Suharto is dead

by John Quiggin on January 29, 2008

I don’t imagine many readers will be shedding tears at the death of former Indonesian dictator Suharto, and certainly I won’t be. The bloody massacres in which he rode to power amid the collapse of the Sukarno regime, and the brutal invasion and occupation of East Timor, not to mention his spectacular corruption, mark him down among the worst political criminals of a terrible century. Like some other dictators, he managed some significant successes in economic management, but overreached himself in the period leading up to the Asian economic crisis if 1997, which brought his downfall from power. Unfortunately, hostility to the Suharto regime has coloured attitudes to Indonesia in the decade since his fall from power, certainly in Australia and I suspect elsewhere.

In fact, Indonesia has been remarkably successful in dealing with what was, in many respects, a poisonous legacy from the Suharto era.

From one of the tightest dictatorships in the region, with a military caste heavily embedded in both politics and business, the country has made a successful transition to democracy, with, in my judgement, each succeeding government better than the last. While the current president Yudhoyono is a former general he also seems to be both competent and a genuine democrat.

When Suharto fell, Indonesia was plagued with civil conflicts including the failing occupation of East Timor, the Aceh and West Papua separatist movement and religious strife promoted by groups within the regime, as well as growing movement towards extreme Islamism, again with support from within the government. Today East Timor is independent, the Aceh conflict has been settled, and some progress has been made in Papua. The fight against Islamist terrorism has been far more successful than in any other Islamic country I can think of, and has been pursued through proper legal processes, despite criticisms from those in Australia and elsewhere who would prefer Suharto-style abandonment of the rule of law.

Unfortunately, Australian media attention to Indonesia has been dominated by a series of court cases, in which the predominant Australian attitude has been one of childish petulance, demanding that the Indonesian legal system deliver the result we want, whether it means reversing properly-reached convictions on the basis of little more than the fact that the defendant is a photogenic Australian (the Corby case) or delivering convictions on cases that would probably never have made it to court in Australia, such as the terrorism trial of Abu Bashir . In this case, the one witness who might have implicated Bashir directly, Hambali, couldn’t be called because the Americans have him in custody and wouldn’t make him available. If anyone deserves blame for the fact that Bashir is walking free, it’s the Bush Administration.

Suharto’s death should be a good thing for Indonesia, since he remained an obstacle to cleaning up the remnants of his system of nepotism and corruption. Now that he’s gone, I hope Australians and others will begin to recognise the immense progress Indonesia has made against daunting odds.

{ 133 comments }

1

Doug M. 01.29.08 at 7:16 am

I hold no brief for Suharto… no, wait. I guess I sort of do.

You really can’t dismiss Indonesia’s economic miracle with “Like some other dictators, he managed some significant successes in economic management”. What happened in Indonesia in the 20 years before the crisis was a lot bigger than that.

Indonesia achieved sustained economic growth averaging 6%-7% per year for over 20 years. GDP roughly quintupled between 1974 and 1997. PPP adjusted per capita GDP roughly tripled.

In 1970, about 60% of Indonesia’s population lived in “absolute poverty” — i.e., on a dollar a day or less. By 1995 that number had dropped to around 14%, even though Indonesia’s population had grown by over 50%. Over the same period, every index of human development improved dramatically — literacy from 60% to over 90%, life expectancy from 45 to 66, massive drops in infant and maternal mortality.

Some of these economic and social gains were rolled back by the crisis of 1997 and after, but most were not — the economic losses have long since been made up, and the human development numbers have continued to rise. Even with the crisis years included, Indonesia has grown much faster than the world average over the last 40 years.

Suharto delivered what his predecessor, Sukarno, had only promised: basic education and health care to everyone, and at least a modest social safety net to lift people out of the worst poverty. In a country as large, diverse and chaotic as Indonesia, this was no mean achievement.

Economic growth, in Indonesia, meant fewer lives blighted by crushing poverty, more literacy, more individual freedom, and fewer kids dropping dead of stupid and preventable diseases. I just don’t think you can dismiss that with an airy “some significant successes”.

The Indonesians themselves are conflicted over Suharto’s legacy. They know perfectly well how corrupt and brutal he was. Yet they’re also mourning him — and I’m not sure we should dismiss that as nostalgia, misguided nationalism, or simple power-worship.

Doug M.

2

stostosto 01.29.08 at 8:35 am

Like some other dictators he managed some significant economic successes

It is a tortured kind of sentence.

Anyway, Quiggin’s post seems more directed at Australia’s attitude to post-Suharto Indonesia.

3

Matt 01.29.08 at 12:04 pm

I’ll admit having briefly felt charmed when I learned that, like Cher, Suharto had only one name.

Like Doug M. I think we ought not discount the massive economic gains in Indonesia, but I’d want some evidence that that couldn’t have been done without the brutal killing of several hundred thousand people (at least) and massive, massive corruption before Suharto gets too much praise from me.

4

Hidari 01.29.08 at 12:58 pm

‘Indonesia has grown much faster than the world average over the last 40 years’.

Needless to say, this sentence would only have meaning if it could be demonstrated that the only way that Indonesia could have achieved these growth rates is by being ruled by a psychotic, corrupt, brutal, mass-murdering tyrant. The examples of other countries in the region suggest this is nonsense.

In any case, is anyone going to be brave enough to suggest that the East Timorese, equally, are ‘conflicted’ over Suharto’s ‘legacy’?

5

Stephen Downes 01.29.08 at 12:59 pm

In the news today, Indonesian dictator Suharto is still dead.

6

Barry 01.29.08 at 1:12 pm

hidari: “Needless to say, this sentence would only have meaning if it could be demonstrated that the only way that Indonesia could have achieved these growth rates is by being ruled by a psychotic, corrupt, brutal, mass-murdering tyrant.”

Actually, no. It could have meaning that ‘there was some fine economic growth, and I don’t give a sh*t about the hundreds of thousands of ‘eggs’ broken for that nice omelet’. That would be a valid meaning, and probably be the mainstream belief among Very Serious People in the USA’s foreign policy establishment.

7

Doug M. 01.29.08 at 1:19 pm

I wouldn’t say it couldn’t have been done without the killing. Almost certainly it could have been. Suharto’s invasion of East Timor was very much a war of choice, and the subsequent brutal oppression of the Timorese was not “necessary” by any reasonable political calculus.

That said, there are things that would have been hard to avoid. Suharto came to power in a bloodbath, but his feckless predecessor shares much of the blame for this. The annexation of Irian Jaya was already in train when he came to power — Indonesia assumed control of the territory in 1962. Suharto was nepotistic and corrupt, but almost any plausible alternative would have been too. And while Suharto’s corruption was massive (his personal fortune was estimated at being well over a billion dollars), it wasn’t the Mobutu Sese Seko / Ferdinand Marcos style corruption that left the rest of the country impoverished.

– In fact, Marcos makes a good comparandum. When he took power, the Philippines were richer and more peaceful than Indonesia, and had a far brighter future. When he left, the country was a Third World hellhole, poorer, more corrupt, more violent and disease-ridden and miserable than when he came in. And twenty years after his departure, the Filipinos are still struggling to overcome the damage he did. I think “poisonous legacy” fits Marcos much better than Suharto, and I think it also shows just how far from the bottom Suharto was: pause to imagine what Indonesia would look like today if they’d had a Marcos instead of what they got.

To be clear, I’m not saying that Suharto’s brutality and corruption was necessary for economic growth. I am saying that, although he was brutal and corrupt, he /also/ presided over a period of very rapid growth, which led to a vastly better life for tens of millions of people.

I truly don’t know what sort of moral calculus should be applied in this case. Suharto was a mass murderer and a thief on an immense scale. But he also brought prospetity, human development, health and schools, electricity and medicine and clean water. I do think that calling him “one of the worst political criminals of [the 20th century]” is simplifying a complicated story. He wasn’t a cartoon villain.

Doug M.

8

Reality Man 01.29.08 at 1:44 pm

Almost all of the economic gains went to 1) Suharto’s family or 2) the small, wealthy Chinese minority. The average Indonesian didn’t really see themselves become richer during his reign. That is a big reason why during the anti-Chinese pogroms following his fall that led to massive Chinese flight out of the country (often to Singapore, etc.), the resulting capital flight halved per capita GDP in Indonesia: only a small handful of people were holding a lot of the wealth. According to Transparency International, he was the most corrupt leader since 1980, stealing more than anybody else, which is almost hard to do in a world with the likes of Mugabe.

9

MFB 01.29.08 at 1:50 pm

I would guess that this explains why Doug M likes him.

10

Barry 01.29.08 at 2:21 pm

reality man, that’s a very important post. It’s easy to set up a nasty resource-extraction economy with the help of foreign companies and governments, to suck wealth out of a country, with some retained by the elite, but the rest of the country suffering.

11

Mrs Tilton 01.29.08 at 2:25 pm

Doug @7,

I think “poisonous legacy” fits Marcos much better than Suharto

Isn’t that really just saying that Suharto front-loaded the poison more than Marcos did?

I’m no expert on Asia, but I’m fairly certain the Marcos regime murdered a lot fewer people than Suharto’s did during his reign. Surely that’s got to count for something.

I’m happy to acknowledge there’s an important difference between “was a horrifically oppressive dictator but set up the country for solid economic improvement later” and “was a somewhat more moderately oppressive dictator but left his country economically hosed for a generation”. But I also think that difference, while important, is largely aesthetic. And, to the extent it’s not, I’m not sure Marcos comes off worse for the comparison.

12

Doug M. 01.29.08 at 2:29 pm

“1) Suharto’s family or 2) the small, wealthy Chinese minority.”

I’m sorry, but that’s just not true.

Doug M.

13

abb1 01.29.08 at 2:39 pm

That spectacular economic growth back in the 70s and 80s – doesn’t it have something to do with their oil exports and high oil prices during those decades? I understand, most of it is gone now…

14

Doug M. 01.29.08 at 2:46 pm

Mrs. Tilton: it wasn’t that he set up for economic growth later. It’s that he provided ~25 years of actual economic growth. Marcos hosed his country during /and/ after his time.

As for Indonesia being a nasty resource-extraction economy that enriches just an elite, no, that’s not quite right either. It’s not Norway, or even Mexico, but it’s not Nigeria either. A lot of the energy money has been spread around, and it’s jump started a lot of economic development.

And to return to the “enriched only his family” meme: it’s hard to find good Gini numbers for Indonesia before the late 1980s. However, it doesn’t appear that inequality increased dramatically over Suharto’s reign. Remember, 1965 Indonesia was already a very unequal society — a small elite owning everything that mattered, and a mass of immiserated peasants. So it moved from being a very unequal, desperately poor country to being a very unequal, but on average much less poor country.

