The genocidal beginnings of President Suharto

Wednesday, December 11, 1991 - 11:00

By Norm Dixon

"He might be a son-of-a-bitch, but he's our son-of-a-bitch" — US President Franklin Roosevelt's description of Nicaraguan dictator Anastasio Somoza also describes the attitude the west has taken towards Indonesia's President Suharto.

Suharto and his henchmen have been feted as defenders of the "free" world for decades. Human rights organisations have assessed his role far differently.

Earlier this year Amnesty International, in newspaper advertisements to mark its 30th anniversary, said: "In 1961 we believed, didn't we, that the world would never tolerate another genocide? Since then we've had Suharto, Pol Pot, Idi Amin and Saddam Hussein ... Between them [they] have executed and tortured to death more than a million people."

The United Nations Development Program ranks Indonesia 77th out of 88 countries in its index of human rights. In terms of official corruption, it ranks Indonesia, together with Zaire and the Dominican Republic, as the worst.

Suharto's bloodletting began in 1965 when he seized power. Indonesia had been experiencing a wave of radical agitation by peasants demanding the implementation of land reform laws passed by parliament. Peasants, had begun to seize land. The powerful Communist Party (PKI), which was working closely with the then-president Sukarno, was growing rapidly. In August 1965, it had 3.5 million members and the mass organisations affiliated to it were supported by 20 million more.

The US government feared that revolution like that unfolding in south Vietnam was about to erupt in the world's fifth most populous nation.

Suspecting a US-backed coup attempt, a group of left-wing junior army officers calling themselves the "September 30th Movement" moved to head it off by kidnapping the generals they believed were involved in the plot. Six of the generals were subsequently killed (by whose hand remains unclear). Suharto and the military command seized the opportunity to launch a coup, take power and then drown the mass movements in blood.

With little evidence, Suharto accused the PKI of being the force behind the September 30th Movement. The Indonesian military and ultraright goons rounded up anybody with the vaguest association with the PKI, left groups and the mass organisations. Between 500,000 and 1 million people were murdered. Accounts of the carnage at the time sound like those that came out of Pol Pot's Cambodia a decade and half later.

Time magazine on December 17, 1965, reported that "Communists, red sympathisers and their families are being massacred by the thousands. Backlands army units are reported to have executed thousands of communists after interrogation in remote jails. Armed with wide-bladed s, Moslem bands crept at night into homes of communists, killing entire families and burying the bodies in shallow graves.

"The murder campaign became so brazen in parts of rural East Java, that Moslem bands placed the heads of victims on poles and paraded them through villages. The killings have been on such a scale that the disposal of the corpses has created a serious sanitation problem in East Java and Northern Sumatra where the humid air bears the reek of decaying flesh. Travellers from those areas tell of small rivers and streams that have been literally clogged with bodies."

In Medan, north Sumatra, "For six months, no-one wanted to eat fish from the river because they often found human fingers inside the fish", said one resident in 1990.

In October 1990, the Jakarta weekly Tempo published a series of articles about the "1965 affair". One CIA document indicated the agency already knew in September 1965 of the plans to kidnap the generals.

The US was not just a passive observer of the carnage. Professor Gabriel Kolko has written that "no single American action in the period after 1945 was as bloodthirsty ... for the US tried to initiate the massacre, and it did everything in its power to encourage Suharto, including equipping his killers, to see that the physical liquidation of the PKI was carried through ... "

Kathy Kadane of the States News Service in 1990 interviewed former US embassy officials who boasted of the help they gave Suharto and his executioners in the hunt for Indonesian communists. The officials told her they compiled comprehensive lists of PKI members, from top echelons down to village cadres. Over 5000 names were provided.

"It was really a big help to the army", said Robert Martens, a former Jakarta embassy official. "They probably killed a lot of people, and I probably have a lot of blood on my hands, but that's not all bad."

The murders continued for many years. In 1969, a journalist for Indonesia Raya wrote about central Java: "I got tired of writing down the names of villages where there were supposed to have been executions and burials ... There was an official who told me that the arrests had gone for a month from 27 July [1968]. When the prisoners had been collected, they took 75 away [to be killed] each night, in two lots. Later this became less and they only took away 75 prisoners every Saturday night."

A decade after the 1965 massacres, there were still at least 70,000 political prisoners held in hundreds of prison camps. The deaths rates in these camps were astronomical because of the harsh treatment and lack of adequate food and medicine. Prisoners were refused clothes, soap and bedding. Torture was widespread. Many prisoners were forced to do forced labour.

Amnesty International estimates that there are still at least 50 detainees from the 1965 period. Since 1985, 22 "PKI" prisoners have been executed after spending 20 years in jail. Amnesty believes eight more prisoners are in imminent danger of 255D>

From GLW issue 39