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January 27, 2008

A Funny Little Story About Suharto

Indonesia's former dictator Suhato, one of the 20th century's greatest butchers, is dead at 86. This reminds me of a funny story!

When Suharto was falling from power during 1998, I listened to an NPR show on Indonesia. It was hosted by the father of someone with whom I'd gone to high school.

The guests and the host spoke about Indonesian history, but made no mention of the "staggering mass slaughter" after Suharto took over in 1965, nor of the US support for all of it. Then someone called in and asked why they hadn't. Specifically the caller spoke of how the US embassy had given the Indonesian military lists of thousands of members of the communist party, so they could be more efficiently killed.

The host found all this preposterous and scoffed. In particular he wanted to know how the caller had gotten the ridiculous idea that the US had handed over death lists.

I don't know where the caller had gotten that idea, but I know where I'd gotten it: from a book on Indonesia I checked out from a library THREE BLOCKS AWAY FROM THE HOST'S HOUSE.

Of course, you can't really fault the host for not knowing about this. He was only a New York Times reporter and graduate of Harvard, so no one had ever taught him how to read.

Also, if I remember correctly, Lyndon Johnson had attended his wedding...which must have been during the same period as the coup, when Johnson was making decisions that led to the hundreds of thousands of people being shot and/or hacked to death with machetes. You can see how you might not want to find out you're the kind of person who has friends like that.

In any case, I've long planned on the day of Suharto's death to listen to a version of "How Can I Keep From Singing?" from the Eva Cassidy album Eva by Heart. And someone's made a little youtube slideshow using it as a soundtrack, so you can listen too, especially the part about tyrants trembling with fear:

—Jonathan Schwarz

Posted at January 27, 2008 09:06 AM

Ah, the list!

Years ago I wrote a song called the "The List" precisely about this. "We did not touch one son of a bitch. We just wrote the list. Jakarta!" Had a lot of percussion in it.

I recall there was a State Dept. guy named Green who did the denying on this. He was the one who actually said we just wrote the list.

The estimates were from a quarter million to a million people killed. And let's face it, when you're doing mass killing you don't keep count.

The list was supposed to be of the Communists in Indonesia, but these things aren't so precise. Eligibility was extended to ethnic Chinese, because, after all, immigrant populations are always good targets.

It was such a bloody mess that it couldn't be allowed to remain visible. That's why New York Times reporters have to remain ignorant.

And if you look at the grand scheme of things, it helps to better understand one purpose of the Vietnam war. For Suharto wasn't protecting Indonesia from Communism as much as protecting all that oil for the oil companies.

I remember years ago seeing how many coups occurred from the mid-sixties on that had relationships to oil reserves. You'd almost believe that that lone nut in Dallas in 1963 had set off world-wide revolutions for brown peoples around the globe to give American oil companies their wealth. Truly amazing, and such a coincidence that it happened right there in Dallas and you can steer a tank from Dealey Plaza through all those countries right to where that statue of Saddam Hussein was pulled down in Baghdad.

Posted by: Bob In Pacifica at January 27, 2008 11:18 AM

Howard Hughes?

Posted by: Mike Meyer at January 27, 2008 12:03 PM

Our little Songbird from Glen Dale, linked to a butcher. Thanks for the link to Eva. It gives a little hope.

Posted by: drip at January 27, 2008 12:35 PM

What book was it? Kai Bird talks about this in his biography of the Bundy brothers (The Color of Truth).

I remember when the story first broke about the list (around 1990, I think), the NYT among others quickly "discredited" it, so the guy you heard was just sticking to the party line.

Posted by: Donald Johnson at January 27, 2008 12:50 PM

Bu-bye, Suhi. Have a good eternity.

Also, wasn't Kissinger involved in some way (well, isn't he always?), but I mean specifically I think he told the Indonesians that the US would have no problem if the Indonesians took care of their "Communist" situation.

Posted by: catherine at January 27, 2008 01:28 PM


If I remember correctly, it was something by Peter Dale Scott. I don't think I'd believe everything he says on all subjects, but as you know you don't need to rely on him re Indonesia. That was just the first mention I ever saw about it, so I started looking for more, which all said pretty much what he did. And since then, of course, there's been a bunch more released on the coup.