While we don’t have good Gini numbers, we do have good human development statistics. And those make very clear that, yes, the average Indonesian was far better off in 1997 than in 1965: healthier, better educated, more likely to have access to clean water, you name it.

I mean, life expectancy increased by over 20 years under Suharto. Infant mortality dropped by over eighty percent. The number of households with both indoor plumbing and electricity went from less than five percent to more than fifty percent. Absolute poverty dropped from 60% to around 14%. Etcetera, etcetera.

If you don’t like numbers, there’s another thing to try: you could go to Indonesia and, you know, ask a freakin’ Indonesian.

I was in and out of the country for a decade, and my experience was consistent: even the ones who hated Suharto — and if you’re an English-speaking Westerner, you’ll encounter a disproportionate number of those — acknowledged that the country got much, much more prosperous during his time. And a large minority still respect and admire the man, for exactly that reason.

I dunno. I’m getting the vibe that I’m violating a consensus here. People seem to be getting pissed that I’m Defending Teh Evil. Raising millions out of poverty shouldn’t be considered in the final tally? Or only when it’s done by “good” leaders? What am I missing?

Doug M.

15

Hogan 01.29.08 at 2:49 pm

So the defense of Suharto is “like a corrupt Stalin, but with most of the GDP growth and only half the genocide.” Sounds about right.

16

Hidari 01.29.08 at 3:10 pm

‘I dunno. I’m getting the vibe that I’m violating a consensus here. People seem to be getting pissed that I’m Defending Teh Evil. Raising millions out of poverty shouldn’t be considered in the final tally? Or only when it’s done by “good” leaders? What am I missing?’

You’re not missing anything. I’m just wondering if you realise that you sound exactly like those Stalinists in the ’50s and ’60s who mumbled about ‘mistakes’ made by Uncle Joe, but who went on to go on about rising literacy rates, huge rates of economic growth, ‘the electrification of the Soviet Union’, the ‘absence’ of unemployment, and so on.

17

Doug M. 01.29.08 at 3:15 pm

Good comparison! Because when faced with popular unrest, Uncle Joe resigned, stepped down peacefully, and handed power to a constitutional successor.

Doug M.

18

DC 01.29.08 at 3:19 pm

Russians are also conflicted about Stalin – in fact he seems quite popular in opinion polls. And I’m guessing Russian/Soviet GDP was bigger in 1953 than 1917 or 1929 (if that’s when Stalin can be deemed to have taken over).

19

Hogan 01.29.08 at 3:35 pm

when faced with popular unrest

Which was when, exactly?

20

engels 01.29.08 at 3:35 pm

Good comparison! Because when faced with popular unrest, Uncle Joe resigned, stepped down peacefully, and handed power to a constitutional successor.

Why is that of overriding importance?

21

ajay 01.29.08 at 3:46 pm

It’s pretty well unquestionable that, economically, the USSR was a lot better off in 1953 than in 1929 – this is quite a thought given that the period includes a) a Great Depression b) the murder of millions of citizens, especially and disproportionately leading members of industry and government c) the invasion, occupation and despoliation of most of the productive bits of the country d) the removal of the rest of the industrial economy to the other side of the Urals and e) the murder or death in war of millions more citizens.

But, and I think this is the point that doug is missing, the economic growth could have happened without Stalin, and I think the same may be true of Suharto. Is it particularly difficult to produce impressive growth figures in an Asian country with vast natural resources, no external threats, a large and thriving merchant class and a generally poor population (so starting from a low base)? I mean, as long as you can refrain from stealing everything you can get your hands on (Marcos) or killing everyone who wears spectacles (Pol Pot) good economic growth seems to be largely independent of government.

22

P O'Neill 01.29.08 at 3:47 pm

If you had to choose, would you rather be a median Nigerian or a median Indonesian?

Yes Suharto was a bastard. There are worse ones.

23

abb1 01.29.08 at 3:47 pm

I dunno, maybe it’s inevitable that a third world country after gaining independence has to go thru this period of unification, centralization, consolidation of power.

24

Barry 01.29.08 at 3:58 pm

Doug, it might rather be that the ‘consensus’ is to be very, very skeptical of people praising some dictator.

25

Hidari 01.29.08 at 4:04 pm

This whole debate simply proves, beyond all shadow of a doubt, that if Hitler had indeed been assassinated in ’39, there would be an extremely sizeable section of ‘popular opinion’ (not least in academia) who would have been prepared to praise him as a ‘moderate’ who led Germany away from ‘communist extremism’ who ‘led Germany out of the depression’ who carried out ‘economic reforms’ that were necessary for ‘economic growth’ and so on and yada yada yada.

26

novakant 01.29.08 at 4:09 pm

I was in and out of the country for a decade, and my experience was consistent. (…) And a large minority still respect and admire the man, for exactly that reason.

You know, a large minority of Germans still respected and even admired Hitler (and yes, I don’t care about Godwin’s law) a decade or two after his demise. And then you had all the people saying “while I hold no brief for Hitler, you have to grant him that he built the Autobahn (not true actually), achieved a 100% employment rate and saw to it that you could walk the streets safely at night blahblahblah”.

Now had you gone to Germany in the early sixties, it would have certainly been your right to side with these people against those who condemned Hitler unequivocally – the position of the latter is now the consensus among 99% (or whatever the exact number) of Germans and it’s instant political suicide to suggest anything else. So if you want to be on the losing side of history keep making excuses for genocide.

27

Righteous Bubba 01.29.08 at 4:16 pm

Let us raise our glasses then: here’s to economically wise genocidal dictators.

28

lemuel pitkin 01.29.08 at 4:22 pm

I mean, life expectancy increased by over 20 years under Suharto. Infant mortality dropped by over eighty percent. The number of households with both indoor plumbing and electricity went from less than five percent to more than fifty percent. Absolute poverty dropped from 60% to around 14%.

A few minutes poking round on the Human Development Report website confirm the life expectancy and infant mortality claims here, and I assume Doug M. knows what he’s talking about on the others.

These strike me as important facts. They represent a transformation of life, for the better, for millions and millions of people. Perhaps we in the West sometimes overvalue political and civil freedoms as opposed to freedom from extreme poverty.

More generally, I think we should all try to cultivate our negative capability, and be able to see both that Suharto was a brutal, corrupt dictator and that his regime involved an enormous improvement in the lives of Indonesia’s poor, quite unlike that of most corrupt dictators. Neither fact cancels out the other, and it’s not necessary or, probably, even possible for us to weigh them into a single moral judgement.

And if you could say the same thing about Stalin, well then, you could say the same thing about Stalin. Not every country is fortunate enough to modernize as painlessly as the US or Australia.

29

Aulus Gellius 01.29.08 at 4:23 pm

Can I ask what exactly is at stake here (and, for that matter, in similar arguments about Pinochet, Castro, etc.)? I mean, it seems to me that the two sides in this argument are “Yes he was a terrible dictator, but we must remember that he improved Indonesia’s economy” vs. “Yes he improved Indonesia’s economy, but we must remember that he was a terrible dictator.”
So what’s being debated? Whether other countries’ governments supported him too much or too little when he was in power? Whether Indonesia would now be better off if he had failed to gain power? Whether he’s going to heaven or hell? What?

30

lemuel pitkin 01.29.08 at 4:26 pm

a large minority of Germans still respected and even admired Hitler

And you don’t see any relevant difference between Germany and Indonesia here?

31

lemuel pitkin 01.29.08 at 4:29 pm

Aulus Gellius-

Fair question. One thing at stake is the facts of the matter. For instance, I’m pretty sure that Pinochet did NOT preside over a significant improvement in the lives of poorer Chileans.

32

abb1 01.29.08 at 4:32 pm

There’s gotta be more to the story than personality of the individual associated with a 20-30-year long socio-economic/geopolitical phenomenon. Once again, the cause and effect relationships are not quite obvious here – do certain events take pace because a certain individual is in control, or does the right individual get elevated because these events must take place according to the laws of nature?

33

geo 01.29.08 at 4:35 pm

For Christ’s sake, Doug isn’t toasting Suharto, denying his brutality, or claiming that said brutality was necessary to Indonesia’s progress. He’s simply pointing out the progress, which I, for one, was unaware of and most interested to hear of.

So, Doug, what (and who) was responsible for the progress you cite?

34

lemuel pitkin 01.29.08 at 4:39 pm

I’m curious about the same question as abb1 and geo. Especially in light of the contrast with the Phillipines, where to a naive outside a lot of the same structural factors would seem to apply.

35

cure 01.29.08 at 4:49 pm

Doug,

The only thing you’re violating is the rule that left-wing and right-wing leaders are not to be treated equally. I’m as moderate as they come, and as such I am completely willing to rectify the fact that leaders can be both brutal on human rights and also do wonders for broader human development. When Deng Xiaoping died, did we likewise see notes about his distasteful repression in Western China, or did we see a balanced description of his life? Surely there’s a spectrum of leader quality, and I hope you’ll excuse me for not seeing Suharto in the same league as Pol Pot.

36

Z 01.29.08 at 4:52 pm

The bottom line to me is the following: invading east Timor and slaughtering communists were decisions Suharto himself took, he could have acted otherwise, he did not; presiding over an economy is something entirely different than presiding over a war, involving thousands of actions completely independant of Suharto’s mind and intentions.

Or in short, with no Suharto, no genocide in East Timor (the fact that there would have been no slaughter of communists is a little more debatable in my opinion). No Suharto, in all likelihood a comparable economic growth (or at least so I believe, and will until someone points to specific insights and decision of Suharto which had crucial effects on development).

So no, I don’t hold a brief for Suharto, even on second thoughts.

37

Jim S. 01.29.08 at 4:59 pm

A couple of comments:

America did not modernize painlessly. White ethnic immigrants were living in slums in the late 19th century that were just as bad as the slums of the late 20th century.

If Sukarno had won in 1965, would things have been any different? There would likely have been as great bloodshed as with Suharto.

38

Mrs Tilton 01.29.08 at 5:00 pm

Agree with geo @34. The reaction of many people to Doug’s comment would be appropriate if he were offering an apologia for Suharto. I dont think I agree with him altogether, but I also don’t think he’s an apologist.

Perhaps the analogy is to a man who beats his wife and molests his children, but provides increasingly well for them materially, then dies and leaves them a lot of money. Nothing in that fact pattern mitigates his assholery. But there is an important additional way in which he didn’t f*ck them over. A member of his family could be grateful for that fact without being grateful for him.

