The death of the former Indonesian dictator, Suharto, on January 27 could have unleashed a flood of revelations detailing British and American support for one of the 20th century’s worst mass murderers. Instead, the media continued the cover up that has so far lasted more than forty years.
The 1965-6 massacres that accompanied Suharto’s rise to power claimed the lives of between 500,000 and 1 million people, mostly landless peasants. A 1977 Amnesty International report cited a tally of “many more than one million” deaths. (http://www.fair.org/articles/ suharto-itt.html) In the words of a leaked CIA report at the time, the massacre was “one of the worst mass murders of the 20th century”. (Declassified US CIA Directorate of Intelligence research study, ‘Indonesia – 1965: The Coup That Backfired,’ 1968; http://newsc.blogspot.com/)
Infamously, while assuring readers of US involvement, leading New York Times commentator James Reston described these events as “a gleam of light in Asia”. (http://www.fair.org/extra/9603/reston.html) Max Frankel, then the New York Times’ Washington correspondent, wrote an article titled, “US Is Heartened by Red Setback in Indonesia Coup.” He commented:
“The Johnson administration believes that a dramatic new opportunity has developed both for anti-Communist Indonesians and for United States policies. Officials… believe the army will cripple and perhaps destroy the Communists as a significant political force.”
The United States had been heavily involved, not just in bringing Suharto to power, but in arming, equipping and training his army. In May 1990, Kathy Kadane of the Washington-based States News Service reported admissions of US government officials that the US embassy in Jakarta had drawn up lists of 5,000 suspected Communist leaders. These “zap lists” were given to the Indonesian military who used them to track down and kill party members. One former embassy official told Kadane: “I probably have a lot of blood on my hands, but that’s not all bad.” (http://www.fair.org/extra/best-of- extra/indonesia-nyt.html)
Ralph McGehee, a senior CIA operations officer in the 1960s, described the terror of Suharto’s takeover as “the model operation” for the US-backed coup that later destroyed Chile’s Salvador Allende. McGehee indicated the key deception that had sparked Suharto’s massacre:
“The CIA forged a document purporting to reveal a leftist plot to murder Chilean military leaders… [just like] what happened in Indonesia in 1965.” (John Pilger, ‘Our model dictator,’ The Guardian, January 28, 2007; http://www.guardian.co.uk/ comment/story/0,,2247948,00.html)
The British government was secretly involved in the slaughter. Roland Challis, BBC south-east Asia correspondent at the time, later revealed:
“British warships escorted a ship full of Indonesian troops down the Malacca Straits so they could take part in the terrible holocaust… I and other correspondents were unaware of this at the time… There was a deal, you see. In establishing the Suharto regime, the involvement of the IMF and the World Bank was part of it… Suharto would bring them back. That was the deal.” (Ibid)
The “deal” involved opening up what Richard Nixon had called “the richest hoard of natural resources, the greatest prize in south-east Asia”. Suharto transformed Indonesia into an “investors’ paradise”. (http://www.fair.org/ extra/9809/suharto.html) Foreign investment was attracted by a law which protected property from nationalisation for 30 years. The new regime also offered to return to their original owners American, British and Dutch firms which had been taken over by Suharto’s predecessor, Sukarno. In November 1967, Nixon’s “prize” was delivered at a three-day conference in Geneva. The Freeport company got West Papua‘s copper. A US/European consortium got much of the nickel. The Alcoa company got Indonesia’s bauxite. America, Japanese and French companies got the tropical forests of Sumatra.
The West, unsurprisingly, was delighted to do business with Indonesia’s new “moderate” leader, who was “at heart benign,” the Economist declared. (http://www.thirdworldtraveler.com/ Chomsky/ChomOdon_SEAsia.html)
Blood Red – Green Light
The United States and Britain were also key allies supporting Suharto’s December 1975 invasion of East Timor. The day before the attack, while visiting the Indonesian capital, Jakarta, secretary of state Henry Kissinger and president Gerald Ford gave Suharto the green light to invade.
