Wednesday, January 30, 2008

Politics at the end of the bayonet: Suharto and the media

You have to search for accurate commentary about the life and times of Suharto, the late former dictator of Indonesia, and the Australian daily media are not the place to look.

Suharto was responsible for about 1 million deaths in the coup d'etat that brought him to power in 1965, probably 200,000 deaths in East Timor, probably 100,000 deaths in West Papua, and tens of thousands more in Aceh.

You won't find any but the most coy reference to all that in Greg Sheridan's paean in The Australian, Farewell to Indonesia's man of steel. One has to note the irony of that title, given Sheridan's writing over many years against the original "man of steel", Stalin.

Joseph Djugashvili first used the pseudonym Stalin (based on the Russian word for steel and meant to imply that he was a man of steel, or hard bastard) about 1912. More recently the term has been used by US President George W. Bush about Australian Prime Minister John Howard, and now by Sheridan about Suharto. Bush, of course, can't be expected to have any historical knowledge, but Sheridan should.

In the case of Suharto, the term is historically appropriate, in that Suharto was a murderous dictator, although Sheridan probably wouldn't agree. Ratna Sari Dewi Sukarno, widow of former Indonesian President Sukarno, goes further, calling Suharto “Indonesia's Pol Pot”, which also is accurate if the main measure is murderous unconcern for other human beings, leaving aside ideological commitments. John Roosa, in a careful and well researched piece of writing in Inside Indonesia, recounts Suharto's soldierly statement in 1948: “My politics are at the end of the bayonet”.

Sheridan eventually can't avoid dealing with Suharto's stature as one of the great mass murderers of the 20th century, but he brushes over that point quickly after extensively praising the dictator's economic achievements. The equivalent in the 1930s might have been those who praised Mussolini for making Italy's trains run on time. For an accurate assessment of Suharto's crimes, it's necessary to look elsewhere. John Passant's Suharto: war criminal and John Pilger's Suharto, the model killer, provide essential background.

John Roosa demolishes the claims for Suharto's economic success:
The economic growth of the Suharto years was largely accomplished by wildly selling off the country’s natural resources. It was a predatory, unsustainable type of growth. The leading sectors were oil and timber. Both were terribly mismanaged because of the corruption. Today Indonesia is an net oil importer and its forests are rapidly disappearing, cut down by loggers or burned up by palm oil plantation owners.

The truth is out there on Suharto the mass murderer, but don't expect it to land on your front porch with the morning paper.

Other links: Ghosts of a genocide

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