39

Z 01.29.08 at 5:02 pm

Especially in light of the contrast with the Phillipines, where to a naive outside a lot of the same structural factors would seem to apply.

I am far from being a specialist, but even from my naïve point of view, there were very significant differences between Indonesia and the Phillipines in terms of historical commercial integration and sociological organization of the underlying societies. A social history of centuries of trade makes a big difference, even at the outset of the XXI century.

40

novakant 01.29.08 at 5:06 pm

And you don’t see any relevant difference between Germany and Indonesia here?

No, they’re totally the same: Hitler and Suharto, Nazis and Suharto supporters, Germany and Indonesia, they only look different and the food is better in Indonesia.

Give me a break, when that guy in the Commitments says: “The Irish are the blacks of Europe”, he doesn’t really mean that literally, you know, rather he is pointing out certain similarities among otherwise very dissimilar entities.

41

lemuel pitkin 01.29.08 at 5:09 pm

Mrs. Tilton-

The one thing that analogy elides is that the value of economic growth is strongly dependent on where you start. The constraints on freedom and happiness in a rich country aren’t really affectd by a higher GDP, but those in a poor country often are. And Indonesia in 1970 was really poor.

42

Hidari 01.29.08 at 5:16 pm

“Surely there’s a spectrum of leader quality, and I hope you’ll excuse me for not seeing Suharto in the same league as Pol Pot.”

It’s quite possible that Suharto was responsible for more deaths (directly) than Pol Pot, although no one will ever really know for sure. To quote the Wikipedia:

‘Various studies have estimated the death toll at between 740,000 and 3,000,000*, most commonly between 1.4 million and 2.2 million, with perhaps half of those deaths being due to executions, and the rest from starvation and disease‘. (emphasis added). (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cambodia_under_Pol_Pot)

So it’s possible that, by a conservative estimate, Pol Pot ‘only’ murdered about 750,000 people, with the other 750,000 being ‘excess deaths’ (of the kind we are familiar with from the Lancet Iraq studies).

Suharto murdered 500,000 in his initial putsch, and another couple of hundred thousand (probably) in East Timor, West Papua etc. So Suharto could easily have been directly responsible for more deaths than Pol Pot. (Pol Pot probably ‘made up the numbers’ in terms of ‘excess deaths’ on the other hand).

I hate to have to point out the obvious, but the reason that Hitler and Mao (and others) are considered ‘great monsters’ (despite their record on ‘economic growth’ and ‘poverty reduction’) is because they made the terrible mistake of not being on ‘our’ side: whereas Suharto was. That’s the only difference.

*Note: the 3 million estimate is from the Vietnamese immediately after they invaded Cambodia and is not credible.

43

lemuel pitkin 01.29.08 at 5:19 pm

Germany was already a rich country when Hitler came to power. It was going to still be a rich country 25 years later almost no matter what. Not true of Indonesia.

Facts do matter.

44

rea 01.29.08 at 5:37 pm

like Cher, Suharto had only one name.

Cher LaPierre Bono Allman had only one name?

45

Random African 01.29.08 at 5:41 pm

It’s quite possible that Suharto was responsible for more deaths (directly) than Pol Pot, although no one will ever really know for sure.

I thought the consensus was that Pol Pot’s number get really impressive when you take into consideration the (small) total population of Cambodia and the (short) length of his rule.

46

Donald Johnson 01.29.08 at 6:22 pm

“I thought the consensus was that Pol Pot’s number get really impressive when you take into consideration the (small) total population of Cambodia and the (short) length of his rule.”

If we’re going by a per capita killed per year measure, then Suharto’s record in East Timor in the late 70’s is comparable to Pol Pot’s.

47

Donald Johnson 01.29.08 at 6:29 pm

That said, Pol Pot was much worse for his own country and has no positive accomplishments to his credit (and if Suharto isn’t responsible for the economic growth in Indonesia, at least he didn’t do as much damage as Pol Pot would have).

I don’t have a problem with saying that dictator A killed a lot of people but has positive accomplishments B and C to his credit (if true). Amartya Sen does this kind of thing with Mao Zedong.

48

Colin Danby 01.29.08 at 6:34 pm

Nice economic growth, pity about the half million murdered.

The killings of 65-66 were not, as Doug M’s shameful apologias claim, mere civil conflict that can be blamed on someone else. They were a deliberate, months-long, organized campaign to murder noncombatant civilians, rank-and-file members of a variety of organizations. This was Suharto’s work. I don’t have time to do a proper job on this this morning, but this example is typical:

(from http://manerly.multiply.com/journal/item/4)
“My great uncle was killed in 1965 because they said he was listed as being a member of PKI (Partai Komunis Indonesia/Communist Party of Indonesia). He actually joined an organization for farmers – PETANI/BTI (Pergerakan Petani/Barisan Tani Indonesia) -at that time, 9 million Indonesians had joined this organization that was associated with the PKI party. Others in his village (Including women & teenagers) that had joined GERWANI (Gerakan Wanita Indonesia/Indonesian Women’s Movement) and Pemuda Rakyat (People’s Youth), SOBSI (Sentral Organisasi Buruh Seluruh Indonesia/All Indonesian Central Labor Organization/Workers Union), and other organizations that were claimed (by Suharto & his cronies) to have communist influence in them at that time were also killed or sent to camps and prisons.”

Memory matters, and especially when the killers succeed and do their best to suppress the memory of those killed.

A few more links.

http://www.guardian.co.uk/obituaries/story/0,,2247822,00.html
http://dannyreviews.com/h/The_Indonesian_Killings.html
http://www1.umn.edu/humanrts/bibliog/indonesia.html
http://www.lib.latrobe.edu.au/AHR/archive/Issue-May-1998/byrne.html
http://www.asia-pacific-action.org/southeastasia/indonesia/publications/military/crimes.htm
http://www.namebase.org/scott.html

And it is bizarre not to hold Suharto responsible for events in 1969.
http://www.gwu.edu/~nsarchiv/NSAEBB/NSAEBB242/index.htm
http://www.gwu.edu/~nsarchiv/NSAEBB/NSAEBB128/index.htm

At another time we might ask what part of the economic growth was due to the looting of the natural resources of the outer islands.

49

Hidari 01.29.08 at 6:39 pm

Yes, I should have made clear that whereas in absolute terms Suharto may well have killed more than Pol Pot, Pol Pot was responsible for more deaths as a percentage of total population.

On the other hand, Pol Pot’s murders were, more or less, ‘evenly spread’ amongst Cambodia as a whole, whereas Suharto’s (after the initial bloodbath that brought him to power) tended to be geographically localised. So you could argue that what Suharto got up to in West Papua or East Timor was just as bad as Pol Pot’s Cambodia. But as I say, it’s unlikely that we will ever really know for sure.

50

Random African 01.29.08 at 6:45 pm

Honestly I have a hard time totally atributing West Papua and East Timor to Suharto. Those invasions and the killings that followed were the result of indonesian muscular nationalism and I doubt Sukharno or anyone else would have acted differently.

51

Matt 01.29.08 at 7:16 pm

_”Cher LaPierre Bono Allman had only one name?”_

That might well have been what The Man called her, but we all well know that _in truth_ she’s just _Cher_, and how could anyone want to me more?

52

lemuel pitkin 01.29.08 at 7:52 pm

At another time we might ask what part of the economic growth was due to the looting of the natural resources of the outer islands.

Indicator………~1975……..~2000
Infant Mortality…104……….28
Life Expectancy….49………..69
Human Dev. Index..0.47………0.69

It’s trends like these that are the issue, not economic growth per se.

Nobody here is defending Suharto’s brutality or his regime in general, but I really don’t see what’s gained by ignoring or denying the huge improvement in life for ordinary Indonesians that evidently took place during his rule. Especially since such improvement was definitely not the rule for poor people in most parts of the world.

53

SamChevre 01.29.08 at 8:01 pm

Would one of you with access to the Human Development Report post the comparable statistics for India? That would seem to be the best comparison to Indonesia.

54

abb1 01.29.08 at 8:09 pm

This was Suharto’s work.

Yet if you look at the bigger picture it’s obvious that around that time pretty much the same kind of atrocities were going on all over the world – Greece, all over Central and South America, Congo, Iran and so on. Pin this on evil man Suharto – and you won’t understand anything at all.

55

geo 01.29.08 at 8:16 pm

As lemuel points out (#52), no one here is defending Sukarno. He will surely burn in hell for all eternity, alongside Pol Pot, Mobutu, Stalin, and Kissinger. The interesting question is, how were those quality-of-life improvements in Indonesia obtained? Do they yield any lessons for other developing countries? Maybe they don’t, but it’s surely worth asking.

56

geo 01.29.08 at 8:17 pm

Ouch! So sorry, I meant Suharto, not Sukarno.

57

Dave 01.29.08 at 8:22 pm

“Not every country is fortunate enough to modernize as painlessly as the US or Australia”

With apologies, but an old punchline: ‘What do you mean “we”, paleface?’

On the larger point, you are counting dancing angels here. Suharto was evidently a f*cker. So have been the majority of postcolonial leaders. The real question is why?

58

Colin Danby 01.29.08 at 8:23 pm

1. I yield to none in my enthusiasm for economic growth. But it is repulsive to put that into some sort of balance with wholesale, organized, official murder of civilian noncombatants. Some things are not fungible.

2. I throw up my hands at the ethical blindness of other commenters. Another Indonesian tyrant might have done the same things. Yes, and then we would hold that person responsible. The bloody 20th century had other murderous tyrants. Yes, and we hold them responsible for what they did. Suharto had accomplices. Yes, and they should be held responsible too.

59

Hidari 01.29.08 at 8:52 pm

‘Honestly I have a hard time totally atributing West Papua and East Timor to Suharto. ‘

Well, of course, you could blame West Papua on Sukarno: after all it was during his ‘watch’ that the Indonesians first started meddling. So as far as East Timor is concerned, you might well be right. Sukarno might well have done the same. To claim that ‘anyone else’ might have done the same, on the other hand, is self-evidently nonsense. Suharto didn’t HAVE to invade, and there were good reasons not to. But he was egged on by the US and the rest is history. But other leaders (not least, democratically elected ones) might well have behaved differently.

60

Doug M. 01.29.08 at 9:03 pm

Economic growth absent Suharto: well, you can look at growth under his predecessor, Sukarno. There wasn’t much. Trend under Sukarno was ~3%, which barely covered population growth.

Relevant comparanda: I’d point to the Philippines, Burma, Papua New Guinea, and India, more or less in that order. All of them are multi-ethnic and post-colonial; Burma and PNG are also resource-rich. All did a lot worse during this period than Indonesia under Suharto. Burma and the Philippines were both richer than Indonesia in 1965. By 1997, both had fallen far behind.

