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Death of a Tyrant

Suharto, the single-named general who ruled Indonesia for the last three decades of the last century, died this week of multiple organ failure. Reading over the official U.S. reaction (which expressed our condolences and characterized his reign as a period of "remarkable economic and social development"), you’d think this guy was a regular FDR. But if history means anything to anyone in this town, we might also have mentioned that Suharto was a tyrant who oversaw the killing of hundreds of thousands of people, with our backing, using our weapons. Indeed, if by "social development" we mean genocide, he was remarkably effective.

Some history: On Dec. 7, 1975, Suharto invaded the former Portuguese colony of East Timor, which had announced its independence nine days before. The general feared the independence movement was backed by China’s communist regime. Or at least that’s what he said. (U.S. documents characterized the movement as "vaguely left-wing"). What he really wanted was to annex the place - and he succeeded quickly. In July 1976, Indonesia declared East Timor as its 27th province, which it remained, practically speaking, until 1999.

Trouble was, the occupation wasn’t terribly popular among a people who had just declared their sovereignty. For its part, the Indonesian military didn’t show much patience for recalcitrance. In the 14 years of Indonesian control, an estimated 200,000 East Timorese were killed - representing a third of the original population.

And where were we in the midst of the mess? Well, the U.N. Security Council voted in April 1976 to force Indonesian troops out of East Timor and recognize the sovereignty of the new nation. Twelve countries approved the measure; the U.S. (and Japan) abstained.

Documents declassified over the past decade paint an even grimmer tale of U.S. complicity. On Oct. 5, 1975, then-Secretary of State Henry Kissinger was told by his staff that, "It looks like the Indonesians have begun the attack on Timor." Kissinger replied: "I’m assuming you’re really going to keep your mouth shut on the subject."

Part of the reason for this gag-order hinged on Kissinger’s desire to keep strong ties with the anti-communist Suharto in the immediate wake of the Vietnam War. But there were economic reasons as well: We wanted to continue selling him weapons.

Indeed, an analysis conducted by the Arms Trade Resource Center found that U.S weapon sales to Indonesia jumped from $12 million to $65 million from 1974 to 1975. U.S military aid, meanwhile, leapt from $17 million to $40 million between 1974 and 1976. All the regular suspects benefited, according to the analysis: Lockheed Martin, Colt Industries, General Motors - the list goes on.

But there was a threat to this cash cow: U.S. law forbids the use of U.S. weapons in overt invasions not initiated in self-defense. "Indonesia use of US-supplied weapons in an overt occupation of the territory, however, would contravene U.S. law," Kissinger wrote to President Gerald Ford in November 1975.

No matter. An analysis put together by the National Security Council just five days after the invasion found that American-supplied ships, planes and ground weapons were all used in the initial assault.

(The National Security Archive, a research shop run out of George Washington University, has complied an exhaustive document trail detailing America’s role in Suharto’s reign of terror. Brad Simpson, who directs the Archive’s East Timor documentation project, said recently, "[T]hese declassified documents, detailing the long record of U.S. support for one of the twentieth century’s most brutal and corrupt men, will contribute to our understanding both of Suharto’s rule and of the U.S. support which helped make it possible.")

Despite reports of abuses, U.S. military aid continued to pour into the country until November 1991, when western journalists filmed an attack by Indonesian troops on an unarmed crowd marching to Santa Cruz cemetery. Two journalists - Allan Nairn and Amy Goodman - were beaten. Nairn, of the New Yorker, later told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee that the killing was indiscriminate.

"They executed schoolgirls, young men, old Timorese, the street was wet with blood and the bodies were everywhere," he said. At least 271 protesters were killed, with hundreds more "disappeared."

Nairn said he was spared only when the soldiers discovered he was an American. "We were, after all, citizens of the country that supplied them with M-l6s," he told the Senate panel.

Faced with a public image disaster, we quit shipping weapons to Suharto’s Indonesia in the wake of the event, although restrictions were removed in November 2005, when our weapon sales began anew.

And so this week a tyrant is dead. But for his bloody history, the strongest condemnation the U.S. could summon was this: "Though there may be some controversy over his legacy, [Suharto] was a historic figure who left a lasting imprint on Indonesia and the region of Southeast Asia." (A reward for anyone who can identify the State Dept. scribe who came up with "lasting imprint" as a euphemism for genocide).

A friend suggested a more fitting epitaph: "The devil has a new soccer ball."

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