Ruthless reign

Published : Feb 29, 2008 00:00 IST

Suharto, former President of Indonesia.-ALADIN ABDEL NABY/REUTERS

Suharto, former President of Indonesia.-ALADIN ABDEL NABY/REUTERS

Suharto, who ruled Indonesia with an iron hand, was lucky to get away without a fair trial for his human rights abuse and corruption.

Suharto, former President

THE death of former President Suharto on January 27, brought to an end an eventful chapter in the tumultuous history of post-Independence Indonesia. Many had expected the former dictator to face trial and die in ignominy after he was forced to step down from the presidency in 1998 in the face of popular resentment. Suharto, after all, had presided over a bloodbath in which over a million Indonesians were killed. His government was also acknowledged as being one of the most corrupt and venal regimes in the world. But under his watch, Indonesia had witnessed significant economic growth until the bubble burst during the financial meltdown of the 1990s. Among the so-called Asian Tiger economies, Indonesia was the worst affected.

Most historians acknowledge the key role played by the United States in first catapulting Suharto to power and then backing his government for more than three decades, despite his rampant human rights abuse and corruption. The role of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) in the 1965 coup, which brought Suharto to power and the targeting of the Indonesian Communist Party (PKI) have been well documented. The chain of events started on September 30, 1965, when a small group of military officers with left-wing sympathies tried to pre-empt a right-wing military coup against President Sukarno. The group had the tacit support of the PKI under the leadership of D.N. Aidit. The PKI was the largest Communist Party in the world after the Chinese Communist Party in those days.

The Cold War was also at its height. The West viewed Sukarno as a leader who tilted towards the East in international affairs. In domestic politics, Sukarno was a master in walking the tight rope between the right wing, consisting of the Army generals and the Islamic parties, and the PKI. In 1964, the Golkar (Joint Secretariat of Functional Groups) Party was formed with the support of the Army establishment as a counterweight to the PKI. This was also seen as a move against Sukarno. As a reaction to this, the PKI proposed the establishment of a fifth force consisting of peasants and workers in preparation for an armed struggle.

Those were the years of living dangerously for Indonesia. Sukarno had called for confrontasi (confrontation) with Britain over the formation of Malaysia because the new nation had incorporated the disputed territory in the island of Borneo. The countrys foreign policy was getting increasingly radical. Sukarno had withdrawn Indonesia from the United Nations in protest against the world bodys inaction on the countrys dispute with the United Kingdom and its former colonial master, the Netherlands. The Dutch were refusing to vacate Irian Jaya. Sukarnos charisma remained undiminished among his people despite the serious economic problems that had surfaced at the time.

However, the events following the 1965 coup attempt completely changed Indonesian politics. The killings of four top generals, identified with the Right, on the night of September 30, 1965, set in motion the creeping coup by Gen. Suharto, who had mysteriously escaped from being captured by the left-wing putschists, led by a junior officer named Colonel Untung. Helped enormously by American intelligence agencies, the Army, now under the effective command of Suharto, started one of the bloodiest purges in modern history.

According to many experts on Indonesia, Suharto knew about the PKIs plans to pre-empt the right-wing generals.

Suharto wasted little time in ordering the military to clean up the PKI, though no clinching evidence was ever provided about its complicity in the coup. The CIA provided a dossier of PKI members and activists. De-classified U.S. intelligence reports have shown that Washington armed and funded dissident groups and that the assassination of Sukarno was contemplated.

The military and right-wing vigilante groups were given a carte blanche to kill communists, trade union leaders and all those even remotely connected with progressive activities or thinking. The PKI, which was one of Sukarnos key political crutches, was destroyed within a matter of months.

Aidit, in his public speeches, had been warning about an imminent right-wing coup and had urged the masses to unite and foil the plot. Aidit was vilified by the Army and the Islamic parties as a puppet of the Chinese Communist Party. In actual fact, the PKI had an independent stance on key ideological issues and maintained equidistance from Moscow and Beijing. Aidit was captured and killed on November 22, 1965. A CIA report on the massacre said that in terms of numbers killed, the anti-PKI massacres in Indonesia should rank as one of the worst mass murders of the 20th century.

