U.S. must recognize Indonesian crimes

Most Americans know virtually nothing about Indonesia. But 30 years ago the former Dutch colony, which has the fourth-largest population in the world, was the site of a genocidal bloodbath that some say rivals even the hideous massacres carried out by Pol Pot and Adolph Hitler.
In 1965, following an aborted (and possibly staged) coup against then-president Sukarno, General Suharto and his American-supplied army seized power in the island nation. They then proceeded to carry out what the New York Times called one of the most savage mass slaughters of modern political history. In the space of a few short years the armed forces, together with pro-Suharto death squads, slaughtered almost the entire membership of the thriving Indonesian Communist Party. Indonesians of Chinese decent were also targeted. All told, an estimated 500,000 to 1 million people were murdered in the tumultuous period following the power grab. Hundreds of thousands more were imprisoned, often without even being charged. According to Amnesty International, torture of detainees was routine.
As a former prisoner of the Suharto regime, Carmel Budiardjo knows first hand about such atrocities. She was on campus last week for an event sponsored by Women Against Military Madness, where she spoke about her experiences and the Indonesian dictatorship’s latest crimes against humanity.
A British citizen married to an Indonesian, Budiardjo was arrested in 1968 as a suspected communist. She spent the next three years in one of Suharto’s concentration camps. Upon her release in 1971, she returned to the United Kingdom and founded the group TAPOL to monitor human rights abuses in Indonesia and in the Indonesian colonies of East Timor and West Papua.
Tragically, the Suharto regime has racked up more than enough human rights violations to keep Budiardjo and her organization busy. For the last three decades, Suharto and his army have ruled the country through terror and systematic control of all spheres of public life. As Budiardjo explained in her talk, “Suharto’s is a corporatist regime, allowing only three political parties to exist. It also maintains tight control over unions, peasant organizations, professional organizations, the media — even certain church groups.” Anyone refusing to go along with this arrangement is summarily thrown into jail.
“In the ’90s,” she continued, “there has emerged an open defiance of this whole political structure. Several independent trade unions have formed and there have been many strikes.” But Budiardjo said that the government is now in the midst of cracking down. The government “has abducted union leaders. Workers who’ve organized the strikes are sacked and blacklisted. In one instance, a woman in East Java who lead a strike was murdered.”
The Indonesian government’s assault on human rights has not been confined to its own territory. In 1975, the Indonesian army invaded and annexed the former Portuguese colony of East Timor just two weeks after it had declared its independence. Australian journalist John Pilger said that the invasion and its aftermath was an orgy of violence on par with the ghastly murders of 1965. The occupiers savagely suppressed the popular nationalist movement Fretilin, and killed all suspected sympathizers. Women and children were indiscriminately shot. Whole villages were annihilated. U.S.-made warplanes dropped bombs and napalm on those fleeing the onslaught. The waters near East Timor’s capital of Dili became so clogged with corpses that locals christened the area “the sea of blood.” By 1989 the Indonesians had (by Amnesty International’s count) massacred some 200,000 East Timorese — one-third of the country’s total population. Of the major world powers, only the United States recognized the absorption of East Timor as legitimate.
These days, siad Budiardjo, “The mood inside East Timor remains one of extreme depression. In the past few months, many young East Timorese have fled the country to embassies in Jakarta (Indonesia’s capital) to seek asylum. The entire island is a gigantic prison camp.”
Recently, international concern over East Timor’s plight appears to be on the upswing. It was announced Friday that two leaders in the East Timorese liberation struggle — Catholic Bishop Carlos Belo and exiled Fretilin activist Jose Ramos-Horta — have been awarded the coveted Nobel Peace Prize.
While East Timor has begun to receive some international attention, the same is not true of Indonesia’s other colony, West Papua, a section of the island of New Guinea extremely rich in natural resources. Suharto’s forces moved into West Papua in 1967 and officially annexed it in 1969. As usual, the colonizing troops have been brutal toward the native population.
But what makes the situation in West Papua especially revolting is that the Indonesians are there protecting the lucrative mining operations of Freeport-McMoRan, a U.S.-based corporation. Freeport runs the world’s largest gold mine and third-largest copper mine on a West Papuan mountain that is the ancestral home of the displaced Amungme people. Indonesian soldiers have been assigned to keep locals away from the Freeport complex. The result: 22 civilians have disappeared or been killed in or around the mine since 1994. To make matters worse, refuse from Freeport’s digging is fouling up the rain forest and rivers upon which the Amungme depend for sustenance.
“In West Papua,” Budiardjo explained, “we have a blatant case of U.S. imperialism pitted against indigenous peoples in a most violent and rapacious way.”
The United States deserves a share of the blame for virtually all of the atrocities committed by Suharto’s regime. His reign of terror could not have continued without political and military backing from the U.S. government. And throughout the bloodletting and butchery, that American support has never wavered.
Our country is, and has been for the last 30 years, one of Indonesia’s main trading partners. Most of the big multinational corporations operating there — Nike, Phillips Petroleum, Mobile Oil — are American. The U.S. State Department still gives Suharto foreign aid. Budiardjo said that U.S. defense firms are the primary suppliers of weapons for the Indonesian army. Just this year, in fact, the Clinton administration approved the sale of nine F-16 fighter planes to the Suharto tyranny.
Of course, as Budiardjo explained, Americans disgusted by U.S. complicity with the murderous Indonesian dictatorship don’t have to keep quiet. Unlike the Indonesians, West Papuans and East Timorese, we have freedom of assembly, the right to free speech and a modicum of democracy. We can speak out, protest and demand action from our politicians. We can pressure our government to end trade with the vicious Suharto regime.
And for the sake of all those who’ve been imprisoned, tortured, abused and killed — for the sake of people like Carmel Budiardjo and her husband — it is high time we started.
Steve Macek’s column appears in the Daily every Tuesday.