Smoldering Indonesia

President Suharto
President Suharto; drawing by David Levine


This past fall Indonesia was more frequently mentioned in the American press than ever before in its history. First, the Nobel Peace Prize was jointly awarded to an Indonesian bishop and an exiled human rights activist who had both worked to promote the rights of the people of East Timor, a former Portuguese colony that Indonesia has brutally occupied since 1975. Some weeks later it was revealed that John Huang, a Taiwan-born employee of the Democratic National Committee and a former Commerce Department official, had raised millions of dollars for the Clinton campaign from the Riady family of Indonesia, who own a twelve-billion-dollar conglomerate called Lippo Group, for which Mr. Huang earlier had worked. It soon unfolded that James Riady, the son of the family patriarch, had become acquainted with Clinton in Arkansas in the 1970s and that he and his father have since had many dealings with the Clinton administration in Washington on behalf of Lippo Group’s interests.

What was striking about most of the stories on Indonesian political influence in the US was how little was said about Indonesia itself, its president, his business allies, and the growing opposition to his regime. Indeed, a strange indifference seems to affect the American press when it comes to writing about what is, in fact, the largest Islamic country in the world, with some 197 million people, more than any other nation except China, India, and the US. One of the most horrible massacres of the twentieth century took place in Indonesia in 1965-1966, with conservative estimates of the number of victims ranging up to 500,000, and even more. President Soeharto, under whose authority the killings took place, has ruled unchallenged for thirty years, longer than almost all other world leaders today. Yet he is rarely discussed in the American press.

Americans may have heard about the charms of the island of Bali, but few would know that Bali is but one of the more than 13,500 islands stretching across 3,000 miles that make up the multiethnic Indonesian state, where more than three hundred languages are spoken, with a form of Malay serving as the official language. It is common to see the label “Made in Indonesia” on clothes sold by US companies, but few Americans know that Indonesia, rich in oil, natural gas, and timber, and named by the US Department of Commerce as one of the ten largest emerging markets in the world, has had impressive economic growth under Soeharto.

Perhaps the Indonesian government wants to avoid attention. Soeharto, who seized power in 1965 immediately after a failed, allegedly Communist coup and a successful military counter-coup, is a remote and uncharismatic leader. While he is distrustful of the outside world, his fierce anti-Communism has brought him unwavering Western support during the past thirty years and enabled him to pursue repressive domestic policies. It is in his interest that the actual story…

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