In media coverage immediately following Ford’s death in December 2006, we found a single sentence in the entire UK press describing his complicity in the East Timor genocide. Christopher Hitchens wrote in the Mirror:
“It was Kissinger and Ford who gave permission to the Indonesian generals for their illegal annexation of East Timor, which turned into a genocide.” (Hitchens, ‘The accidental president,’ Mirror, December 28, 2006)
Philip Liechty, CIA desk officer in Jakarta at the time of the invasion, gave an idea of the operative ethics:
“We sent the Indonesian generals everything that you need to fight a major war against somebody who doesn’t have any guns. We sent them rifles, ammunition, mortars, grenades, food, helicopters. You name it; they got it. And they got it direct… No one cared. No one gave a damn. It is something that I will be forever ashamed of. The only justification I ever heard for what we were doing was there was concern that East Timor was on the verge of being accepted as a new member of the United Nations and there was a chance that the country was going to be either leftist or neutralist and not likely to vote [with the United States] at the UN.” (Quoted, John Pilger, Hidden Agendas, Vintage, 1998, pp.285-6. See here for more detail)
The US supplied 90% of the weapons. Britain supplied armoured cars and advanced fighter-bombers used against East Timorese targets. The result was the death of 200,000 people out of a total of 700,000 – one of the worst genocides in history by proportion of population killed.
A month after Indonesia invaded, as tens of thousands of people were being massacred, a US State Department official told a major Australian newspaper that “in terms of the bilateral relations between the US and Indonesia, we are more or less condoning the incursion into East Timor… The United States wants to keep its relations with Indonesia close and friendly. We regard Indonesia as a friendly, non-aligned nation – a nation we do a lot of business with”. (The Australian, January 22, 1976; http://www.fair.org/ activism/east-timor-context.html)
In December 1975, the British ambassador in Jakarta informed the Foreign Office: “it is in Britain’s interest that Indonesia should absorb the territory as soon and as unobtrusively as possible, and that if it should come to the crunch and there is a row in the United Nations, we should keep our heads down and avoid taking sides against the Indonesian government”. (Quoted, Mark Curtis, The Ambiguities of Power, Zed Books, 1996, pp.219-220)
US reporter Allan Nairn happened to witness, and narrowly survived, one massacre of unarmed protestors in the East Timor capital, Dili, in November 1991:
“The soldiers marched straight up to us [Western journalists]. They never broke their stride. We were enveloped by the troops, and when they got a few yards past us, within a dozen yards of the Timorese, they raised their rifles to their shoulders all at once, and they opened fire. The Timorese, in an instant, were down, just torn apart by the bullets. The street was covered with bodies covered with blood. And the soldiers just kept on coming. They poured in, one rank after another. They leaped over the bodies of those who were down. They were aiming and shooting people in the back. I could see their limbs being torn, their bodies exploding. There was blood spurting out into the air. The pop of the bullets, everywhere. And it was very organized, very systematic. The soldiers did not stop. They just kept on shooting until no one was left standing.“ (http://www.democracynow.org/2008/ 1/28/massacre_the_story_of_east_timor)
Burying The Dead – British Media Performance
How much of this information has been communicated by the mainstream media since Suharto’s death?
Jonathan Head wrote on the BBC website of Suharto:
“His accession to power coincided with the escalation of the Vietnam War, when the United States was desperate for reliable allies in the region and willing to turn a blind eye to his human rights record.” (Head, ‘The lasting legacy of Suharto,’ BBC online, January 27, 2008; http://news.bbc.co.uk/go/pr/fr/- /2/hi/asia-pacific/7183191.stm)
As we have seen, this was about far more than just turning a “blind eye”. In fact, the United States played a key role in bringing Suharto to power, and in providing weapons for his genocidal army. The M-16 guns Suharto’s troops used were American – the Hawk jets that bombed East Timor were British. But East Timor was not so much as mentioned in Head’s high-profile BBC report. When challenged by a reader, Head replied:
“I think it is entirely inappropriate to rank Suharto alongside Sadaam [sic] Hussein. There was never anything like the pervasive terror here that existed in Iraq. I in no way wish to diminish the enormous suffering of many Indonesians under his rule.” (Email forwarded to Media Lens, January 28, 2008)
In 1998, Jim Naureckas of FAIR (www.fair.org) responded to the argument that Suharto could not be compared to Saddam Hussein:
“‘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.” (http://www.fair.org/ articles/suharto-itt.html)
BBC News online invited readers to ‘Have Your Say’:
“Mr Suharto was accused of embezzling $600m (£303m) of state funds during his 32 years of power, but the criminal charges were dropped in 2006 on account of his ill health. A civil case brought by state prosecutors seeking $1.5bn in damages and funds allegedly stolen from the state was never settled.
