Suharto’s legacy: Mass grave Indonesia

“One death is a tragedy. A million deaths is just a statistic,” said Joseph Stalin — and he knew what he was talking about.

These words came to my mind as I followed the news coverage and commentary about the death on 27 January 2008 of Suharto, the former Indonesian military leader, and the second President of Indonesia, who was in office from 1967 to 1998.

Many western and globalised media reports touched on Suharto regime’s alleged mass-scale corruption, and the dizzy heights that crony capitalism reached under his watch.

But few talked about the genocide of unarmed, innocent civilians that took place in the years that brought him to power, 1965-67. Another blood bath took place in 1975 when Indonesian forces invaded and took over East Timor. Even those that touched on the subject used varying estimates of how many perished.

The Guardian (UK) obituary estimated the number killed in 1965-67 to be around 600,000. Others, such as BBC News, placed it at half a million, noting that “the bloodshed which accompanied his rise to power, after a mysterious coup attempt in 1965 which he blamed on Indonesia’s then-powerful Communist Party, was on a scale matched only in Cambodia in this region”.

In all probability, no one really knows the real number of Indonesians were slaughtered as the army – cheered by anti-communist west – cracked down on members and supporters of the Communist Party of Indonesia, at that time a legal political party. Genocidists don’t like to keep detailed records.

The New York Times, a long-standing cheer-leader of the ‘smiling general’, acknowledged that Suharto’s 32-year-long dictatorship was ‘one of the most brutal and corrupt of the 20th century’.

NYT added: “His rule was not without accomplishment; he led Indonesia to stability and nurtured economic growth. But these successes were ultimately overshadowed by pervasive and large-scale corruption; repressive, militarized rule; and a convulsion of mass bloodletting when he seized power in the late 1960s that took at least 500,000 lives.”

On the whole, however, the mainstream media has been far more preoccupied with the (admittedly important) issue of how much Suharto and family stole than how many people were killed extra-judicially during his regime.

In that respect, things haven’t changed all that much since Suharto was driven out of power by mass protests. American economist and media analyst Edward S Herman, who co-authored Manufacturing Consent with Noam Chomsky, wrote a commentary nearly 10 years ago titled Good and Bad Genocide: Double standards in coverage of Suharto and Pol Pot.

His opening para:
“Coverage of the fall of Suharto reveals with startling clarity the ideological biases and propaganda role of the mainstream media. Suharto was a ruthless dictator, a grand larcenist and a mass killer with as many victims as Cambodia’s Pol Pot. But he served U.S. economic and geopolitical interests, was helped into power by Washington, and his dictatorial rule was warmly supported for 32 years by the U.S. economic and political establishment. The U.S. was still training the most repressive elements of Indonesia’s security forces as Suharto’s rule was collapsing in 1998, and the Clinton administration had established especially close relations with the dictator (“our kind of guy,” according to a senior administration official quoted in the New York Times, 10/31/95).”

Suharto’s demise reminded me of a powerful short documentary I saw a few years ago. Titled Mass Grave Indonesia, it was directed by courageous young Indonesian journalist Lexy Junior Rambadeta (photos below).

Lexy Rambadeta

He works as a freelance TV journalist for international news agencies, and is a key member of the Jakarta-based media collective Off-Stream. It was started Off Stream in 2001 by journalists, filmmakers, photographers and multimedia artists “who have strong commitments and creativities on catering, promoting, covering, documenting and producing multiculturalism documentary video/film, photography and multimedia products”.

OffStream lists as its mission: To give a voice to “survivors of horror”; To tear down walls of “silence”; and To denounce “injustice” and “barbarism”.

One of their first productions was Mass Grave Indonesia, whose synopsis reads:
“Approximate between from 500 000 to 3 million of people in Indonesia have been killed by Soeharto’s regimes and buried somewhere in the wood distributed. A full and frank account of what happened in the reburial of 26 victims of horror in the 1965 mass killings. This documentary film weaves its story against the tide by presenting evidence of cruelties sponsored by the military in two regions of Central Java.”

I have just tracked down the 19-minute film on YouTube, presented in two parts:

Mass Grave – Indonesia: Part 1 of 2

Mass Grave – Indonesia: Part 2 of 2

This is no western film, filmed by visiting foreign journalists who might be accused of having one agenda or another. This is a film made by Indonesia’s own journalists who found their voice and freedom after the Suharto regime ended in 1998.

I have emailed Lexy this week asking how this film – and agitation by many human rights and democracy activists – have helped bring about belated justice to his own people. I await his reply, which will be published when received.

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