I don’t think it’s a “shameful apologia” to note that Suharto doesn’t bear full responsibility for the deaths in 1965. Sukarno had maneuvered the country into a position where violence was inevitable. While Suharto was the most powerful figure in the military, at that point he was no more than _primus inter pares_, and his fellow generals were complicit in both the planning and execution — in fact, pretty much the whole officer corps, top to bottom, was champing at the bit. Later, much of the killing was done by local elites eager to settle scores. Suharto bears criminal responsibility, no question, but he doesn’t stand in the same relationship to the killings as, say, Stalin to the Great Famine.

N.B., “Not full responsibility” is not the same as “no responsibility”, and to say “it wasn’t him alone” is not the same as saying “he’s not culpable”. This is an educated and thoughtful readership, and one would think this would be a pretty obvious distinction. Bringing out some of the complexity of the history (and it was damnably complicated) should not trigger swift and heated accusations of being an apologist for genocide.

Finally, as to Suharto’s departure from office: his regime was authoritarian, but not so oppressive that people didn’t dare protest. And when unrest grew strong enough, he didn’t break out the machine guns; he stepped down, passed office to a constitutional successor, and retired to private life. That’s not typical behavior for a murderous dictator; they usually either cling to power to the last bullet, or flee the country. The fact that Suharto retired but stayed says something about his relationship to the country and to the rule of law.

One thing that people miss about Indonesia is that, for a country at its level of development, it has a very strong civil society. This is in large part due to developments under Suharto. By the eve of the crisis, Indonesia had already evolved, in rudimentary form, the organs of a modern liberal state. The press was free, as long as it didn’t attack the wrong people too vigorously. It was possible to win judgments against the government, and get them enforced, as long as nobody too powerful was implicated. Opposition parties were permitted, as long as they didn’t seriously threaten the ruling party’s hold on power. Anyone could travel freely anywhere in the country, except East Timor. There was complete freedom of religion, as long as you weren’t an Acehnese talking about replacing Jakarta’s corrupt rule with clean shari’a. NGOs — foreign and Indonesian — were ubiquitous. There was no formal censorship. Indonesians travelled freely abroad.

John’s original post called it “one of the tightest dictatorships in the region”. With all respect to John, that’s just not right. In Suharto’s last few years Indonesia was more free than contemporary China, Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia, or Burma, and not far behind the contemporary Philippines or Malaysia. It was firmly in the middle of the Asian league, neither particularly pleasant nor horribly bad.

Indonesia in 1998 wasn’t a “dictatorship”. It was an authoritarian state ruled by a corrupt but energetic and ambitious elite: far from free, but already more liberal than, say, Putin’s Russia today… and unlike modern Russia, it was slowly becoming more free rather than less.

None of this is to downplay Suharto’s many and various crimes. It’s just, you know, that’s not the end of the story.

I note that the Indonesians, who ought to be the best judge of him, gave Suharto a state funeral… accompanied by a vigorous public debate about his legacy.

Doug M.

61

Chris Baldwin 01.29.08 at 9:12 pm

Wow, the comments to this post are very revealing.

62

Doug M. 01.29.08 at 9:18 pm

58: Colin, I’m not saying it is fungible. The economic success doesn’t offset the murder and theft. But that doesn’t mean the economic success should be ignored.

59: Hidari, other leaders might have behaved differently — but they’d have faced some of the same constraints, like Indonesian nationalism, the need to keep the Army happy, paranoid anti-Communism among Indonesia’s military, commercial and religious elites, you name it. I don’t think it’s irrelevant that Indonesia’s other dictator — Sukarno — behaved in pretty much the exact same way as Suharto WRT human rights within the nation and military aggression outside it.

A democratically elected leader — very unlikely given Indonesia’s history to that point, but let’s handwave it in — might well have done much the same; being democratically elected does not inoculate you against wars of choice, nor make you immune to the temptations of xenophobic nationalism.

Noting that leaders were under constraints pushing them towards stupid and evil decisions doesn’t absolve them from responsibility for those decisions. But we know that people operate in social contexts that affect choice. This is as true for dictators as for the guy who knocks over a corner store and shoots the cashier. The robber may be a desperate kid from a broken home who never had a chance — or he may just be a vicious asshole who likes shooting people. You can take the position that it doesn’t matter, crime is crime and he’s guilty; or you can look closer and try to suss out some whys. YMMV.

Doug M.

63

geo 01.29.08 at 10:19 pm

So, Doug, leaving aside all the vast and undisputed evil they did, what did Indonesia’s rulers do right to get those quality-of-life improvements? Were there some limits on corruption? Did they train a lot of engineers, economists, and civil servants? Demand a lot of technology transfer? Encourage indigenous enterpreneurs? Invest in infrastructure? Impose a minimum wage? Finance literacy programs? Build health clinics in remote areas? Don’t leave us in suspense.

64

Mrs Tilton 01.29.08 at 11:25 pm

Doug,

geo’s question @63 is a fair one. If I understand your argument correctly, your position is that Suharto (i) was a very vicious bastard indeed, yet (ii) for all that, achieved (or at least, presided over the achievement of) significant improvements in the material well-being of his subjects, or at least, those of them that he did not torture or kill (i.e., not only did he realise real economic gains, but these were not captured solely by an elite but rather redounded to the benefit of many or most of the populace). Fair enough. What, then, did he do (or suffer to be done) that made Indonesia, despite his tyranny, materially better off? IOW, what distinguishes him from Pinochet (a mass murderer who left his economically meh country meh better off) or Hitler (a mass murderer who left his rich country ruined)?

Chris @61,

that’s a deep and insightful comment, and adds a lot of value to this discussion.

65

BillCinSD 01.29.08 at 11:59 pm

Prior to Suharto’s stepping down, wasn’t Indonesia famous for using their army to police the western factories where, for instance, Nike shoes, were made?

66

engels 01.30.08 at 12:16 am

no one here is defending Sukarno (geo #55)

I hold no brief for Suharto… no, wait. I guess I sort of do. (Doug M #1)

—hold a brief for: advocate, defend —usually used in negative constructions (Merriam Webster)

67

engels 01.30.08 at 1:38 am

One thing that people miss about Indonesia is that, for a country at its level of development, it has a very strong civil society. This is in large part due to developments under Suharto. By the eve of the crisis, Indonesia had already evolved, in rudimentary form, the organs of a modern liberal state. (Doug #60)

BBC: The Lasting Legacy of Suharto

[…] The bloodshed which accompanied [Suharto’s] rise to power, after a mysterious coup attempt in 1965 which he blamed on Indonesia’s then-powerful Communist Party, was on a scale matched only in Cambodia in this region. Within the space of a few months at least half a million people were slaughtered in anti-communist pogroms that, at the very least, Suharto and the military tacitly encouraged.

The trauma of that period scars Indonesia to this day, and was a key tool in Suharto’s armoury. The spectre of a communist revival was used time and again, right up to the end of his rule, to discredit dissidents, even though the party was completely destroyed in the 1960s. In the wake of those killings, 200,000 people were detained, half of who remained in prison for more than a decade, most without trial. They included some of Indonesia’s best-known artists and intellectuals.

But it was his ability to manipulate the fear left over from the 1960s which was Suharto’s key talent. He created a network of intelligence agencies whose job it was to sniff out any dissent before it could gain momentum. Two million people were officially tainted with left wing associations right through to the 1990s – that might just mean having had a grandparent connected in some way with the old Communist Party. Such a taint could bar you from a government job, or a place at university. His intelligence agencies proved adept at provoking incidents that gave them a pretext to crush incipient opposition, or at persuading opponents to switch sides. The student movement was crushed in the 1970s, Islamic activists were either co-opted or jailed in a series of show trials in the 1980s, and independent media outlets were crippled in the mid-1990s. […]

68

SG 01.30.08 at 1:49 am

I would have thought the debate about what portion of the economic growth that Suharto’s economic policies were responsible for should depend a lot on aid flows. How much of Australian, US and Japanese aid at that time was going to Indonesia vs. comparable nations, and how much UN/WHO intervention was involved? Also was the change in life expectancy etc. between 1975 and now steady, or did it occur early, late? Did it correspond with economic growth? And how much of the reduced life expectancy in the early years was caused not by poverty but by the murder of a million people in their prime?

I have a suspicion that the improvement in life expectancy was due to intervention in childhood mortality, possibly due to large amounts of aid flows for those tasks; and the aid flows were a direct consequence of Suharto’s anti-communist brutality. There was a cold war on then, folks!

(And wouldn’t the best comparison be not with the Phillipines or PNG, but with Malaysia?)

69

lemuel pitkin 01.30.08 at 2:02 am

sg-

All very good questions. I hope Doug M. will offer some answers to them.

70

Mark 01.30.08 at 4:47 am

Doug M is right. It’s easy to take the moral high ground and say that all murderers are as bad as one another, but it doesn’t make for very useful history. The details are important, as are the circumstances, and I’m not sure that there is too much knowledge about either on the part of some of Doug’s critics.

I think Doug’s description of Soeharto’s role in 1965 is pretty accurate. Yes, he was part of a leadership group that lit the fuse, and clearly he bears responsibility for what happened, but it is not like he personally ordered a million people to be rounded up and killed, as some appear to have it. It’s also a legitimate part of the story that of all the realistically possible scenarios for Indonesia in the early to mid 1960s, what actually occurred was by no means the worst.

There’s even another side of the story with East Timor and West Papua. West Papua, for example, should have been part of Indonesia in the first place, and almost certainly would have failed if it had become independent, rather than being returned to Indonesia in 1969. Before Indonesia invaded East Timor, it was in the midst of a fratricidal war, one side of which had declared it intention to foment communist and secessionist movements in other parts of Indonesia. Moreover, for long stretches, there were positive aspects to Indonesian rule. Many observers believe that if a referendum on integration into Indonesia had been held in the mid-1980s, a majority of East Timorese would have supported it.

This is not to whitewash or defend these actions. But there is context there that many critics of Soeharto don’t understand or want to acknowledge.

On the economy, most Western economists who have detailed knowledge of the period give Soeharto a great deal of credit for pursuing policies that – at least up to 1997 – achieved rates of development and poverty reduction that are comparable to the best in the post-war period, albeit with some features built in (such as corruption and limitations on the rule of law) that contributed significantly to the set-backs of 1997-1998. And this was despite some significant handicaps such as geography and multi-ethnicity that many other nations didn’t fact.

