Sunday, January 27, 2008

Suharto, Rest in _____

Suharto is dead; one of the Cold War's most confounding pro-Western dictators. The toll of his crimes was hideous. He was a fighter against national and international forces that probably would have killed as many, if not more. He allowed his country to steer from poverty to prosperity in a generation. He helped sow the seeds of deep corruption in that field of success that may yet ruin it all.

From the New York Times obituary:

Whether it was those forces or his timing, good fortune came to him. Just as the United States was becoming embroiled in Vietnam, he stood as a bulwark against Communism in Asia. The United States rewarded him with a foreign aid program that eventually amounted to more than $4 billion a year. In addition, a consortium of Western countries and Japan established an aid program that in 1994 alone totaled almost $5 billion.

In doing so, the United States, along with much of the rest of the world, showed a willingness to overlook the corruption, favoritism and violations of human rights, including the disappearance of opposition politicians, that came to characterize Mr. Suharto’s rule.

Dennis Perrin is unsparing:

From Ford to Carter to Reagan to Bush to Clinton. All averted their eyes, whistled random tunes while somehow, some way, the Indonesian state kept replenishing itself with U.S. weapons and continually found itself on the favorable end of failed diplomatic moves to end the repression and theft.

His view, like that of a good anti-Bush progressive of 2008, is limited to the U.S. As though everything wicked in the world can be laid at America's doorstep.

The Cold War featured a balanced, if divided, world. There was a limited hegemony for America in the West, but all its decisions in that time were warped by the power and designs of the other side. People who wish there were some "counterweight" to American power today somehow overlook the evidence of how destructive that situation was just a few decades ago.

Andrew Bartlett an Australian senator, prefers a world where the West doesn't have to make such demonic choices. So do I:

Without in any way ignoring the great difficulties faced in maintaining social stability in a country such as Indonesia, it is a false choice to suggest there has to be either economic development or respect for human rights. Increasing prosperity and helping people out of poverty is itself directly related to human rights.

It raises the question of just how large human rights abuses have to be before we express opposition to them. Or to put it another way, how severe do human rights abuses have to be before we cease turning a blind eye?

Suharto is linked directly to the deaths of over half a million people around the period when he first came to power in the mid-1960s. The number of East Timorese killed during the period of Indonesian occupation has been estimated at around 200 000 – around a third of the total population of the country. Major human rights abuses by sections of the Indonesian military also continued in many parts of the country – most notably in West Papua, where many more killings occurred.

Every country has failings in human rights, including Australia. However, I find it hard to accept that it is OK to just wave away massive human rights abuses as some sort of distasteful and unfortunate side-effect of maintaining political stability and economic development. Surely we can do better than that for our fellow humans, regardless of where they live.

But he seems to forget, or overlook, that there ever was such a thing as the Cold War. "Heywood J." notes a more recent candidate for consideration alongside Suharto:

Suharto was responsible for more deaths than even our modern Middle Eastern neo-Hitlerian hobgoblin himself, Saddam Hussein.

Whither the urgency, then, not to mention that Suharto received far more American weaponry and training over many years (yes, including from humanitarian demi-god Bill Clinton) than Saddam could ever have dreamed of. But then, Suharto managed to internalize most of his pathological aggression upon his own people, rather than scaring his neighbors every few years. And Saddam was merely sitting atop something we coveted, not assuring that it all passed safely through the Straits of Malacca. Priorities, people.

Or, one could go back to Bartlett's formulation and start noticing that in at least one case, for one opportunity and a matrix of reasons, the U.S., as agent of the anti-communist West, took great pains to correct its old mistake.

Meanwhile, Liberty Scott from New Zealand and not from the left, has one of the few frank and thoughtful posts I've seen on Suharto that is willing to wade into the hot sauce of ambivalence:

While speculation of what might have been may not be easy to justify, the aggressive suppression of rebellion, the military incursions into Malaysia tell that a pro-communist Indonesia was unlikely to be friendly towards an independent East Timor, and certainly not Singapore. A country led by a man supporting an axis that includes Maoist China, itself a state that had murdered and starved over 50 million, and totalitarian North Korea, was unlikely to remain peaceful, and was very likely to kill more than the thousands that already suffered under it. For saving Indonesia, south east Asia and maybe Australia from that, Suharto deserves at least some credit. Cold comfort to those caught up in the massacres, and is no excuse for the tyranny and corruption that followed.

So I wont be mourning Suharto - he was the last of Indonesia's bloody dictators. Sukarno was the one before, and oft ignored. He was better than Sukarno, for peace and for the economy, but he was only one step better. He was better as Park Chung Hee was better than Kim Il Sung - which is not an endorsement, but a realistic evaluation.

The obvious question is was he on balance good, or bad. The truth is that he was overwhelmingly bad, but had he changed after overthrowing Indonesia's emerging communism he would now be a hero. He may have saved (based on proportions killed in China) 10-20 million people by overthrowing communism, but he killed around a million doing so. Just as the string of South Korean dictators were all better than Kim Il Sung, it wasn't a high threshold to cross. A smaller positive to note is that he fought against the Japanese occupation in World War 2, and the Japanese treatment of the Dutch East Indies was far from honourable.

Bye Suharto, you dictator, murderer and thief, at least you were better than Sukarno and the inevitable communist dictatorship - but that one victory does not excuse decades of misrule.