The funny thing about radio host is that he didn't even say "Oh, that was discredited." It really sounded like he'd never heard it before, but he knew it was ridiculous on its face.


I suspect you're thinking of Kissinger re Indonesia's invasion of East Timor.

Posted by: Jonathan Schwarz at January 27, 2008 02:14 PM

This was a really fine post, JoNathan. First class. Right ohhhhn!

Posted by: konopelli/wgg at January 27, 2008 02:25 PM

The first account of the U.S. role in Suharto's slaughter I read was in 1979 -- Noam Chomsky's, in The Political Economy of Human Rights, Volume I: The Washington Connection and Third World Fascism.

Thanks for the link to the video. I'm normally a huge fan of gospel and gospel/soul style, and want to hear more of Eva Cassidy, but much prefer that particular song without any swing. Enya's version is beautiful.

Posted by: Nell at January 27, 2008 03:30 PM

If I recall there was an article based on Kadane's article in Covert Action Information Bulletin from around then.

But that was just a conspiracy-mongering rag. A few years later they had a good article on Echelon.

Posted by: Bob In Pacifica at January 27, 2008 07:02 PM

Who is the radio host you are talking about? Why you didn't mention his name.

Posted by: Ajit at January 28, 2008 12:58 AM

Great post, but I actually prefer Enya's cover. Eva's FINE, but I like to celebrate dictator's deaths in a more solemn manner.

Posted by: En Ming Hee at January 28, 2008 05:38 AM


I suspect you're thinking of Kissinger re Indonesia's invasion of East Timor.
Posted by Jonathan Schwarz at January 27, 2008 02:14 PM

Quite possibly, thanks. I think it had to do with his going to Indonesia and meeting with Suhi, and then flying back and just after he landed, they attacked. Does Kissinger ever leave his apartment? I'd be so happy to hear that he's afraid to. That's the best we're going to do, I fear.

Posted by: catherine at January 28, 2008 11:26 AM

You know, I ask people I know, do you really believe the US hasn't interfered in the live of others? Do you really believe that we've maintained our position as a superpower over the last 60 years by benign benevolence?

To a person conservatives answer "yes".

Not that I think they believe this of course - I think they don't care how we did it.

This sorely taxes by belief in humanity.

Posted by: Jimbo at January 28, 2008 09:01 PM

jeez, Suharto and Pinochet both die in their beds of ``natural causes''. But they both deserved to be hung or put in front of a firing squad. How many more of these thugs will escape punishment for their crimes?

Posted by: Feeder of Felines at January 28, 2008 09:44 PM

Even stranger, Feeder, is that when he died, Suharto was the subject of major criminal probes looking into the corruption during his time in office.

That's a little wierd and deserves a whole analysis in and of itself -- the massive slaughter allowing him to take office is too much to take on, but the theft of money once he got there required a response? It's kind of like finally jailing Capone on tax evasion, because it's the only way to get some smidgeon of justice. Or maybe it's just that the victims of Suharto's corruption were still around and generally more powerful than the victims of the slaughter?

Either way: how do you say "good riddance" in bahasa? I only know how to wish a pleasant journey.

Posted by: Whistler Blue at January 29, 2008 12:32 PM

Jimbo, met with a bunch of my high school friends in early 2002 - we were planning a reunion. Talk of Guantanamo and torture got two responses: "Well, what do they expect if they come over here and fly into our buildings?" and "The U.S. doesn't torture."

I doubt any of them feel any different today. Well, maybe one of them.

Posted by: catherine at January 29, 2008 01:43 PM

Jimbo, met with a bunch of my high school friends in early 2002 - we were planning a reunion. Talk of Guantanamo and torture got two responses: "Well, what do they expect if they come over here and fly into our buildings?" and "The U.S. doesn't torture."

I doubt any of them feel any different today. Well, maybe one of them.

Posted by: catherine at January 29, 2008 01:44 PM

Sympathy for the Devil.

Posted by: Mike Meyer at January 29, 2008 07:26 PM

Bahasa just means "speak" or "tongue." Selamat malam means "goodnight." Close enough. Lights out. They evaded justice, but at least they're gone.

Posted by: Save the Oocytes at January 30, 2008 07:06 PM