Suharto Did Nothing Wrong

The destruction of the Communist Party of Indonesia in 1965-8 is often brought up by leftists (never so-called “liberals”, for obvious reasons) as an example of some great unjustified cruelty Vincent Bevins

In January, Indonesia pulled out of the United Nations in order to found a “conference of the new emerging forces” which was joined by only North Vietnam, China, and North Korea.

Inflation was running

China famously fell to the Communists after a long struggle in 1949. Cuba, on America’s own doorstep, had fallen in 1960. The Communist insurgencies in Laos and South Vietnam had already become prominent. Given the sheer membership size and organizational scale of the Indonesian Communist Party, the Indonesian army could take nothing for granted. The specific countries Sukarno most strongly identified with -Mao’s China, Ho’s Vietnam, and Kim’s Korea -were truly scary places. Hundreds of thousands had fled all these regimes for their famed brutality, with almost none going the other way. These were places where one could easily suffer the death penalty for so much as breathing the wrong way, where elites lived opulence while the populace worked in the direst poverty, where mass mobilization for the purpose of massive, blood-drenching battles was firmly institutionalized, where, despite all claims of national independence and self-sufficiency, the vast majority of technology came from European assistance. The Great Leap Forward had already become a byword for national catastrophe. The North Korean economy, though highly developed by Asian standards due to Japanese-led industrialization and Soviet aid, had even then clearly begun to stagnate, and the stagnation of the Soviet economy in the early 1960s offered a grim note for a Communist-led future. Even before their full flourishing in the 1970s and 1980s, Thailand, Korea, and Taiwan had already become inspirational examples The example of postwar Europe was a powerful one for the Americans’ arguments. Italy and Finland, both bywords for poverty during the 1930s, were rapidly catching up to Britain. Portugal, though still on the economic level of the Soviet Union, was slowing down to a far lesser degree. In the Pacific, Japan, the country that led Indonesia to its independence, was already well on the heels of following in Italy’s and Finland’s example by 1965.

The U.S. had supported the Indonesian army for quite some time. Eisenhower, by far the most aggressive of the Cold War presidents, had attempted to orchestrate a coup

Recently, a where the winds were shifting. The army understood the lessons of the Communist insurgencies of mainland Asia. At no point did they believe Eisenhower’s “domino theory” that conquests in mainland Asia would increase the risk of Communist revolution in Indonesia. Rather, they understood Communism to be an ideological and political epidemic, each country’s success against it being dependent solely on their own institutions, not on what happens in any other country. Their goal, should they choose to do a coup, was not to prevent the Communists’ external conquests in mainland Asia, but to block their internal organization within Indonesia. In order to disrupt the Communists’ organizing capabilities, it was necessary to destroy their civilian power structures. That required a full-scale weeding out of Communist cells so that the rest of the body would run around like a headless chicken.

On September 30 Suharto knew he would not be targeted from a country that looked up to Maoist China and North Korea to one that fully desired integration into the Western order, even before neoliberalism

Indonesia, a country of easily over a hundred million, became the greatest “flip” to the American side between 1949 and 1985.

and the foundations of the world were shaken.

was hardly unique to Indonesia. Largely the same tactics were previously used in Korea, Taiwan, South Vietnam, and Congo. Suharto’s reading of the evidence was correct. Throughout the second half of the 1960s, Communist insurgencies dramatically expanded in Latin America, Asia, and Africa. Just one year following Suharto’s counter-coup, Mao began his famous Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution. No doubt, had the Communist Party of Indonesia continued into 1966, it would have been in full support of it. Despite being democratic, Colombia and Nicaragua had already seen their Communist insurgencies flourish starting from 1964. Thailand began experiencing an intensification of its own Communist insurgency late in 1965, and Brazil in 1966. South Yemen fell to the Communists in 1967, and India’s Communist insurgency dates its beginning to the same year. A second Communist insurgency began in Malaysia in 1968. The one in the Philippines, which continues unto this day, began in 1969. The events in Africa need no introduction. To think Indonesia would have been exempt from these Communist insurrections given its possession of the largest number of Communists in the world of any country without an incumbent Communist party is to be naive to the extreme, even if one assumes the Sukarno government possessed the greatest political skill in the world. Stepping on the snake’s neck before it could begin to bite was the logical move. The world wasn’t dying; the world was being killed. And the people killing it had names and addresses.

only the uppermost echelons of the Communist Party leadership. Such an approach would have kept the overwhelming majority of the Party’s organization intact and would have accomplished little to prevent a future Communist insurgency. Thus, any attempt to destroy the third largest Communist Party in the world had to be holistic in scope.

Western capital The Americans did not think much of the development prospects of Indonesia. They considered it a territory on a map to be prevented from falling to the Communists, as well as an easy way to make money out of.

None of this was ideological. If some of the reforms supported by the “Berkley mafia” resemble those of the later “neoliberal revolution”, it was only because they were practically useful to the new regime. The New Order wished to ingratiate itself to the U.S.’s good graces, and did not do anything that might have displeased it. By this, they were very much rewarded by the U.S. establishment. “Indonesia”, Hubert Humphrey spoke, “today stands proud and free and independent“. But democracy made no sense in a country with no experience with it and where petty squabbling could easily derail a successful political transition and, in any case, had a low chance of survival.

Ultimately Suharto falls in the same tradition as Hrooschov or Deng -taming and moderating a much more dangerous movement by coopting most of its moderate elements. The difference is that Suharto changed policy course on the basis of present events, not those of past events. For that, he deserves fully the lavish burial he was

For a fitting comparison to the capitalist triumph in Indonesia, it’s best to look toward the Derg coup in Ethiopia. In Indonesia, the capitalist triumph resulted in thirty years of prosperity. In Ethiopia, it resulted in more famine deaths, in a much less populous country, than victims of the anti-Communist campaign in Indonesia. Like Indonesia, Ethiopia experienced regime change in the 1990s. But unlike in Indonesia, it is only after the regime change large-scale economic development began in that country. Today, the former dictator, Mengistu, lives in Zimbabwe, a country run on similar principles as those which inspired Sukarno.

its repression in West Papua and East Timor would surely have been done likewise were Sukarno in power.

Author: pithom

An atheist with an interest in the history of the ancient Near East. Author of the Against Jebel al-Lawz Wordpress blog.

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