That said, I don’t think it’s fair of the commenters in 63 and 69 to expect Doug to provide an economic history of Indonesia in a blog post – there’s a wealth of material available on the internet or at you local library if you are finding yourself under-educated on the topic.

Finally, I think this is an excellent summary of the state of Indonesian civil society at the end of Soeharto’s rule:

By the eve of the crisis, Indonesia had already evolved, in rudimentary form, the organs of a modern liberal state. The press was free, as long as it didn’t attack the wrong people too vigorously. It was possible to win judgments against the government, and get them enforced, as long as nobody too powerful was implicated. Opposition parties were permitted, as long as they didn’t seriously threaten the ruling party’s hold on power. Anyone could travel freely anywhere in the country, except East Timor. There was complete freedom of religion, as long as you weren’t an Acehnese talking about replacing Jakarta’s corrupt rule with clean shari’a. NGOs—foreign and Indonesian—were ubiquitous. There was no formal censorship. Indonesians travelled freely abroad..

In that, it was a hell of a lot closer to, say, Singapore than it was to Soviet Russia, or even China today.

71

amrood 01.30.08 at 6:03 am

the good die young

72

Doug M. 01.30.08 at 6:05 am

Okay, will try to take these in order.

63: Geo, several of your guesses are right on the money. Suharto’s economic development program went something like this:

– stabilize the currency (when Suharto came to power, the country was staggering under hyperinflation)

– build a government bureacracy that actually covers the whole country, with basic civil servants (postmaster, schoolteacher) in every village

– basic education everywhere — mandatory free elementary schools. Strong push for mass literacy.

– basic health care everywhere, even if it’s just a clinic with a “barefoot doctor” and basic medicines

– investment in public health programs — sewers, inoculation against childhood diseases, malaria eradication

– investment in basic agriculture — 1960s Indonesia was an almost entirely agrarian country, with ~80% of the population poor rice-growing peasants. Indonesia took better advantage of the Green Revolution than almost any other country.

– basic legal framework (contract law, company law, etc.) based on a mix of influences (Dutch law, Javanese legal traditions, shari’a), not too alien to be easily picked up

– in the cities, mass cheap public housing

– in the early years, crude attempts at import substitution. Later, a more sophisticated protectionist/export powerhouse model, with tax breaks and subsidies for major export industries. Also an import license system, which was a bad thing in the long run (artificial monopolies, massive corruption) but in the first decade helped keep the country’s balance of trade intact.

– starting in the 1970s, heavy investment in higher education. In law (for example), a dozen law schools were created in a few years around 1980. As a result, by the 1990s there was a large caste of lawyers accustomed to working from a fixed, written legal code; this group has since played a major part in the country’s progress towards a functioning democracy. Similarly, by the 1990s the country had a critical mass of technicians and engineers — enough to (for instance) run its oil industry with minimal foreign assistance.

– complex relationship with the large Chinese-Javanese (‘cukong’) minority, which can be summed up as “turn them loose to make money, as long as they don’t get too uppity”. The cukongs were discriminated against, and to some degree oppressed, but also protected — Suharto shared in the standard Javanese prejudices against them, but he was bright enough to realize that, in the near complete absence of an Indonesian business class, the Chinese would have to lead the way. Note that the violence against the cukongs came after Suharto had left the scene.

– starting in the late 1970s, massive investment in basic infrastructure, especially electrification.

Development in Indonesia was very much a top-down thing, especially in the first generation. Suharto used a series of five-year plans explicitly based on the old Soviet model. After about 1980 the five-year plans became less important, but in the first 15 years they were the main driver of development. N.B., Suharto was a pragmatist, and his economic policy was very much a buffet plate. Ideology played a huge role in politics — _pancasila_, the Five Principles, and all that — but not much in economy; over time, Indonesian planners borrowed from Stalin, Ataturk, the New Deal and the Chicago School with equal enthusiasm.

Suharto’s regime also made good use of both foreign aid (especially in the early years) and oil money. When he came to power, the country was massively in debt — Sukarno had borrowed billions, then wasted the money on prestige projects and a pointless military buildup. One of Suharto’s first moves was to sit down with the lenders and negotiate a debt repayment plan, which included donors assuming some of the debt. Much foreign aid was then channeled towards the basic stuff (education, health, agriculture) mentioned above.

The oil shortages of the 1970s gave the country much-needed hits of hard currency, but it’s worth noting that the first wave of economic growth (c. 1969-73) and the boom-boom years of hothouse growth (the 1980s) took place while oil prices were low. On the whole the oil sector was a distinctly mixed blessing, since it fed into massive corruption and tempted the country towards various bad ideas (like oil-burning electrical plants, or an inefficient and environmentally horrible chemical industry). That said, Indonesia has handled its oil better than most developing countries.

This is not to say that everything was hunky-dory. Far from it! Corruption was pretty much universal. A large chunk of the economy was in the hands of the military, either overtly or otherwise. A complex system of licenses gave state-sanctioned monopolies to a handful of wealthy families — with Suharto’s family in the lead, of course. Unions were allowed, but living and working conditions for the growing industrial worker class remained miserable for a long time, and activists who got too troublesome were harassed, tortured, or simply made to disappear. The banking system was backwards, corrupt, and poorly regulated — it would collapse in 1997-8, turning a bad situation into a disastrous one. The environment suffered horribly as tropical forests were turned into wood and furniture for export.

That said, the economic growth was real, sustained, and massive. Over 30 years, Indonesia went from being a miserably poor country to a middle-income one, and the quality of life for the average Indonesian was vastly improved.

And it didn’t “just happen”. Putting aside the interesting question of what government’s role in development /ought/ to be, there’s no question what the government’s role in Indonesia’s development /was/ — it was top-down and (especially in the first 15 years) largely driven by policy decisions made in Jakarta.

Must go to work now; will try to respond to others later.

Doug M.

73

John Quiggin 01.30.08 at 6:35 am

“John’s original post called it “one of the tightest dictatorships in the region”. With all respect to John, that’s just not right. In Suharto’s last few years Indonesia was more free than contemporary China, Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia, or Burma, and not far behind the contemporary Philippines or Malaysia. It was firmly in the middle of the Asian league, neither particularly pleasant nor horribly bad.”

I have a different view of “the region”, including Indonesia’s neighbours such as Australia and PNG and excluding China, which is a long way from Indonesia. And I don’t see a lot of difference between Suharto’s Indonesia and places like Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia, though Burma is certainly in a class of its own. In most of these places, you’re safe enough if you don’t threaten the government’s hold on power.

But as stated at #2, the post was not primarily an attempt at a full-scale assessment of Suharto. I might try a post addressing the general issue of “successful” dictators some time.

74

abb1 01.30.08 at 7:18 am

“…leaving aside all the vast and undisputed evil they did, what did Indonesia’s rulers do right to get those quality-of-life improvements?”

You can’t leave the evils aside, because killing communists and simps was exactly what they had to do to join the winning side. But I suspect what they did especially right was leaving just enough doubt that, unless the population is more or less satisfied, communists might come back any time.

75

Doug M. 01.30.08 at 7:56 am

68, 69: “How much of Australian, US and Japanese aid at that time was going to Indonesia vs. comparable nations, and how much UN/WHO intervention was involved?”

First question, I don’t know the answer. Second question, a fair amount in the early years, much less after 1980. By the 1990s, Indonesia had pretty much taken charge of its own public health — there were still aid programs, but they were a small (<10%) proportion of total health spending.

“Also was the change in life expectancy etc. between 1975 and now steady, or did it occur early, late? Did it correspond with economic growth?”

Steady, though it accelerated after the late ’70s.

“And how much of the reduced life expectancy in the early years was caused not by poverty but by the murder of a million people in their prime?”

Umm. That’s… not how life expectancy is calculated.

That said, Indonesian life expectancy barely budged from the 1950s until the late 1960s, when it started to creep upwards.

“I have a suspicion that the improvement in life expectancy was due to intervention in childhood mortality,”

Yes and no. Sharp reductions in childhood mortality account for roughly half. The other half is from a general improvement in public health.

N.B., there are known patterns to this sort of thing. There are states that have good child mortality rates but crappy health care otherwise, and vice versa. So it’s possible to break out (roughly) how much of a boost you’re getting from this as opposed to that.

“possibly due to large amounts of aid flows for those tasks”

In the early years, yes. Later, not so much. By the 1990s, foreign health aid was small, and much of it was going towards stuff like polio eradication — worthy, but not making a big shift in the nation’s numbers.

“and the aid flows were a direct consequence of Suharto’s anti-communist brutality.”

Some probably was, yes. On the other hand, WHO would have done about as much regardless, as would the Dutch.

“(And wouldn’t the best comparison be not with the Phillipines or PNG, but with Malaysia?)”

IMO no (though there are people who disagree). Malaysia was much smaller, with about 1/10 Indonesia’s population. Its ethnic situation was very different, as was its colonial history, the way its society was organized, and its level of integration into the world economy.

That said, you can make comparisons. Both countries are basically Malay, and the cultures are in some ways similar. Both decolonized around the same time. Both had to deal with wars in the aftermath of WWII. Both started as poor agricultural economies dominated by plantation exports and extraction industries. Both had to deal with large Communist movements.

One big difference is that Malaysia had competent-to-good postcolonial leadership, and Indonesia didn’t. Tunku Abdul Rahman had his little quirks, but he had some notion of how economic development worked, and his political instincts were superb. Sukarno, on the other hand… well, the kindest thing you can say is that he was erratic. Towards the end he may have been mentally unstable; certainly his health was declining. But even before that, he’d done a truly crappy job of running the country. By 1965 Indonesia was in a state of profound economic and political crisis, and that’s before the killing started.

Doug M.

76

Doug M. 01.30.08 at 8:25 am

70: Mark, you’re right.

I’ve written a couple of thousand words now on the economics, history and politics of Indonesia. Everything I’ve written is easily checkable with a few moments on google.

I do think — no offense intended to anyone — that some of the commenters don’t know much about Indonesia, except that Suharto was friends with Henry Kissinger and a very wicked man. Indonesia’s economic miracle is just not that well known. But I think I’ve put forward the basic facts, and people who are really interested should be able to carry on from here.

73: “I don’t see a lot of difference between Suharto’s Indonesia and places like Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia”

John, I must firmly disagree. Remember, we’re talking about the period 1966-1997. For most of those years, the countries in question were either at war or under very oppressive regimes indeed.

I’ve spent time in Cambodia and Laos. Contemporary Laos is still an authoritarian Communist one-party state, albeit a relatively mellow one; there’s no opposition, the press is firmly under government control, and troublemakers are still not allowed. 1990s Laos was much worse — back then, it was still doctrinaire Brezhnevite, with no private property, internal passports, and all the choking nonsense of late-period Communism.

