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.
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: