By Harry Glass
The former Indonesian dictator Suharto died on 27 January, without facing justice for the millions he killed or the wealth he appropriated during his 33 years in power.
Suharto came to power in 1965, when he led a military coup to overthrow the nationalist Sukarno government. His first act was to physically exterminate the Indonesian Communist Party (PKI), having at least half a million of its members and supporters killed. His forces and Islamic militias eventually murdered perhaps two million opponents.
Suharto made Indonesia safe for capitalism and western corporations. As Richard Nixon put it, Suharto offered up “the richest hoard of natural resources, the greatest prize in south-east Asia.” According to John Pilger, Suharto’s “US-trained economists … 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. American, Japanese and French companies got the tropical forests of Sumatra.” (Guardian 28 January 2008)
Indonesia developed industrially, while basic democratic freedoms were abrogated and any signs of dissent viciously stamped on. In 1975 Suharto invaded and then annexed East Timor with the full backing of western governments. A recent Australian government inquiry found that 200,000 people — around one third of the population — died in East Timor as a result of the Indonesian occupation.
Suharto’s grip on power weakened in the 1990s. A mass democracy movement of students and workers forced Suharto from power in 1998, but he never faced trial for his crimes. The Indonesian left still lives the shadow of his legacy. Socialists should cheer his passing and help those like Dita Sari – herself imprisoned and tortured under Suharto – to rebuild the labour movement.