The Age (Melbourne, Australia)
Sunday, January 20, 2008
In praise of a dictator
“Political language … is designed to make lies sound truthful
and murder respectable, and to give an appearance of solidity to
pure wind.”George Orwell
IN late 1965 and early 1966, the rivers in Java and Bali ran
red. Indonesian farmers and fishermen complained canals were
clogged with corpses that had been shot, hacked by farm hoes,
mutilated with machetes.
Since the victims were assumed to be communists, the killings
were greeted as good news in Western capitals, Canberra in
particular. The Cold War was at its height, and Australians
feared a red tide of communism would topple the dominoes of
South-East Asia, seeping relentlessly to our northern shores.
Estimates of the toll in what the CIA described as one of the
worst mass murders of the 20th century range from 500,000 to 1
million. But the horror of what was happening was softened with
language emasculated by euphemism.
The bloodshed was welcomed for ushering in an era of stability
in Indonesia under a pro-Western government led by a firm
anti-communist, Major-General Soeharto, who pushed aside the
adventurist president Sukarno. (He had flirted with the
Indonesian Communist Party and waged a quasi-war with Malaysia
in which Australian troops fought and died.)
In July 1966, Australia’s then prime minister Harold Holt tried
to make murder respectable by declaring: “With 500,000 to 1
million communist sympathisers knocked off … I think it is safe
to assume a reorientation has taken place.”
Holt’s comment became a template for weasel words from
Australian prime ministers in the three decades that Soeharto
ruled our largest neighbour.
From 1965 until he fell from power in 1998, powerful figures in
Australian politics, and in diplomacy, academia and the media,
defended Soeharto with language and arguments they claimed were
based on realism, but which ignored, denied or white-washed the
Their language said little about Indonesian reality. Even while
they claimed to be pro-Indonesian, they expressed little
sympathy for ordinary Indonesians. Instead, their words revealed
much about Australian fear, pessimism, wishful-thinking and
Holt’s endorsement echoed in the words of a succession of prime
ministers, who went beyond the bounds of diplomatic nicety to
praise a dictator. The word “fawning” comes to mind.
In 1996, John Howard reminded an official banquet in Jakarta
that it was a coalition government that had first “welcomed the
stability” brought by Soeharto, a “very skilled and sensitive
national leader” who had held his country together.
Two years later, when the facade of Soeharto’s solidity
collapsed and he was forced to resign by the winds of economic
crisis and mass protests, Howard again praised Soeharto for
bringing “enormous stability” to Indonesia. As for his methods
and the wisdom of some of his policies, well, “as with any
person”, that was for history to judge.
Obsequious double-speak was not unique to Howard’s side of
politics. Bob Hawke’s speech at a presidential banquet in
Jakarta in 1983 was particularly cringe-worthy.
He praised Soeharto as one of the “most respected heads of state
… in the world”, who had guided Indonesia’s progress since being
“called to the leadership”.
The man who waded to power through rivers of blood and cemented
his control with a complex system of repression, co-option and
persuasion had set his hand “to the tremendous task of national
reconciliation”, winning “an imperishable place” in Indonesian
history. Hawke capped his speech, which years later was
remembered with embarrassment even by Australian diplomats and
loyal Indonesian officials, with a toast to Soeharto and the
declaration: “Your people love you, Mr President.”
Paul Keating took the relationship with Soeharto to new levels
of intimacy, built on the courtship of his predecessors.
Visiting Jakarta in 1992, he lauded Soeharto’s success in
maintaining the unity and stability of Indonesia as “one of the
most significant and beneficial events” in Australia’s strategic
By 1994, Keating had elevated the Soeharto regime’s importance
to “the single most beneficial strategic development to have
affected Australia and its region in the past 30 years”.
Ignored in all this was Soeharto’s appalling record and the
insatiable greed of his family, which, according to the
anti-corruption group Transparency International, embezzled up
to $US35 billion ($A39.7 billion).
The killings of 1965-1966 may have been the worst of his crimes,
but they weren’t the only ones.
Tens of thousands of alleged communist sympathisers and
intellectuals were held for years without trial on remote Buru
Island, Soeharto’s own gulag.
Massacres recurred throughout his rule. In 1984, soldiers shot
dead hundreds of protesters in Tanjung Priok, the port of
Jakarta. In the mid-1980s, soldiers shot and garotted thousands
of suspected criminals, leaving their bodies on the streets in
what Soeharto later admitted was an act of “shock therapy”.
To maintain national unity, thousands were killed in Aceh and
West Papua. Then there was East Timor, where up to 180,000 died
as a result of the invasion and subjugation ordered by Soeharto.
To maintain a dubious stability, universities were silenced, the
press muzzled, the parliament neutered. The courts were a joke.
Trade unionists and human rights activists were abducted,
tortured, raped and murdered.
Implicit in the language of Australia’s leaders was the
assumption that Indonesians were culturally unsuited to
democracy, inherently violent, and needed a firm hand, without
which their country would disintegrate, a fracturing that would
This official obsequiousness betrayed deep national insecurity,
fear and suspicion, even as our leaders claimed to be building
good relations with an important neighbour. Are we any closer to
Indonesia, and less suspicious of Indonesians, as a result?
Indonesians will judge Soeharto’s place in history. But we can
judge the record of our leaders in their relationship with him.
Soeharto was a mass murderer and a kleptomaniac. Just don’t
expect Kevin Rudd to say it.
Tom Hyland is The Sunday Age’s international editor.