Death of a Dictator: Indonesia’s Suharto

Indonesia’s former president, General Suharto, has fallen ill and is not expected to survive. So I suppose now would be as good a time as any to reflect on the devastating effects of his more than 30 years of iron rule over the country of Indonesia.

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Indonesia is a country that should not be poor; it is rich in natural resources, including oil, gas, agriculture, tin, copper, gold, and rubber. It was colonized by the Dutch in the 16th century and exploited by the West for hundreds of years. In 1945, the nationalist leader Sukarno declared Indonesia’s independence from the Dutch and became the country’s first president. Sukarno opposed imperialism and capitalism because he felt both had taken a devastating toll on the lives of the Indonesian people.

However, in the mid-sixties, General Suharto seized power from Sukarno, aided by the US and Britain due to his anti-communist sentiments. Suharto then presided over army-led massacres that killed an estimated 1 million people and wiped out the country’s only mass-based political party (the communist PKI). Ethnic Chinese and communist sympathizers were all rounded up and killed. A CIA report refers to Suharto’s atrocities as “one of the worst mass murders of the 20th century,” comparable to those of Hitler, Stalin, and Mao.

Within the next few years, the economy of Indonesia was completely redesigned in the interests of foreign investors, giving the West access to vast mineral wealth, markets, and cheap labor…what President Nixon called “the greatest prize in Asia.” Suharto’s agents met with representatives of global capital (international banks, credit cards, big oil, tobacco, defense, technology, etc.) to design the legal infrastructure and conditions of their investment in Indonesia.

Suharto continued to maintain a “good investment climate” for foreign companies in Indonesia while compiling one of the world’s worst human rights records. His regime provided guarantees of cheap labor, the suppression of trade unions, torture, killings, limited environmental regulation, and privatization of resources to benefit Indonesian elites and foreign investors.

I’m not even going to get into his 1975 invasion of East Timor, which resulted in the slaughter of hundreds of thousands of civilians and is known to be the “worst atrocity relative to population since the Holocaust.”

Nevertheless, the World Bank praised Suharto’s economic transformation as “a dynamic economic success” and called Indonesia “the model pupil of the global economy,” while Bill Clinton referred to Suharto as “our kind of guy.”

During the whole process, Suharto was soliciting development loans from the World Bank and other international banks. As you might have guessed, there was a bit of corruption and embezzlement involved. Much of the loan money disappeared while his cronies and family members were awarded control of public utilities, TV stations, taxis, or tollways.

Suharto was forced to step down under threat of an Indonesian revolution in 1998. The World Bank estimates that up to a third of the loans made to Suharto during his reign went to the pockets of his cronies, estimated at around 8-10 billion dollars.

The saddest part is that this insurmountable debt (now approximately $130 billion) was created in part by just a few spineless, Indonesian elites. But it is the poor citizens of the country that will bear the terrible burden of lifelong payment and suffering, never once having known the vast wealth of their resources.

 

For a good documentary on globalization and the exploitation of Indonesia, here is John Pilger’s The New Rulers of the World:

Iran: Another Old Friend

Many in the United States are not aware of their own government’s history. It’s not that we are stupid; it’s just that we are misinformed and misled. Selective events are highlighted in our history books while others are ignored.

So in upcoming entries, I will make an effort to highlight some of those lesser-known events, as they prove to be quite revealing. Let’s begin with a country that has been on the lips of our leaders in recent months: Iran.

Back in World War II, Britain occupied Iran to protect an oil supply route to its Soviet ally and to make sure the oil did not fall under Nazi control. They forced the ruling monarch, Reza Shah, to cede power to his son, Mohammed Reza Pahlavi (referred to as ‘the Shah’), who was thought to be more susceptible to Western influence.

Britain retained control of Iran’s oil after the war through the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company, which you might know better these days as British Petroleum (BP). However, in 1951, under the democratic leadership of Prime Minister Mohammed Mossadegh, Iran’s Parliament voted to nationalize the oil industry.

Britain would have none of it. They responded by pulling their oil technicians out of the country, imposing a worldwide embargo on the purchase of Iranian oil, and banning the export of goods to Iran. The Anglo-Iranian Oil Company (BP) even took their case against Iran’s oil nationalization to the World Court, but the court found in favor of Iran controlling its own oil.

British intelligence officials continued to persuade the United States that they shared an interest in maintaining Western control over Iranian oil. In 1953, the newly-elected Eisenhower administration approved the proposal for a joint operation to overthrow Prime Minister Mossadegh, to be known by the code name Operation Ajax.

CIA director Allen Dulles approved $1 million to be used “in any way that would bring about the fall of Mossadegh.” Kermit Roosevelt of the CIA (grandson of Teddy) traveled secretly to Iran to coordinate plans with the Shah and the Iranian military, and by the night of August 19, 1953, the coup was complete. The parliamentary government had been overthrown and the Shah was installed as ruler.

Two days after the coup, CIA officials funneled $5 million to help the shah consolidate his power. Mossadegh was imprisoned for three years and then put under house arrest; other government officials were rounded up and killed or imprisoned. The shah continued his rule as a friend of the United States, but a growing enemy of the Iranian people.

