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Indonesia: Another Nation That Should Be Grateful to the West

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October 1 marked the 50th anniversary of another of Cass Sunstein’s noted gifts from the West to the developing world–the Suharto coup in Indonesia that led to between 500,000 and 1 million deaths and was promoted by the U.S. government. Samantha Michaels has a primer.

What sparked the mass murders? In the early hours of October 1, 1965, a group of army conspirators killed six generals in Jakarta, the country’s capital. Maj. Gen. Suharto, who would soon become Indonesia’s dictator for more than three decades, took control of the armed forces, claiming that the killings were part of an attempted communist coup. Then he and the military launched a campaign to purge Indonesians believed to be connected with the communist party or left-leaning organizations. They also targeted hundreds of thousands of Indonesians unconnected to the party who they saw as potential opponents of their new regime, including union members, small farmers, intellectuals, activists, and ethnic Chinese. The carnage was so intense that people stopped eating fish—fearing that the fish were consuming the human corpses flooding the rivers.

So, how was the United States involved? Speculation abounds over the US role in the 1965 military takeover, though there’s no concrete proof in the public record that America had a direct hand in it. However, investigations by journalists, as well as government documents, have made it clear that the United States provided money, weapons, and equipment to the Indonesian military while it was undertaking the killings. What’s more, according to excerpts of contemporary cables released by the US State Department, officials at the US embassy created lists of thousands of names of communists and provided them to the military. It has been reported that the CIA worked on the lists, too, but the agency has denied involvement, Harsono says.

How was the genocide covered by the US press? “It was presented in the American media as good news,” says Joshua Oppenheimer, a filmmaker who has spent the past 12 years investigating the mass murders and producing two award-winning documentaries about them. He cites a 1966 story in Time magazine that said the killings were the “best news for years in Asia.” In a report at the time for NBC News, a correspondent spoke with an Indonesian man in Bali who claimed that the island, famous for its tourism, had “become more beautiful without communists,” and that “some of them wanted to be killed.” The correspondent noted that Indonesia boasted “fabulous potential wealth in natural resources” before showing footage of so-called communist prisoners at a labor camp on the island of Sumatra, some of whom, he said, would be starved to death or released from the camp to be killed by local citizens.

The U.S. government was good friends with Suharto for a very long time. None of this is maybe so surprising given that we are all familiar with the terrible moral choices the American government made in its dealing with other nations during the Cold War. But the stories we tell ourselves about the U.S. in this era do not often include Indonesia, where the death toll might not match that of our involvement in Vietnam, but is higher than that of Guatemala, Iran, Cuba, and other nations where the U.S. did horrible things in the name of fighting communism.

I will say that I’m not really comfortable with the term “genocide” here. All mass murders are not genocide, nor are all mass state-sponsored murders. There was no intent to kill off an entire ethnic group or all the people on one island, at least not that I’m aware of. But this misuse of the term is common so I won’t belabor the point, especially considering the crimes of Suharto and his US supporters are far more important than pedantic discussions. We should be thinking more about our impact in Indonesia over the long-term and reminding ourselves that the impact of U.S. anti-communist policies had a tremendous and usually devastating impact everywhere in Asia, Africa, and Latin America.

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