INDONESIA: State terrorism and the Bali bombings

November 27, 2002


"What passing bells for these who die as cattle?", asked the great WWI poet Wilfred Owen. His famous line might have been written for those who perish in today's secret wars and terrorist outrages.

Owen's generation never used the word "terrorism", but the slaughter they suffered was terrorism on a breathtaking scale, whose perpetrators were not shadowy zealots but governments: men who spoke up for king and country while blowing millions of human beings to bits.

The October 12 atrocity in Bali, like the September 11, 2001, attacks on America, did not happen in isolation. They were products, like everything, of the past. According to US President George Bush, British Prime Minister Tony Blair and now Australia's prime minister, John Howard, we have no right to understand them. We must simply get the criminals, dead or alive.

The fact that the Bush posse has caught no terrorist of proven importance since 9/11 makes a grim parody of Bush's semi-literate threats and Blair's missionary deceptions as they prepare a terrorist attack on Iraq that will be the horror of Bali many times over. "Terrorist attack" is not rhetorical; the British attorney general, Lord Goldsmith, has told the UK government that it could find itself before the International Criminal Court if it goes ahead.

State terrorism is a taboo term. Politicians never utter it. Newspapers rarely describe it. Academic "experts" suppress it. Yet, in many cases, it helps us understand the root causes of non-state atrocities like Bali and 9/11. It is by far the most menacing form of terrorism, for it has the capacity to kill not 200, but hundreds of thousands. In each shower of cluster bombs that will fall on Iraq there will be countless Sari Clubs. The dropping of the atomic bomb on the city of Hiroshima was the equivalent of the horror of the Twin Towers 100 times over.

State terrorism, backed by the US, Britain and Australia, has scarred Indonesia for the past 40 years. For example, the source of the worst violence is the Indonesian army (TNI), which the West has supported and armed.

Today, TNI troops continue to terrorise the provinces of Aceh and West Papua, where they are "protecting" the US Exxon-Mobil oil company's holdings and the Freeport mine. In West Papua, the TNI openly supports a terrorist group, Laskar Jihad.

The TNI is the same army which the Australian government trained for decades and publicly defended when its terrorism became too blatant.

In 1999, when the people of Australia's closest northern neighbour, East Timor, which had been invaded and annexed by the Indonesia dictatorship of General Suharto, finally had an opportunity to vote for independence and freedom, it was the Howard government that betrayed them. Although warned by Australia's intelligence agencies that the Indonesian army was setting up militias to terrorise the population, Howard and his foreign minister, Alexander Downer, claimed they knew nothing; and the massacres went ahead. As leaked documents have since revealed, they did know.

This was only the latest in Australia's long complicity with state terrorism in Indonesia, which makes a mockery of the self-deluding official declarations that Australia "lost its innocence" in Bali. Certainly, few Australians are aware that not far from their holiday hotels are mass graves with the remains of some 80,000 people murdered in Bali in 1965-66 with the connivance of the Australian government.

Recently released files reveal that when the Indonesian tyrant Suharto seized power in the 1960s, he did so with the secret backing of the US, British and Australian governments, which looked the other way or actively encouraged the slaughter of more than half a million "communists". This was later described by the CIA as "one of the worst mass murders of the 20th Century".

The Australian prime minister at the time, Harold Holt, quipped: "With 500,000 to a million communist sympathisers knocked off, I think it's safe to assume a reorientation has taken place."

Holt's remark accurately reflected the collaboration of the Australian foreign affairs and political establishment. The Australian embassy in Jakarta described the massacres as a "cleansing process". In Canberra, officials in the Prime Minister's department expressed support for "any measures to assist the Indonesian army cope with the internal situation".

Suharto's bloody rise might not have succeeded had the US not secretly equipped his troops. A state-of-the-art field communications system, flown in at night by the US Air Force, had high frequencies that were linked directly to the CIA and the National Security Agency advising President Lyndon Johnson.

Not only did this allow Suharto's generals to co-ordinate the killings, it meant that the highest echelons of the US administration were listening in and that Suharto could seal off large areas of the country. In the US embassy, a senior official drew up assassination lists for Suharto, then ticked off the names when each was murdered.

The bloodbath was the price of Indonesia becoming, as the World Bank described it, "a model pupil of the global economy". That meant a green light for Western corporations to exploit Indonesia's abundant natural resources. The Freeport company got a mountain of copper and gold in the province of West Papua. An American and European consortium got the nickel. The giant Alcoa company got the biggest slice of Indonesia's bauxite. Other companies took the tropical forests of Sumatra and Kalimantan; and Suharto and his cronies got a cut that made them millionaires and billionaires.

In 1975, the violence that had brought Suharto to power was transferred to the Portuguese colony of East Timor. Suharto's troops invaded, and over the next 23 years more than 200,000 people, a third of the population, perished. During much of East Timor's bloody occupation, Suharto's biggest supplier of arms and military equipment was Britain. In one year, a billion pounds' worth of Export Credit Guarantee loans went to Indonesia so that Suharto could buy British Aerospace Hawk jets.

Today, Suharto has gone, but decades of foreign plunder, in league with one of the greatest mass murderers, have produced fault-lines right across Indonesian society. The "model pupil" of the global economy is more indebted than any country and millions of Indonesians have descended into abject poverty. It is hardly surprising that there are resentments and tensions, and support for extreme religious groups.

Who was responsible for the Bali bombings? We do not know, but Indonesia's generals have plenty of motives to destabilise the elected government of President Megawati Sukarnoputri. A number of them are implicated in war crimes, and, unlike the Balkans, there has been minimal pressure from the West for the guilty to be tried.

Democracy has ended important army privileges, including a block of guaranteed seats in the parliament. In September, the army appeared to be sending a message that it is now targeting foreigners when troops in West Papua staged an "ambush" they claimed was the work of local guerrillas and two Americans were murdered.

What is likely is that the pressure exerted by the US, Australia and Britain on the secular government in Jakarta to "crack down" on Islamist groups, in a mostly Islamic country, will polarise communities. To some, this will seem a familiar game of the powerful.

In the 1960s, the West backed the Islamist groups when they thought Indonesia would "go communist". They were expendable. When Bush, Blair and Howard are next shedding their crocodile tears and grinding the language into a paean of cliches about the "war on terror", those in Indonesia with long memories might be forgiven for thinking nothing has changed.

[John Pilger's new book, The New Rulers Of The World, is published by Verso. Visit <>.]

From Green Left Weekly, November 27, 2002.
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