His brutal secret police force, SAVAK, managed by the CIA, was designed to control all aspects of political life in Iran. It suppressed opposition to the Shah’s government and kept the people’s political knowledge as minimal as possible. Its interrogation office used horrific torture tools and techniques to break dissenters while its censorship office prohibited books and monitored students, journalists, unions, and academics throughout the country.

In 1979, after 26 years of brutal rule and Western favoritism, the Iranian people erupted into a revolution that formed an Islamic republic led by Ayatollah Khomeini. The US came to be known as “The Great Satan,” and relations between our countries have become extremely tense.

We tried to stage another military coup in the early 80s, without success. Then we proceeded to support another friendly dictator (Saddam Hussein) during Iraq’s invasion of Iran, which killed hundreds of thousands of people. Since then, the US has imposed harsh sanctions on Iran, which it continues to escalate today.

In 2000, Secretary of State Madeleine Albright made an admission rare to high-level government officials: “In 1953 the United States played a significant role in orchestrating the overthrow of Iran’s popular Prime Minister, Mohammed Mossadegh. The Eisenhower Administration believed its actions were justified for strategic reasons; but the coup was clearly a setback for Iran’s political development. And it is easy to see now why many Iranians continue to resent this intervention by America in their internal affairs.”

Invasion of Iraq

The supposed ‘war on terror‘ took a severe misstep with the US invasion of Iraq.

The groundwork for the preemptive invasion of Iraq was laid out by the National Security Strategy of 2002, which refined the concept of preventive war to say that the United States reserves the right to attack any country with the “intent and ability” to develop weapons of mass destruction, which essentially means any nation our leaders deem fit.

Subsequently, all of Bush’s initial reasons for invading Iraq were proven false: Saddam has weapons of mass destruction, he’s an imminent threat to US security, Saddam provided al Qaeda with weapons and training, and insinuations that Saddam was somehow behind the attacks of 9-11. With these reasons failing, Washington then shifted its stance to promoting the president’s ‘vision’ of spreading democracy throughout the Middle East.

So we are meant to believe that the United States has no interest in controlling the second-largest oil reserves in the world, which would give us leverage over Asian and European economies in the future. Rather, this is a mission in the name of ‘democracy’: to liberate the people of Iraq.

Saddam Hussein was a brutal tyrant; there’s no doubt about that, but Washington’s justifications to attack Iraq are lacking in credibility and timeliness. After all, Saddam was strongly supported by current administration officials and their mentors during the Iran-Iraq war in the eighties, and continually supported through his worst atrocities (the gassing of the Kurds in Halabja, the crushing of a Shi’ite rebellion that may have overthrown Saddam, etc.). The US continued to provide him with arms and funding (over $5 billion on credit between from ’83-90), as well as technology and biological agents that could be adapted to weapons of mass destruction.

In the early nineties, the Gulf War led to a decade of harsh economic sanctions on Iraq, which caused the deaths of hundreds of thousands of Iraqis (mostly children). When asked on national TV about the deaths of half a million Iraqi children, Secretary of State Madeline Albright said, “we think the price is worth it.” These sanctions crippled the Iraqi economy, destroyed much of the country’s infrastructure, increased civilian dependency on their dictator, and eliminated Saddam’s capacity for aggression. This made Iraq one of the weakest countries in the region; Kuwait and Iran did not even regard them as a threat. So you can see that the brutal Saddam was much more dangerous back when he was our friend and ally, rather than when we invaded Iraq in 2003.

Nevertheless, the drumbeat for war ensued; Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld, Powell and Rice each played on the fears and emotions of the American people. They warned of stockpiles of weapons of mass destruction, uranium from Africa, aluminum tubes, mushroom clouds, yellow cake, mustard gas, al Qaeda ties, etc. Failing to obtain UN support, the invasion proceeded with a ‘coalition of the willing’ (primarily the UK & Australia), in which only four other countries supplied troops.

The war was deeply unpopular with the citizens of all the coalition countries, except within the United States, where the administration’s message resounded to exploit the fears of its citizens. They predicted we would be ‘greeted as liberators‘, that Iraqi oil would pay for the cost of the war, and Rumsfeld doubted it would ‘take 6 months‘. Post-invasion, they assured the public that the insurgency was in its ‘last throes‘, that the violence was just the ‘birth-pangs of a new Middle East‘, and that ‘major combat operations in Iraq have ended‘ in Bush’s famous ‘mission accomplished’ speech.

Contrary to their predictions and assurances, the Iraq occupation has lasted for over four years so far, cost the American people over half a trillion dollars, and caused the deaths of nearly 4,000 American troops (plus over 50,000 wounded). The country has fallen into sectarian civil war between Iraqi Sunni and Shi’a factions while American troops are left in the middle. About one million Iraqis have died as a result of this fighting; more than 1.7 million people are internally displaced, while two million refugees are living abroad. These results are unquestionably contributing to the destabilization of the Middle East.