Apr 19 1998

Whitewashing Suharto

“Suharto is no Saddam,” the New York Times’ “Week in Review” assured us on March 8.

How so? The Indonesian dictator’s rule is no less autocratic than Saddam Hussein’s. Like Hussein, Suharto has attempted to annex a smaller neighbor–in fact, his ongoing occupation of East Timor has been far bloodier than Hussein’s assault on Kuwait. While Hussein’s rule has been brutally repressive, Suharto is directly responsible for one of the greatest acts of mass murder in post-World War II history: the genocide that accompanied his rise to power in 1965.

Supposedly reacting to a Communist-backed attempt to overthrow the government, Suharto seized power from President Sukarno, a leader of the non-aligned movement. Suharto immediately organized a systematic slaughter of the ethnic Chinese minority, which was believed to be the main base of support for the Communist Party. Conservative estimates of the death toll are in the hundreds of thousands; a 1977 Amnesty International report cited a tally of “many more than one million.”

But Suharto is a U.S. ally, and has conducted his atrocities with either the approval or the active participation of the U.S. government. For the establishment press, that has made all the difference. Even as he balks at some of the strings attached to International Monetary Fund loans, thereby incurring mild criticism of his “crony capitalism,” prominent newspapers still can’t seem to face squarely Suharto’s bloody history.

Sometimes Suharto’s record of violence is ignored or absurdly trivialized: The Boston Globe awkwardly summed him up as someone “who has been praised for modernizing Indonesia’s economy over the last three decades but squelching opposing views.” Squelching? One doubts the Globe would use that word to describe Pol Pot’s reign in Cambodia.

The Los Angeles Times, in a March 10 story on Suharto being given new emergency powers by his rubber-stamp legislature, noted reassuringly that he has often had such powers, but “used them only in 1965 in a bloody campaign to rid Indonesia of Communists and dissidents.” That’s a bit like saying that the Nuremberg Laws were “only” in effect in Germany between 1935 and 1945.

Even journalists are obviously familiar with the events of 1965 find ways to write around Suharto’s role. The Washington Post, recounting how the dictator came to power, reported that Suharto “emerged from the chaos of 1965 after leading a military takeover against what has been described as an aborted communist coup.” The Post went on to praise Suharto for improving Indonesia’s economy and “unifying the country’s diverse 300-plus ethnic groups.”

The Christian Science Monitor actually treated the massacres as a heroic episode in Suharto’s life: During “a period of horrific attacks on communists and their supporters,” Suharto “stepped into the vacuum,” “instilled calm” and “took contentious politics out of the picture.” “Suharto will forever be acclaimed for his actions during the crisis,” the Monitor asserted.

The “Week in Review” piece that promised to explain the difference between Saddam Hussein and Suharto acknowledged the scale of the 1965 slaughter, and noted that many of the victims were killed by the military “as Mr. Suharto came to power.” But the Times used this at least semi-honest account to explain the importance of “stability” in Indonesia, and therefore why the U.S. “prefers to spar with the authoritarian they know rather than a new general they never met.”

It’s possible that more forthright accounts will emerge if Suharto continues to frustrate the IMF’s plans for making Asia more hospitable to multinational corporations. The Washington Post’s Jim Hoagland ended a column with a reference to “Indonesia’s brutal treatment of the East Timorese population,” which supposedly demonstrates Suharto’s “contempt for outside opinion.”

The opinions that matter to Suharto, of course, are those of official Washington, which has been quietly supportive of his East Timor occupation for decades. And that same official opinion determines which crimes the establishment press recognizes, and how much outrage it shows.

A version of this appeared in In These Times (4/19/98).