Reading Christopher Hitchen’s Trial of Henry Kissinger prompted me, somewhat indirectly, to do two things: finally get round to watching the film Balibo, and do an internet search for articles on former president of Indonesia Suharto by my favourite foreign affairs writer, the Australian’s Greg Sheridan. Both actions were a response to Hitchen’s damning analysis of Kissinger’s role in, and feigned ignorance of, the Indonesian invasion of East Timor in 1975. Suharto went to his grave denying that five Australian journalists were executed by Special Force soldiers at Balibo during the invasion on 16 October 1975. The official government line in Indonesia (where Robert Connolly’s meticulously-made film is banned) remains that the journalists were killed in crossfire. This claim has been utterly discredited, not least of all by an Australian coroner in 2007, and author Jill Jolliffe, on whose book Cover-Up Connolly’s film was based.
There is no mention of the ‘Balibo Five’ in Sheridan’s most galling paean to Suharto, published, on the occasion of the despot’s death, on the Aus's blog in January 2008. Suharto is, for Sheridan, ‘Jakarta’s man of steel’, a great reformer who rescued his country from communism and starvation. He approvingly quotes Paul Keating, who contended that Suharto’s presidency was one of the most important strategic developments for Australia in recent times. It is true to say that Suharto’s reign was, in many ways, fruitful for the West; his government accepted World Bank and IMF ‘reforms’, opened up Indonesia’s economy through divestment, and encouraged international investment in mining and construction. (The idea, however, that Australia should be thankful to Suharto for staunching communism in the region and thus preventing a huge increase in defence spending is pure speculation which might have washed in the days of the Cold War but seems more than a little daft now. Communist influence in Indonesia, in any case, was greatly overstated by the Suharto regime in its early days in order to strengthen its position).
One of the odder features of all this toadying is the mysterious disclaimer (made after such flatteries as the reproduction of Tim Fischer’s idea that Suharto was ‘the man of the 20th century’) that: ‘It is hard to take the proper measure of Suharto.’ Really, Greg? You seem to have made a pretty good fist of it. He was – wasn’t he? – a ‘man of steel’, ‘important’, a stabiliser, a reformer, a vital player in APEC, ‘a prime mover of history whose rule was of immeasurable benefit to Australia.’ In fact, you can scarcely bring yourself to say a bad word about this man and, when you do, it is with such reluctance and so much qualification as to render the criticism virtually stillborn. That the chief foreign affairs commentator at the country’s most influential broadsheet was allowed to get away with such unmitigated garbage may have been breathtaking in an era before the News Limited phone hacking scandal, but now it just seems like a sad, inevitably obnoxious chapter in the death throes of an ethically and intellectually bankrupt media empire.
Sheridan tells us that: ‘Although Indonesia was never a democracy under Suharto, there was a wide degree of permissible discussion, by Southeast Asian standards a fairly liberal press, and many of the procedures of social consultation that characterise a democracy.’ The reality? Indonesia under Suharto was effectively a dictatorship, with many more features characteristic of totalitarianism than of a democracy. Suharto’s government was dominated by the military, and during his leadership 100 seats were set aside for military representatives in the electoral college. Suharto was elected as president, unopposed, six times between 1973 and 1998. The true force for democracy in Indonesia – the Indonesian Democratic Party – was never allowed to be a viable opposition. Suharto’s opponents were repressed and crushed under his ‘New Order’ by two intelligence agencies, the Operational Command for the Restoration of Security and Order, and the State Intelligence Coordination Agency. Student protests were banned in 1970. Under Suharto’s rule, the Chinese in Indonesia were ruthlessly oppressed through the closing of schools and newspapers and the banning of Chinese script in public. Chinese-Indonesians were advised to adopt Indonesian-sounding names. They were not permitted to practice religion outside of their homes.
Suharto’s exceptional contempt for democracy is seemingly not worthy of comment by Sheridan whose denialist revisionism deepens as he goes on to ‘address’, with offensive brevity, the East Timor invasion. During the invasion (which was condemned by the United Nations but largely and unforgivably tolerated by the West) somewhere in the region of 20,000 people were killed (about 70% by Indonesian forces). Anywhere between 70,000 and 190,000 more died from hunger or illness as a result. The magnitude of these death tolls is simply staggering. Noam Chomsky argued that the invasion represented the worst case of genocide relative to population since the Holocaust.
Sheridan has more to say about the anti-communist killings of 1965 (from which he sees fit to largely exonerate the Indonesian military) than about East Timor. He devotes just one sentence to it, dismissing the genocidal invasion as a human rights ‘excess’, a mere ‘flaw’ of Suharto’s rule.
We are told that Suharto’s ‘negatives’ were ‘huge and undeniable’ but denial is what Sheridan is best at, and what he practices with regards to Indonesia with Olympian aptitude. He cannot bring himself – in what is a characteristic failing of the right – to invoke death counts which surely are imperative pieces of information in human rights violations of this scale. The only occasion on which Sheridan uses numbers is to talk up Suharto’s achievements in freeing ‘millions of people’ from poverty. No figures, either, are given to illuminate the widespread corruption and embezzlement which ran through both Suharto’s government and family like a vein (for the record, and as only one example, it has been alleged that somewhere between 15 and 30 billion dollars US was ‘misappropriated’ during Suharto’s presidency).
Sheridan’s final word on the subject? ‘There was good and bad in Suharto, good and bad in what he did.’ I’d like to know which world leader, present or past, could not be summed up in such a trivial and pointless way. Deeds, not words, Hitchens believed, speak the loudest. This is how history, and its authors, ought to judge Suharto. Sheridan’s mealy-mouthed tribute to a blood-soaked tyrant is an insult to Suharto’s millions of victims, both in Indonesia and East Timor. It is an affront to the Australian journalists murdered at Balibo. It is a pitilessly one-eyed distortion of history which serves only to demonstrate the ideological biases of the author and his newspaper. Suharto, as far as Sheridan is concerned, was not a monster because he was not a communist. Stalin was a monster, because he was. History will not be kind to Suharto, just as it has not been kind to Stalin and the appalling crimes committed under communism in the 20th century. Nor will history be kind to Greg Sheridan, and his abhorrent whitewashing of history in the Australasian region.