One of the bloodiest purges took place in the island of Bali, which had an organised trade union movement. More than 50,000 people were killed in that small island alone. A senior CIA officer who was involved with the American-backed coup called it a model operation for the Chilean coup which overthrew Salvador Allende in 1973.

President Sukarno (left)

On March 11, 1966, a politically debilitated Sukarno handed over supreme authority to Suharto. The PKI was formally banned after Suharto announced the beginning of a New Order in Indonesia. Ties with the West, fractured during the confrontasi period, were restored. Diplomatic ties with China were snapped. The Indonesian armed forces appropriated a central and commanding role in governance.

A dreaded super-intelligence agency, the Operational Command for the Restoration of Security and Order (Kopkamtib), was set up to stop the re-emergence of the PKI. Execution of PKI members continued until 1990. Others were sentenced to long prison terms or sent into internal exile to prison islands such as Buru. Promoedya Ananta Toer, one of the finest writers the country has produced, wrote his internationally acclaimed Buru Quartet while in long-term exile on the island.

Until the mid-1990s, to get a job in Indonesia, a person had to be socially and environmentally clean. It was a bureaucratic jargon to convey that candidates with blood relatives or even distant relatives who had a communist background were ineligible for jobs. A Citizens Group in Jakarta has demanded that the Indonesian state should formally apologise to the people for the crimes against humanity committed by the Suharto regime. There are 20 million Indonesians alive today whose close relatives were either killed or incarcerated by the Indonesian government. The Communist Party still remains banned in Indonesia.

Until his ouster, Suharto ran Indonesia with an iron hand. He was elected unopposed for five successive five-year terms in office. Golkar became the anointed ruling party. One-third of the parliamentary seats were directly nominated by the President. The judiciary, the central bank and public sector companies were all packed with nominees of the President.

It was no surprise then that corruption reached new heights under Suharto. As early as 1970, a government-appointed commission reported that corruption was widespread. The government wasted no time in shelving the report.

Apologists for Suharto used to say that under Sukarno, there was only corruption but under Suharto there was corruption as well as development. The number of Indonesians living in absolute poverty dropped from 60 per cent to 14 per cent between 1970 and 1990. At the same time, crony capitalism flourished as never before. Suhartos six children all went on to become multi-millionaires, through dubious business deals.

A World Bank report indicated that 20-30 per cent of Indonesias development funds between 1977 and 1997 were embezzled. Time magazine reported that the Suharto familys fortune was worth more than $15 billion and that $9 billion had been deposited in an Austrian bank. Transparency International alleges that Suharto stole between $15 billion and $35 billion from Indonesia. The Stolen Assets Recovery Initiative, a joint venture of the World Bank and the U.N., recently named Suharto as the greatest embezzler of modern times.

D.N. Aidit,

In the mid-1970s, after having obliterated the progressive forces, Suharto turned his attention to East Timor. The tiny Portuguese colony had declared independence despite warnings of dire consequences from Jakarta. Besides, Fretilin, which was in the vanguard of the decolonisation struggle, was an avowedly Marxist grouping, in that period.

After the precipitate withdrawal of the colonial power from the territory, Indonesia sent in its troops. An outgunned Fretilin had to resort to guerilla warfare. Suharto told the then U.S. Secretary of State, Henry Kissinger, that the communists in Timor posed a threat to Western interests in the region. Washington was quick to give its tacit approval for the Indonesian invasion of East Timor.

In the first two months of the invasion, 60,000 Timorese, or 10 per cent of the population, were killed. It is estimated that 250,000 people, out of the East Timorese population of 650,000, died during the 24 years of brutal occupation by Indonesia.

The governments that have ruled Indonesia since 1998 lacked the will to bring the general to justice. Though he was formally accused of embezzling $571 million of public money, he never spent a day in jail. A court ruled in August 2000 that Suharto was physically and mentally unfit to stand trial. But almost until the very end, he received high-profile visitors, including former heads of state.

Indonesias current President, Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, who owes his career to Suharto, personally paid his tribute by visiting the departed leaders home in Jakarta. He said that the late President had done a great service to the nation.

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