Contemporary Cambodia is so poor and so utterly corrupt that it’s hard to speak of things like freedom and human rights in any meaningful fashion. And again, in the 1980s and ’90s, it was worse.

I note in passing that Hun Sen, the Cambodian Vicar of Brae, resembles Suharto in some respects — longevity, corruption, military background, pragmatism. Suharto’s hands were bloodier, but OTOH he did more for his people; Hun Sen has never shown any ambition beyond staying rich and on top, and is interested in economic development only insofar as it serves those prime directives.

Anyway: at all times from 1975 to 1997, Indonesia beat all three of those countries on any measure of you’d care to pick. It’s not even close. You can say “in all those countries you’re safe enough if you don’t threaten the government’s hold on power”, but that covers a very broad spectrum, from “eh” to “pretty bad”. (And I’d note that, in Cambodia, you can get jailed or killed for annoying powerful businessmen whether you’re opposing the government or not.)

“I might try a post addressing the general issue of “successful” dictators some time.”

It’s a fascinating topic. I’d like to see that.

Doug M.

77

novakant 01.30.08 at 8:33 am

Germany was already a rich country when Hitler came to power.

Your conveniently ignoring the economic and social instability of Germany in the late 20s early 30s.

It’s easy to take the moral high ground and say that all murderers are as bad as one another, but it doesn’t make for very useful history.

I don’t think anybody is saying that, though after a certain bodycount is reached it is indeed difficult to make clear ethical distinctions between mass murderers.

78

bernarda 01.30.08 at 9:53 am

I am amazed at some of the apologetics here for Suharto. When he seized power, he organized the mass murder estimated between 1 and 3 million people. He passed anti-Chinese laws and forced assimilation.

A CIA report(and the CIA aided him in his crimes)described the killings as ““the worst mass murders of the second half of the 20th century”. The U.S. Embassy would cross of the names on a list it had given Suharto as they were killed.

Suharto later went on to murder about 200,000 people in East Timor.

As to economic success, by coincidence the U.S. started to give him aid after he overthrew Sukarno. There was a cost though, as he gave away Indonesian resources to American companies.

79

AndrewJ 01.30.08 at 10:03 am

Suharto was a stooge for the US corporations which created Indonesia as a new version of the VoC corporate State. The economic success was the mining of West Papua and other colonies as well as the Javanese put to work in sweatshop factories for the United States until America moved those factories to Mexico.

80

GreatZamfir 01.30.08 at 10:44 am

bernarda, i don’t think apologetics is the right word here. Most of the commenters appear to be fully aware of the numbers you mention, and some say there is another part of the story that can’t be neglected.

If your point is that Suharto was a vile mass murderer, I don’t think anyone here will disagree. But passing judgement on dead people has only a limited value. If we want to learn anything from history, we can’t stop at ‘he was evil’, even though he was.

In my opinion, Doug M is a bit fast in blaming the atrocities on circumstances while giving the credit for the development to Suharto personally, but that might well be more the result of the format of the discussion than his balanced opinion. His facts do appear to check out, and he does seem to know more sides of the story.

81

Mark 01.30.08 at 10:51 am

And I don’t see a lot of difference between Suharto’s Indonesia and places like Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia, though Burma is certainly in a class of its own. In most of these places, you’re safe enough if you don’t threaten the government’s hold on power.

John, in many years of reading you here and at your blog, that is the most obviously wide-of-the-mark comment I’ve ever seen you make.

Vietnam and Laos are still one-party dictatorships where competing political organizations are not permitted, with no meaningful press freedom and no meaningful opposition political activity. And in each case, during the relevant comparison period, they were even stricter. Cambodia between 1979 and 1991 was substantially more repressive than Indonesia during the comparable period, although post 1989, you could make an argument level of political freedom was broadly comparable.

I think DougM’s post 60 is a pretty accurate summary of Indonesia’s state of play in the mid-1990s. I think the genuinely competitive political environment in the immediate post-Soeharto period is good evidence of the room for political organization while he was still in power.

I also wanted to echo one other point that Doug made previously. I have also travelled to Indonesia a number of times on business, and had a number of politically-oriented conversations with Indonesians (albeit reasonably well-off, English speaking ones). I would agree with Doug that these Indonesians would not recognize the portrait of Soeharto that has been painted by some of the more condemnatory posts here. Even the most critical will give you something along the lines of Doug’s posts: only very rarely will you find someone who has an unambiguous or unnuanced view of him, positve or negative.

82

novakant 01.30.08 at 11:28 am

“Yes, but” is a classic form of apologetics and as far as the ethical evaluation of a leader is concerned, I don’t really care what is mentioned in the latter part of such sentences, if the former part contains a few hundred thousand dead people. As doug m. has made clear in his very first sentence, he does hold a brief for Suharto, and holding a brief does mean advocating and defending someone. We can discuss the development of Indonesian society all day long, fine, but it won’t change my mind about Suharto being a brutal mass murderer deserving unreserved condemnation by anyone with a solid position on human rights. If you can’t pass unequivocal judgment on dead mass murderers, you’re more likely to tolerate the living ones. Such tolerance seems to increase proportionally to the geographical, racial and cultural distance of the countries in question to our own.

83

engels 01.30.08 at 11:35 am

Independent: Disgraced and vilified, Suharto dies aged 86

[…] Suharto’s successors as head of state — B.J. Habibie, Abdurrahman Wahid, Megawati Sukarnoputri and Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono — vowed to end corruption that took root under Suharto, yet it remains endemic at all levels of Indonesian society.

With the court system paralyzed by corruption, the country has not confronted its bloody past. Rather than put on trial those accused of mass murder and multibillion-dollar (euro) theft, some members of the political elite consistently called for charges against Suharto to be dropped on humanitarian grounds.

Some noted Suharto also oversaw decades of economic expansion that made Indonesia the envy of the developing world. Today, nearly a quarter of Indonesians live in poverty, and many long for the Suharto era’s stability, when fuel and rice were affordable.

But critics say Suharto squandered Indonesia’s vast natural resources of oil, timber and gold, siphoning the nation’s wealth to benefit his cronies and family like a mafia don.

Jeffrey Winters, associate professor of political economy at Northwestern University, said the graft effectively robbed “Indonesia of some of the most golden decades, and its best opportunity to move from a poor to a middle class country.”

“When Indonesia does finally go back and redo history, (its people) will realize that Suharto is responsible for some of the worst crimes against humanity in the 20th century,” Winters added.

Those who profited from Suharto’s rule made sure he was never portrayed in a harsh light at home, Winters said, so even though he was an “iron-fisted, brutal, cold-blooded dictator,” he was able to stay in his native country. […]

84

GreatZamfir 01.30.08 at 11:42 am

If you can’t pass unequivocal judgment on dead mass murderers, you’re more likely to tolerate the living ones.

I guess you have a point there.

85

Mark 01.30.08 at 11:54 am

If you can’t pass unequivocal judgment on dead mass murderers, you’re more likely to tolerate the living ones.

Bullshit. There is little that is unequivocal about history, and by refusing to understand history, you rob yourself of the ability to understand how and why things happen, which is essential if you want to affect the likelihood of them happening again.

Cheap moralizing can feel good, but it doesn’t usually do anyone much good.

86

Matt 01.30.08 at 12:13 pm

I recently worked on a law suit relating to a fraud done by some former members of the Indonesian state health-care system. The details of that are not important, but what was interesting was to learn how Indonesia has a quite interesting social health-care scheme, one that’s much less of a stupid design than whatever will be cooked up here in the US in the next few years. I don’t know how well it functions over all but as a plan it’s pretty interesting. (Basically, all employers must either pay into a state system that covers everyone or they can buy their way out of it by providing a higher level of coverage for their employees.) I don’t know when it started but it was certainly under Suharto since it was running for some time by the late 90’s the case I worked out had its origins.

87

Doug M. 01.30.08 at 12:14 pm

Jonathan Winters is the guy who thought that Indonesia’s military was behind the 2002 Bali bombing.

http://www.berubah.org/BaliBombing/Winters_1.htm

Because, you know, the subsequent crackdown would inevitably make the military stronger. (N.B., this is exactly what didn’t happen — over the last few years, the military’s power has waned steadily.)

I have some respect for Winters; he knows his economics, and his book on the World Bank wasn’t bad. But when it comes to Suharto and Indonesia, he’s got a big old axe to grind.

And when he says Suharto robbed Indonesia of the chance to move from being a poor to a middle class country… um, what? Indonesia DID move from being a poor to a (lower) middle class country. Per capita GDP, PPP adjusted, more than tripled. Indonesia went from being one of the poorest countries in the world to being solidly in the middle of the pack.

As for Suharto being disgraced and vilified, I must have imagined the state funeral and the day of national mourning.

Doug M.

88

abb1 01.30.08 at 12:24 pm

Novakant, you sound like Chomsky now. Not that anything’s wrong with that, but will you be able to maintain consistency here? After all, just one bomb dropped on Hiroshima instantly killed almost a hundred thousand civilians. The Iraq sanctions in the 90s apparently killed a half-million children. And so on.

89

engels 01.30.08 at 12:29 pm

Economist: King of the kleptocrats

What seems incredible now is the respect [the systemic corruption over which Suharto presided] was accorded at the time. In 1995 a senior World Bank official conceded that if one of Mr Suharto’s daughters won, say, a toll-road contract, it probably cost 20% more than it should, “but at least the road got built”. Unlike, say, Nigeria, Indonesia had devised what looked like an efficient form of corruption.

Its 25 years of healthy economic growth, relative fiscal discipline, impressive population control and poverty-reduction results made it a poster-boy for the development banks. Even The Economist declared it in mid-1997 well-placed to withstand the regional financial shock.

At least, however, we did not commend Mr Suharto’s dictatorial ways. Yet even they had fans. Lee Kuan Yew of Singapore and Mahathir Mohamad of Malaysia were more vocal spokesmen for “Asian values”—the notion, broadly speaking, that a bit of discipline never did an emerging economy any harm. But Mr Suharto was the great exemplar, turning a teeming, fractious nation into an economic powerhouse.

It turned out, however, to be a house of cards. No country suffered more from the financial crisis. The Indonesian rupiah crashed and the economy contracted. It took until 2004 for GDP to regain its 1997 levels. Mr Suharto was swept from power in the maelstrom. He has never been convicted of any crime, though one of his sons served almost five years in prison for ordering the murder of a judge. Criminal charges against Mr Suharto himself were dropped when he was declared too ill to stand trial in 2000…

90

trane 01.30.08 at 12:52 pm

Doug: SEVEN days of national mourning… (sigh).

