by Molly Ivors
A rhetorical question: is there any backwards-ass tinpot brute we won't support in the name of some bullshit foreign policy that has absolutely nothing at all to do with what this nation actually needs?
I know the answer to that, of course. Of course not.
But still. When I read things like this, my skin begins to crawl.
US hails Suharto as a 'historic figure'
The United States Sunday hailed former Indonesian president Suharto as a "historic figure" who "achieved remarkable economic development," in a statement released by its embassy here.
"President Suharto led Indonesia for over 30 years, a period during which Indonesia achieved remarkable economic and social development," ambassador Cameron Hume said in the release.
"Though there may be some controversy over his legacy, President Suharto was a historic figure who left a lasting imprint on Indonesia and the region of Southeast Asia," the statement read.
The United States was a steadfast ally of Suharto for much of his rule, seeing the authoritarian ruler as an effective bulwark against communism and a force for stability in the region.
Human rights abuses during Suharto's rule included a 1965-1966 crackdown on suspected communists and sympathisers that historians estimate killed at least half a million people.
For various reasons related to the vicissitudes of the academic job market, my general interests, and an innate curiosity, I actually know a fair amount about Suharto, more than your average bear. I know, for example, that "half a million people," the estimate given here for the purges leveled against reputed Communists, is a completely bullshit number drawn from thin air. A million? Two? They literally have no idea how many people died in that fall and winter, the violence of which was a ginned-up and disproportionate response to a coup attempt which had zero popular support and just got lucky once--much as the invasion Iraq was a ginned-up and disproportionate response to a terrorist group which had zero popular support and just got lucky once. These are the movements Naomi Klein discusses in The Shock Doctrine--which spills a fair amount of ink on Suharto and his cronies. Sukarno was far from a perfect leader, but his biggest mistake was thinking he could leverage the Cold War into a measure of independence for his people.
But, no. Can't have people suggesting that there are shades of right and wrong in both the capitalist and communist economies. FWIW, communism has long had a great appeal for the developing world, because it's the only system which talked with any kind of ethics about the evils of colonialism. While the British were letting the Irish starve in the name of lassiez-faire, Marx and Engels were hammering out the Manifesto. They understood the domestic purposes of empire and called it by name. It's no surprise to me that decolonizing leaders were skeptical of democratic capitalism--it had fucked them over pretty thoroughly. But pressures in Indonesia--and an increasing buildup of American forces in Viet Nam, just slightly to the north and west--came to a head, and Sukarno's balancing act, which relied increasingly on his own person, rather than policies, became untenable.
Suharto was a capitalist, however, in the sense that he and his family and friends did business with Western capital. Not many people outside his immediate circle of cronies--but his brand of capitalism was as vicious to the ordinary people of Indonesia as colonialism had been. And his methods of crushing dissent were much, much worse.
Take, for example, the case of Pramoedya Ananta Toer, the brilliant Indonesian author who died in 2006, doubly tragic, because he died before Suharto and before winning the Nobel Prize which he should have had years ago. Pram pissed people off his whole life: he initially supported the Japanese invasion, then fought them, then the Dutch, then Sukarno. He was an artist and intellectual, fighting for things we consider pretty mainstream, like artistic freedom and the rights of the masses, but under duress. It was Suharto who dumped him and a bunch of other political prisoners on a rock in the middle of the sea (in a purge of intellectuals worthy of the Khmer Rouge), instructing them to build their own prison and feed themselves if they hoped to survive. They did, and more than that: Pram, who was denied a pen and paper, created a character--Minke--who travels from native intellectual and colonial subject to journalist to rebel to political leader over the course of four books--and he created him aurally, narrating the tale to his fellow prisoners. Eventually, he was granted a pen, and then a typewriter. The books, known as The Buru Quartet, offer a panoramic view of Indonesian history and nationalism that Salman Rushdie would give his left nut for. Minke's troubles--the loss of his beautiful bride Annelies, his life under surveillance, his arrests--bear a sharp resemblance to life under Suharto, the parallels between the Dutch and Indonesian despots striking, their differences minor at best. Pram was released from Buru after 14 years only to live under house arrest in Jakarta until Suharto's fall from power. He was famous and read widely everywhere except his own land, where his books were routinely banned.
So while I am ready to acknowledge Suharto as a "historic figure," it's in the company of Stalin or Pol Pot. Suharto wasn't so much a friend of democracy as someone who slipped democracy a roofy at a party in 1965 and raped it repeatedly for 33 years. And we helped him, propped him up, shit, the CIA gave him names of PKI members in 1965. Shameful.
And now he's dead, and if he believes in an afterlife, I hope he is tormented by the souls of those he put to death, as all dictators deserve to be.