“What are your memories of the former strongman? What is his legacy? Should the charges against him have been dropped” (http://newsforums.bbc.co.uk/nol/thread.j spa?forumID=4166&edition=2&ttl=20080127171140)
The charges of mass murder apparently do not exist.
A Daily Telegraph news report accepted that Suharto was “one of the 20th century’s biggest killers and greatest thieves… It began with the massacre of at least 500,000 communists in 1965. Two hundred thousand were killed when he annexed the former Portuguese colony of East Timor in 1975.” (Marianne Kearney and Thomas Bell, ‘Suharto death revives memories of the million killed under his rule,’ Daily Telegraph, January 28, 2008)
But what of US-UK support for his killing, motivated by corporate greed for Indonesia’s natural resources?
“His friends among western governments, attracted by his strong anti-communism, helped protect him in office.”
As ever, media reporting promotes the alleged concern to save the world from the former bete noire, “communism” (a role currently being played by al Qaeda) – just as a sincere concern to save the world from Saddam Hussein’s non-existent weapons of mass destruction was the motive for invading Iraq, not control of oil.
A single letter in the Guardian made the point that is unthinkable for mainstream journalists:
“The collusion of the British with Suharto’s murderous regime is not some throwback to cold-war realpolitik, but an integral and ongoing dimension of a foreign policy in thrall to the avaricious interests of big business. In 1967, following Suharto’s western-backed coup, oil companies and multinational corporations divided up Indonesia’s vast natural resources. Now, 40 years later, they are doing the same in Iraq, with the British government trying to push through an oil law which, if passed, would allow Shell, BP and Exxon to take control of most of Iraq’s oil reserves, depriving ordinary Iraqis of billions of dollars. Plus ca change.” (Stefan Simanowitz, Letters page, The Guardian, January 29, 2008)
A Daily Telegraph obituary observed:
“Suharto, however, had made a serious mistake in 1975 when he took advantage of civil war in East Timor to overthrow the forces of the dominant Fretelin guerrilla movement. In the face of widespread international disapproval, he proceeded to annex the country to Indonesia.” (‘Obituary of General Suharto,’ Daily Telegraph, January 28, 2008)
In fact, there was no “widespread international disapproval” – while the Timorese buried their dead, Western politicians and journalists buried the story. In 1979, when Indonesia’s killings were reaching genocidal levels, there was not a single mainstream press article on the crisis in the New York Times or the Washington Post. Dissident journalist Amy Goodman reported the details:
“ABC, NBC and CBS ‘Evening News’ never mentioned the words East Timor and neither did ‘Nightline’ or ‘MacNeil Lehrer’ between 1975, the day of the invasion, except for one comment by Walter Cronkite the day after, saying Indonesia had invaded East Timor – it was a 40 second report – until November 12, 1991.” (Amy Goodman, ‘Exception to the Rulers, Part II,’ Z Magazine, December 1997)
In its January 28 obituary, the Telegraph also referred to “Western revulsion” at the 1965-6 massacres. Presumably they had in mind the exultation and joy expressed on both sides of the Atlantic. (‘Obituary of General Suharto President of Indonesia,’ Daily Telegraph, January 28, 2008)
The Independent chose to focus on lesser crimes – how Suharto had used his power to enrich himself and his family. The dictator had clung on too long, the paper lamented:
“Had Suharto stepped down earlier, Indonesia might have agreed that his achievement of three decades of economic growth out-weighed his failings.” (‘Suharto: Former dictator of Indonesia,’ The Independent, January 28, 2008)
As Allan Nairn notes, the idea that Suharto’s record can be defended on grounds of increased prosperity – he may have presided over vast massacres but he also presided over rapid economic growth – is “Pravda thinking”. The argument being, after all, “the same one once used to justify Stalin”. (http://newsc.blogspot.com/)
What of US-UK complicity in Suharto’s “failings”? The Independent noted that his coup “was particularly welcome to the United States, deeply embroiled in nearby Vietnam and very willing to back anti-Communist military dictatorships. American aid was offered and accepted…”
Again, we are to understand that the goal was to stave off ‘the Commies’. Nothing more was said about US-UK involvement in the killings in Indonesia or East Timor.