But anyway: There is a lot of things that other regimes could have done with a) an initial low level of economic development, b) a low technological base that could be developeded easily by c) extensive natural resources, in particular oil during the 1970s when prices were high, and d) lots of foreign aid from allies.

91

Tracy W 01.30.08 at 1:09 pm

If you can’t pass unequivocal judgment on dead mass murderers, you’re more likely to tolerate the living ones. Such tolerance seems to increase proportionally to the geographical, racial and cultural distance of the countries in question to our own.

How odd. I’ve often found the opposite. For example, the English committed various atrocities against the Irish over the centuries. Oliver Cromwell’s invasion of Ireland was, to quote Wikipedia “the most brutal phase of a brutal war. By its close, up to a third of Ireland’s pre-war population was dead or in exile.” Yet, despite the geographic closeness of Ireland to England, and Cromwell being himself a born and bred Englishman so about as racially and culturally close as anyone can get, he died of old age. Many English tolerated him, and from my reading of English history, many of the ones who didn’t didn’t care one way or another how many Irish Cromwell killed, they wanted to restore the crown. In 2002, Oliver Cromwell was chosen as one of the top 10 Britons of all time by a British poll. See http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/entertainment/tv_and_radio/2341661.stm

It’s very easy to pass unequivocal judgment on mass murderers who live far away, in a completely different culture and are of a different race to yourself. I think there are several reasons that it gets harder to pass unequivocal judgment on ones close to you. Firstly, people who are geographically, racially and culturally close to the mass murderer and who survive often have benefited in some way from the murders, or have loved ones who did. In the case of Ireland, some British were given land after Cromwell’s reconquest there. Secondly, the forces leading the mass murderer to murder often apply more generally around the nation. For example, the Roman emperors who persecuted the early Christians were not doing so in a cultural vaccum, a fair number of other Romans thought Christainity was bad. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Persecution_of_early_Christians_by_the_Romans . In England, there was widespread prejudice against the Irish. Thirdly, if you identify with a group, geographically, or racially or culturally, then there is an impulse to defend any member of that group. Fourthly, if you live in a place, you pretty much have to have a more complex understanding of the goverment than just “unreserved condemnation”. The English government has been affected for centuries by the Interregnum, especially by the change in power between Parliament and the Monarch caused by the Civil War, the Interregnum and the Restoration.

Meanwhile, if I unequivocally condemn Suharto, what do I lose? He’s a different race, a different culture, thousands of miles away, any connection between what he did and my own prosperity or that of any of my family is terribly vague and easily deniable. I do lose a bit of knowledge about the world, but that’s a very minor cost compared to what is borne by an Indonesian. Or an Australian Prime Minister.

92

engels 01.30.08 at 1:12 pm

LONDON (AFP) – Indonesia’s former president Mohamed Suharto holds the dubious title of being the most corrupt world leader in recent history, heading a “Top 10″ corruption list.

Plundering a family fortune estimated at anything between 15 billion and 35 billion US dollars (12.4 to 29 billion euros) during his 32-year reign from 1967, Suharto was a clear winner, according to British-based Transparency International.

The group gave a corruption “top 10″ for global political leaders over the past 20 years, released to coincide with the release of its annual Global Corruption Report, a round-up of government graft worldwide. […]

“Political corruption undermines the hopes for prosperity and stability of developing countries, and damages the global economy,” said Transparency International chairman Peter Eigen.

“The abuse of political power for private gain deprives the most needy of vital public services, creating a level of despair that breeds conflict and violence.

“It also hits the pockets of taxpayers and shareholders worldwide. The problem must be tackled at the national and international level.”

93

GreatZamfir 01.30.08 at 1:17 pm

I guess the scary question here is, what if having a murderous but efficient dictator really is one of the few fast ways to get a country out of poverty. Mind, I am not saying it is, and I deeply hope it’s not true, but there are definitely people who do believe it.

94

Nich Hills 01.30.08 at 1:32 pm

#67, Engels, quoting the BBC:

Within the space of a few months at least half a million people were slaughtered in anti-communist pogroms that, at the very least, Suharto and the military tacitly encouraged.

At least half-a-million, perhaps closer to a million. And I’d lay these deaths at the feet of Suharto. After all, if a million people were killed by the armed forces in your country, wouldn’t you place the blame at the feet of the Commander-in-Chief?

Throw in the deaths in East Timor and you’ve a death toll comparable to that of Pol Pot. (Although Pol Pot’s armed forces caused, perhaps, less than 100,000 death directly; disastrous economic policies doing for the rest. No-one is accusing Suharto of disastrous economic policies.)

Nevertheless, we need to put the mass murder into context. Suharto’s armed forces killed fewer people than President Johnson’s. Yet there are plenty of revisionist historians who are eager to praise LBJ’s Voting Rights Act, Great Society and so on. Doug M is only continuing in that illustrious tradition. And don’t get me started on Richard Nixon, whose forces killed as many as LBJ’s. Particularly don’t get me started of Harry Truman who’s armed forces killed even more (mostly in the Korean War) and who is now revered as one of the greatest US presidents of the 20th century.

The fact that people are so ready to criticise Suharto, and not Truman, seems exemplary of the anti-Third World prejudices we see so often on blogs.

95

novakant 01.30.08 at 1:33 pm

Bullshit. There is little that is unequivocal about history, and by refusing to understand history, you rob yourself of the ability to understand how and why things happen, which is essential if you want to affect the likelihood of them happening again.

There are lots of eminent historians who can explain the Third Reich in great detail (and I can claim to have a fairly thorough understanding of these things myself). Yet, none of them would ever be anything less than unequivocal when it comes to passing a moral judgment on it and only a tiny minority is claiming that there was an inevitability to it. Analyzing, understanding and explaining historical events doesn’t entail subscribing to any form of determinism, nor does it entail justifying the deeds of historical figures. I would have thought that this differentiation was pretty commonplace.

but will you be able to maintain consistency here?

Well, of course it’s tricky and I’m not principally averse to employing a utilitarian calculus in these matters. But I set the bar for evaluating jus ad bellum / jus in bello or any action taken that is likely to involve lots of dead people very high.

96

engels 01.30.08 at 1:34 pm

For “scary question” read tired cliché.

97

lemuel pitkin 01.30.08 at 3:22 pm

what if having a murderous but efficient dictator really is one of the few fast ways to get a country out of poverty

No. Again, particulars matter. Most brutal, oppressive regimes do not see improvements in the living standards of the poor. That’s the whole reason we’re having this conversation about Suharto.

98

engels 01.30.08 at 3:29 pm

The fact that people are so ready to criticise Suharto, and not Truman, seems exemplary of the anti-Third World prejudices we see so often on blogs.

Or it might possibly have something to do with the fact that this thread is about Suharto, not Truman…

99

Tracy W 01.30.08 at 3:34 pm

The fact that people are so ready to criticise Suharto, and not Truman, seems exemplary of the anti-Third World prejudices we see so often on blogs.

Or that humans in general find it easier to criticise and condemn crimes when they are committed by people who are culturally distant.

I am just reading a book titled “Romans and Aliens” (by which the author meant Ancient Romans), which has a fair few examples of the Romans criticising other nations for crimes when they themselves had displayed equivalent faults.

100

Colin Danby 01.30.08 at 3:55 pm

One of the 20th century’s characteristic types was the modernizing tyrant — the ruler who claimed that progress justified brutality, and killed large swathes of their population in the name of development. Getting a grip on this means not treating the violence as a regrettable excess from which you can avert your eyes after a quick “of course…”, not having it as always the first part of a “yes but” construction (step back and ask yourself what’s the underlying pattern of thought that generates those constructions). The violence was integral to these regimes.
Indonesia is a particularly strong case here, because the mass killings of 65-66 essentially succeeded in their goals of eliminating a whole layer of peasant and other activism and frightening the survivors.

101

engels 01.30.08 at 4:05 pm

Or that humans in general find it easier to criticise and condemn crimes when they are committed by people who are culturally distant.

Oh puh-leeze.

102

engels 01.30.08 at 4:17 pm

Also, Tracy, it’s remarkable that whenever the subject of Soviet Russia comes up you do a fine impression of Anne Applebaum. Now that the topic is Suharto, you are starting to sound like Stanley Fish. If nothing else, one has to admire your range…

103

novakant 01.30.08 at 4:24 pm

No. Again, particulars matter. Most brutal, oppressive regimes do not see improvements in the living standards of the poor.

yeah, sure, if you consider Hitler, Lenin and Stalin exceptions to the rule, which would weaken your case slightly

104

Doug M. 01.30.08 at 4:54 pm

94. “After all, if a million people were killed by the armed forces in your country, wouldn’t you place the blame at the feet of the Commander-in-Chief?”

In 1965 in Indonesia, that would be Sukarno.

100. “The violence was integral to these regimes.”

There’s some truth to that — Suharto came to power in a bloodbath, and used that fact to scare people for a long, long time afterwards.

But, again, this seems to be addressing an argument I’m not making.

Doug M.

105

Tracy W 01.30.08 at 5:01 pm

Engels, I don’t know who Anne Applebaum and Stanley Fish are, nor do I know if you admire them or not. What are you trying to say?

106

Tracy W 01.30.08 at 5:10 pm

Or that humans in general find it easier to criticise and condemn crimes when they are committed by people who are culturally distant.

Oh puh-leeze.

Engels – I don’t understand your criticism. I am not arguing that humans *always* criticise and condemn crimes when they are committed by people who are culturally-distant, I am arguing that in general people find it easier to condemn crimes when they are committed by people who are culturally distant. Henry Kissinger is one man, and cannot disprove my theory by himself. I will also quote from the second link you provided: “Indonesia was a major site of U.S. energy and raw materials investment, an important petroleum exporter, strategically located near vital shipping lanes”. Therefore, though Suharto may have been culturally distant from the US, the US could plausibly have benefited from Suharto’s actions. Does it really surprise you that under the circumstances some Americans would have been inclined to be supportive of Suharto?

If it will make things clearer for you, I will amend my statement to humans in general find it easier to criticise and condemn crimes when they are committed by people who are culturally distant and the crime doesn’t benefit themselves in any obvious way.

107

lemuel pitkin 01.30.08 at 5:10 pm

if you consider Hitler, Lenin and Stalin exceptions to the rule, which would weaken your case slightly

Yes, Lenin and Stalin are exceptions to the general rule — they raise many of the same issues as Suharto.

