarno – who led the struggle for independence from the Dutch – chose neutralism rather than taking sides in the Cold War, the Eisenhower administration had the CIA foment a coup in 1958. The coup failed. But its planning introduced the CIA and the Pentagon to Indonesian counterparts who would later seize the day.

            In the early ‘60s, as the CIA-led Washington into an Indochina quagmire, politicians in Washington pointed to Indonesia as the major “domino” that would fall to communism should Vietnam go down that path. Then, on October 1, 1965 a series of dramatic events began that would permanently alter Washington-Jakarta relations – and the freedom of all 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, and occupied parts of Jakarta. But by nightfall, forces led by General Suharto had subdued the junior officers who, Suharto said, were in league with the Indonesian Communist Party.

            Suharto – who had collaborated with both the colonial Dutch and wartime Japanese occupying force – seized power from Sukarno and called for a nationwide purge of communists. “The Year of Living Dangerously” had begun. Soldiers, police, and vigilantes slaughtered half a million Indonesians in what an official CIA report called “one of the worst mass murders of the twentieth century.”

            US diplomats have since admitted handing lists of communists to the rampaging Indonesian army. In 1990, Robert Martens, who headed the Jakarta embassy team that compiled the lists, told 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.”

            A decade passed before the next “decisive moment.” 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. The Timorese have since resisted at a cost to date of 200,000 lives, one-third of their population.

            But in November 1991, Indonesian forces made the mistake of including Americans among their victims. Before opening fire and killing 271 peaceful demonstrators in the East Timorese capital of Dili, soldiers used M-16 rifles to bash the heads of reporters including Amy Goodman of Pacifica radio and Allan Nairn of the New Yorker, who suffered a broken skull. Both lived to tell about it.

            Their 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 evoked a counter-offensive by pro-Indonesia interests including lobbyists for the Clinton-friendly Lippo Group – whose Borneo branch bank was set ablaze by election protesters on May 23rd – 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. (Jakarta recently rescinded the order, citing Congressional criticism of human rights violations in Indonesia.)

            Constancio Pinto, US and UN representative of the Timorese underground – who fled to New England after the bloody 1991 demonstration in Dili and co-authored the book East Timor’s Unfinished Struggle – sees Suharto as “the major obstacle to democratization of Indonesia and independence in East Timor.” The voting charade on May 29th – in which Golkar vetted the candidates of the two parties allowed to oppose it, the candidacy of Sukarno’s daughter Megawati Sukarnoputi was scuttled, and civil service employees were required to vote Golkar – will do nothing to remote that obstacle.

            Nor, apparently, will the Clinton Administration, whose foreign policy begins and often ends with promotion of trade and stability. Now that US oil companies have signed multibillion-dollar deals for rights to drill into the ocean floor off East Timor, Suharto – unless he retires – is even less likely to relax his grip there. And Washington – as long as Suharto maintains stability – is more likely than ever to practice quiet diplomacy, very quiet diplomacy.