Our model dictator: The death of Suharto is a reminder of the west’s ignoble role in propping up a murderous regime
Monday January 28, 2008
In my film Death of a Nation, there is a sequence filmed on board an Australian aircraft flying over the island of Timor. A party is in progress, and two men in suits are toasting each other in champagne. “This is an historically unique moment,” says one of them, “that is truly uniquely historical.”
This was Gareth Evans, Australia’s then foreign minister. The other man was Ali Alatas, the principal mouthpiece of the Indonesian dictator General Suharto, who died yesterday. The year was 1989, and the two were making a grotesquely symbolic flight to celebrate the signing of a treaty that would allow Australia and the international oil and gas companies to exploit the seabed off East Timor, then illegally and viciously occupied by Suharto. The prize, according to Evans, was “zillions of dollars”.
Beneath them lay a land of crosses: great black crosses etched against the sky, crosses on peaks, crosses in tiers on the hillsides. Filming clandestinely in East Timor, I would walk into the scrub, and there were the crosses. They littered the earth and crowded the eye. In 1993, the foreign affairs committee of Australia’s parliament reported that “at least 200,000” had died under Indonesia’s occupation: almost a third of the population. Yet East Timor’s horror, foretold and nurtured by the US, Britain and Australia, was a sequel. “No single American action in the period after 1945,” wrote the historian Gabriel Kolko, “was as bloodthirsty as its role in Indonesia, for it tried to initiate the massacre.” He was referring to Suharto’s seizure of power in 1965-6, which caused the violent deaths of up to a million people.
To understand the significance of Suharto is to look beneath the surface of the current world order: the so-called global economy and the ruthless cynicism of those who run it. Suharto was our model mass murderer – “our” is used here advisedly. “One of our very best and most valuable friends,” Thatcher called him. For three decades the south-east Asian department of the Foreign Office worked tirelessly to minimise the crimes of Suharto’s gestapo, known as Kopassus, who gunned down people with British-supplied Heckler & Koch machine guns from British-supplied Tactica “riot control” vehicles.
A Foreign Office speciality was smearing witnesses to the bombing of East Timorese villages by British-supplied Hawk aircraft – until Robin Cook was forced to admit it was true. Almost a billion pounds in export credit guarantees financed the sale of the Hawks, paid for by the British taxpayer while the arms industry reaped the profit.
Only the Australians were more obsequious. “We know your people love you,” the prime minister Bob Hawke told the dictator to his face. His successor, Paul Keating, regarded the tyrant as a father figure. Paul Kelly, a prominent Murdoch retainer, led a group of major newspaper editors to Jakarta, to fawn before the mass murderer even though they all knew his grisly record.
Here lies a clue as to why Suharto, unlike Saddam Hussein, died not on the gallows but surrounded by the finest medical team his secret billions could buy. Ralph McGehee, a senior CIA operations officer in the 1960s, describes the terror of Suharto’s takeover in 1965-6 as “the model operation” for the US-backed coup that got rid of Salvador Allende in Chile seven years later. “The CIA forged a document purporting to reveal a leftist plot to murder Chilean military leaders,” he wrote, “[just like] what happened in Indonesia in 1965.” The US embassy in Jakarta supplied Suharto with a “zap list” of Indonesian Communist party members and crossed off the names when they were killed or captured. Roland Challis, BBC south-east Asia correspondent at the time, told me how the British government was secretly involved in this slaughter. “British warships escorted a ship full of Indonesian troops down the Malacca Straits so they could take part in the terrible holocaust,” he said. “I and other correspondents were unaware of this at the time … There was a deal, you see.”
The deal was that Indonesia under Suharto would offer up what Richard Nixon had called “the richest hoard of natural resources, the greatest prize in south-east Asia”. In November 1967 the greatest prize was handed out at a remarkable three-day conference sponsored by the Time-Life Corporation in Geneva. Led by David Rockefeller, all the corporate giants were represented: the major oil companies and banks, General Motors, Imperial Chemical Industries, British American Tobacco, Siemens, US Steel and many others. Across the table sat Suharto’s US-trained economists who agreed to the corporate takeover of their country, sector by sector. The Freeport company got a mountain of copper in West Papua. A US/European consortium got the nickel. The giant Alcoa company got the biggest slice of Indonesia’s bauxite. America, Japanese and French companies got the tropical forests of Sumatra. When the plunder was complete, President Lyndon Johnson sent his congratulations on “a magnificent story of opportunity seen and promise awakened”. Thirty years later, with the genocide in East Timor also complete, the World Bank described the Suharto dictatorship as a “model pupil”.
Shortly before the death of Alan Clark, who under Thatcher was the minister responsible for supplying Suharto with most of his weapons, I interviewed him, and asked: “Did it bother you personally that you were causing such mayhem and human suffering?”
“No, not in the slightest,” he replied. “It never entered my head.”
“I ask the question because I read you are a vegetarian and are seriously concerned with the way animals are killed.”
“Doesn’t that concern extend to humans?”