To its credit, the Guardian shamed the Independent’s performance simply by publishing John Pilger’s honest analysis of US-UK complicity in Suharto’s crimes: ‘Our model dictator – The death of Suharto is a reminder of the west’s ignoble role in propping up a murderous regime.’ (January 28, 2007; http://www.guardian.co.uk/ comment/story/0,,2247948,00.html)
The Financial Times found that Suharto’s “achievements” were punctuated by “severe shortcomings”. (John Aglionby and Shawn Donnan, ‘Corrupt autocrat who fostered stability,’ Financial Times, January 28, 2008)
It is interesting to consider the language used. In 1998, the US media analyst Edward Herman compared press descriptions of the Suharto and Pol Pot regimes:
“When Pol Pot died in April 1998, the media were unstinting in condemnation, calling him ‘wicked,’ ‘loathsome,’ and ‘monumentally evil’ (Chicago Tribune, 4/18/98), a ‘lethal mass killer’ and ‘war criminal’ (L.A. Times, 4/17/98), ‘blood-soaked’ and an ‘egregious mass murderer’ (Washington Post, 4/17/98, 4/18/98). His rule was repeatedly described as a ‘reign of terror’ and he was guilty of ‘genocide.’…”
“Although Suharto’s regime was responsible for a comparable number of deaths in Indonesia, along with more than a quarter of the population of East Timor, the word ‘genocide’ is virtually never used in mainstream accounts of his rule.” (Herman, ‘Good and Bad Genocide,’ FAIR, September/October 1998; http://www.fair.org/ index.php?page=1433)
The FT identified one of the “severe shortcomings“: “Suharto drew international condemnation after he ordered the 1975 invasion of East Timor”. In fact, the “international condemnation” was restricted to a small, US-based student protest, which grew over three decades to become a global mass movement. As we have seen, Western governments and media did not give a damn.
A single, cryptic comment on US-UK involvement followed: “Suharto sought a more intimate relationship with the US, which remained a strong ally.”
Pilger’s article aside, it would be impossible to guess from this media performance the central role US-UK political and military support played in the rise and massacres of president Suharto.
In December 2006, we reviewed, with near-identical results, media coverage of the death of Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet. A Guardian obituary commented on Pincohet‘s overthrow of Allende:
“The coup, in which CIA destabilisation played a part…” (Malcolm Coad, ‘Augusto Pinochet,‘ The Guardian, December 11, 2006; www.guardian.co.uk/news/story/0,,1968953,00.html)
And that, as we noted at the time, was that! No more information was provided. (See: http://www.medialens.org/ alerts/06/061219_born_in_usa.php)
When former US president Ronald Reagan died in 2004, close to nothing was said about his crimes in Central America. (See: Reagan – Visions of the Damned, Part 1 and Reagan – Visions of the Damned, Part 2)
When Bill Clinton’s presidency has been reviewed, his responsibility for suffering and death has been a non-issue. (See: Covering for Mr. President)
And, as discussed, Gerald Ford’s complicity in Suharto’s crimes was also blanked.
It is crucial that the truth of US-UK violence not be admitted or seriously explored. Within that silence the myth of benevolence can be cultivated – and this is the key illusion allowing the West to attack, invade and kill with impunity, freed from decisive public opposition. We always ’had to’. We always ’meant well’. We always ‘have hopes for a brighter future’.
The goal of Media Lens is to promote rationality, compassion and respect for others. If you decide to write to journalists, we strongly urge you to maintain a polite, non-aggressive and non-abusive tone.
Write to the BBC’s Jonathan Head
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Write to Marianne Kearney at the Daily Telegraph
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Write to John Aglionby at the Financial Times
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