The death of Suharto, the strongman who ruled Indonesia for more than three decades, is cause for reflection in the United States, particularly as Americans choose our next president and wrestle with the question of our nation's proper role in the world.
Countless atrocities marked Suharto's rule, and his legacy scars Indonesia's politics as well as the social fabric of neighboring East Timor, which his regime violently annexed. But the United States backed those crimes and, like Indonesia, has never taken responsibility - which has made it that much easier for the Bush administration to strengthen ties with the country's brutal military under the guise of fighting terrorism.
In late 1965, as part of a power grab from his predecessor, Sukarno, Gen. Suharto and his army organized and carried out what the CIA described as "one of the worst mass murders of the 20th century." Over several months, they slaughtered hundreds of thousands of members of the Indonesian Communist Party, a legal entity, and of loosely affiliated organizations such as women's groups and labor unions. A decade later, Suharto's military invaded neighboring East Timor. The ensuing war and almost 24-year occupation cost many tens of thousands East Timorese lives.
The U.S. embassy in Indonesia encouraged and lauded the military's actions in the 1965-66 killings' early stages. It supplied radio equipment and small arms, and gave the army thousands of names of Communist Party members. In the case of the Dec. 7, 1975, East Timor invasion, President Gerald Ford and Secretary of State Henry Kissinger approved the aggression and the use of American weaponry while meeting with Suharto the previous day in Jakarta. About 14 hours after they left, Indonesian forces attacked.
Democratic and Republican administrations alike provided billions of dollars in military weaponry and training and economic aid, as well as diplomatic cover, to Jakarta over Suharto's 32-year reign.
That Suharto, who a Clinton administration official characterized in 1995 as "our kind of guy," proved so welcoming of Western investors helps to explicate the bipartisan largesse. A State Department official explained in early 1976, for example, why Washington was condoning Jakarta's illegal invasion of East Timor. Indonesia, he said, is "a nation we do a lot of business with." Richard Nixon once characterized the country rich in resources ranging from oil to rubber to gold as "the greatest prize in the South-East Asian area."
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Suharto was forced from power in May 1998. Today's Indonesia, which has the fourth largest population and most Muslims in the world, is now much more open and democratic. Yet, Suharto's legacy deforms the society, especially in terms of the military, which still looms large over the country's political system. As such, there has been no thorough investigation of, nor any accountability among, military or political leaders for any of the countless Suharto-era massacres. This impunity is a source of continuing worry for civil society and restless outlying regions, as well as now-independent East Timor.
In the United States, Washington's role in Indonesia's killing fields of 1965-66 is effectively forgotten. And the record of American complicity in atrocities in East Timor has been largely ignored - despite calls by that country's official truth commission that the United States apologize and pay reparations.
It's a short leap from this history to the tendency of all too many of our elected leaders to prefer bullying over negotiation, cooperation and regard for established international norms. Among the results: ongoing support for Morocco's illegal occupation of the Western Sahara, the disastrous invasion of Iraq and U.S. rejection of international law - UN Security Council resolutions and the Geneva Conventions, for example - as the basis for a just resolution of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict.
Suharto's death, in addition to being an opportunity for self-reflection in the United States, is an occasion for atonement and positive change. This should entail full accountability for U.S. involvement in Suharto's crimes, and a commitment to alter our ways overseas.
Congress and the next president ought to consider these meaningful steps as ways of reconciling with those victimized by the U.S.-Indonesia alliance, and also contributing to a less violent, more just world - at home and abroad.