As has been said repeatedly on this thread, including Hitler here is ridiculous. Germany was one of the richest, most developed countries in the world pre-Hitler. It’s Just. Not. True. that Naziism saw a major improvement in the living standards of poor Germans compared with any relevant counterfactual.

108

novakant 01.30.08 at 7:48 pm

You’re shooting yourself in the foot by bringing up counterfactuals.

My argument re Hitler was that there were apologists in Germany, who tried to “balance” the view of Hitler by pointing to his economic and social achievements. I compared these unfavourably with Suharto apologists who follow a similar strategy. In both cases there is some basis for the claim that lives were improved (for those who weren’t killed, incarcerated, or forced into service) and society brought forward during the reign of these dictators (you cannot dispute that there was a major economic and social crisis during the final years of the Weimar Republic and that during Hitler’s reign until the war years there was more “stability”, infrastructure was modernized and the standard of living among farmers, laborers and the formerly unemployed rose – and this is what the Hitler apologists kept referring to).

However, as has been discussed above, how much of this was due to the reign of these dictators is in dispute and the question if a counterfactual democratic, humane government could not have achieved similar things cannot be answered conclusively.

This leaves the Suharto- (or Stalin-, Hitler-) apologist with two options: either he argues that the economic and social transformation was closely connected to the dictatorial style of government, in which case he needs to make the morally unacceptable “you need to break a few eggs to make an omelette” case. Or he has to argue that the two are wholly independent, but then he cannot refute the objection that the economic and social gains could have just as well been achieved by a counterfactual, democratic government and thus his praise for the dictator’s achievements falls flat.

In the face of a couple of hundreds of thousands of dead people both fallback positions are a tad weak.

109

geo 01.30.08 at 8:20 pm

either he argues that …“you need to break a few eggs to make an omelette”. Or … his praise for the dictator’s achievements falls flat

Seems to me Doug is neither excusing Suharto nor praising him, but simply pointing out that some things got better during the years he was in power, possibly because of some of his policies. Isn’t the interesting question not precisely what circle of hell Suharto should be assigned to, nor even whether Doug is as nobly indignant as the rest of us about Suharto’s human rights violations, but rather: are there any useful lessons for developing countries from Indonesia’s experience?

110

abb1 01.30.08 at 8:41 pm

Novakant, but what about my deterministic argument: structural causes, and the dictator is merely a symptom.

For example, suppose there is a used car dealer named Suharto and he happens to be a crook. We could condemn Suharto and go look for an honest used car dealer, or we could analyze the market in used cars and possibly come to a conclusion that dishonesty is the only way this kind of business can be run. And if that’s the conclusion, then personalities of the individual used car dealers are not important, it’s a characteristic of the trade.

111

Ian 01.30.08 at 10:24 pm

109: Seems to me Doug is neither excusing Suharto nor praising him, but simply pointing out that some things got better during the years he was in power, possibly because of some of his policies. Isn’t the interesting question not precisely what circle of hell Suharto should be assigned to…?

I suggest Doug’s more controversial point is that, in evaluating Suharto’s undeniably major human rights violations, we should look at the complexities and not the cartoon. In that sense, it does matter which circle of Hell he’s assigned to. The difficulty in ranking Suharto alongside the Great Monsters Of The Twentieth Century is that probably all the killing in which he was complicit would have happened in some form or other (perhaps worse, perhaps not) regardless of the existence and career of Suharto the individual. This is especially the case with the 1965/66 massacres. In the cases of Aceh, West Papua and East Timor, and the repression of activists, a Suharto-less state would still have to be dominated by an ideology of prickly ultra-nationalism in which the armed forces take a lead role, but that’s a counterfactual it’s pretty hard to evade unless we add civil war and Balkanisation to the mix.

Does it make you an apologist for mass murder if you point out that a leader with serious blood on his hands was to a considerable extent trying to exploit/direct/control forces that would have spilled the blood anyway? Does suggesting that complexities peculiar to Indonesia are important (and Indonesia in 1965 was as complex as they come) amount to mitigating Suharto’s responsibility for murder? I don’t see a convincing case made for this.

112

engels 01.30.08 at 10:53 pm

Slightly amusing how this thread has now degenerated into a theological dispute over the true meaning of the Word of Doug.

113

Ian 01.30.08 at 11:21 pm

I thought it degenerated when somebody said how cute it was that Suharto had only one name. But yes, you’re right, engels: amused condescension is the only way to deal with people who might, well, know stuff.

114

gwangung 01.30.08 at 11:50 pm

Isn’t the interesting question not precisely what circle of hell Suharto should be assigned to, nor even whether Doug is as nobly indignant as the rest of us about Suharto’s human rights violations, but rather: are there any useful lessons for developing countries from Indonesia’s experience?

With the unspoken next step, “Can we do that without being a bloodly dictator?” Because, certainly, there have been plenty of spectacular failures of modernization…

Of course, if people are more interested in mounting moral hobby horses…

115

Righteous Bubba 01.31.08 at 12:03 am

Is there some requirement that a brutal dictator always be brutal? I believe certain nameless dictators loved doggies.

Anyway, the thread reminds me of the Ayn Rand HUAC testimony:

Rep. John R. McDowell: You paint a very dismal picture of Russia. You made a great point about the number of children who were unhappy. Doesn’t anybody smile in Russia any more?

Rand: Well, if you ask me literally, pretty much no.

McDowell: They don’t smile?

Rand: Not quite that way; no. If they do, it is privately and accidentally. Certainly, it is not social. They don’t smile in approval of their system.

116

Nich Hills 01.31.08 at 12:14 am

Engels, at #98 wrote:

Or it might possibly have something to do with the fact that this thread is about Suharto, not Truman…

This thread is about someone whose armed forces killed a six-, possibly seven-digit number of civilians during 1965/66 and in East Timor. Pol Pot had already been brought into the thread, so why not the even more bloody-handed Truman?

I recognise that there are differences between Suharto, Pol Pot and Truman if one is willing to look beyond the death toll; which I think is kinda Doug’s point. My gut-feel, however, is that looking beyond the death toll is a bit like asking, “Apart from that, Mrs Lincoln, how did you enjoy the play.”

117

SG 01.31.08 at 2:45 am

Doug, I think you’re exaggerating the role of suharto in single-handedly bringing about economic improvements, and playing down other forces.

For example, the Japanese Ministry of Foreign Affairs takes responsibility for building powerplants which give 15% of all Indonesia’s power, and 40% of all its major roads. The Centre for Independent Studies cites several instances where Japan bailed out Indonesia’s debt problems wholesale, assisting in restructuring and enabling Indonesia to avoid the kind of problems that other countries (particularly in latin america) suffered from debt.

Given that japanese aid in the 70s (when the first bailout occurred) would have been focussed around the same anti-communist principles as the US had at that time, it’s likely that the decision to bail out Indonesia and not Cambodia, etc. was based at least partly on Suharto’s palatibility. As dSquared pointed out in another thread, dictators behave differently if they know their economic record has a guaranteed 10 year crash built into it, and Suharto from the 70s on knew that he was in good hands. Certainly clearly left-wing governments – even the non-dictatorial ones – didn’t get this kind of treatment from the capitalist powers.

I’m not averse to the theory that brutal dictators can improve the lot of their citzenry. It’s interesting to see why some do and some don’t though, and I wonder how much of Suharto’s achievements were from playing a cunning game of pleasing the big international demands for restructuring, “flexible labour”, etc. while maintaining populist and often protectionist economic programs (like that fuel-oil subsidy that is so controversial).

118

John Quiggin 01.31.08 at 2:46 am

“Meanwhile, if I unequivocally condemn Suharto, what do I lose? He’s a different race, a different culture, thousands of miles away, any connection between what he did and my own prosperity or that of any of my family is terribly vague and easily deniable. I do lose a bit of knowledge about the world, but that’s a very minor cost compared to what is borne by an Indonesian. Or an Australian Prime Minister.”

Of course, that’s exactly the calculation made by successive Australian Prime Ministers. Part of the point of my post was that this could easily have come back to bite us in the post-Suharto era in various ways, either by the rise to power of groups who blamed us for being too close to Suharto or by ultranationalist sentiment which would see our belated support for Timorese independence as a betrayal.

On the general point about how bad Suharto’s Indonesia was by the late 90s, that depends a lot on whether your perspective is informed solely by Jakarta or by what was going on in Timor, Papua, Aceh and other provinces. I stand by the view that Indonesia was less free than its neighbours under Suharto, but is now more free.

119

Mark L 01.31.08 at 4:01 am

On the general point about how bad Suharto’s Indonesia was by the late 90s, that depends a lot on whether your perspective is informed solely by Jakarta or by what was going on in Timor, Papua, Aceh and other provinces. I stand by the view that Indonesia was less free than its neighbours under Suharto, but is now more free.

Well, John, that’s kind of like saying that if your perspective is formed by the treatment of Japanese-Americans during world war 2, the USA had a comparable level of freedom to the Soviet Union at the time. Surely the experiences of the other 97% of the population count for something!

Also, I’m not sure that much has changed in West Papua since Soeharto. Aceh there’s been a settlement to end the fighting, but that’s a very recent development, and arguably is better characterized as post-tsumani, rather than post-Soeharto.

120

Doug M. 01.31.08 at 4:38 am

“I stand by the view that Indonesia was less free than its neighbours under Suharto, but is now more free.”

As noted upthread, Suharto’s Indonesia was more free than Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos, or Burma. By SE Asian standards, it was in the middle, not the bottom.

It certainly is more free now, but this is in part because of trends that began under Suharto. With the exception of religious organizations, modern Indonesian civil society is entirely a product of the Suharto era.

Doug M.

121

Doug M. 01.31.08 at 4:47 am

“that depends a lot on whether your perspective is informed solely by Jakarta or by what was going on in Timor, Papua, Aceh and other provinces.”

Because the economic growth that lifted nearly a hundred million people out of absolute poverty took place only in Jakarta. Got it.

Doug M.

122

Donald Johnson 01.31.08 at 5:48 am

I’ve already said I’m not opposed to people pointing out the good things a mass murderer might have accomplished, but Doug M, you come across as someone who wants to give Suharto credit for all the good things that occurred under his rule while paying lip service to the fact that he was a killer.

Near the top you said–

“To be clear, I’m not saying that Suharto’s brutality and corruption was necessary for economic growth. I am saying that, although he was brutal and corrupt, he /also/ presided over a period of very rapid growth, which led to a vastly better life for tens of millions of people.

I truly don’t know what sort of moral calculus should be applied in this case. Suharto was a mass murderer and a thief on an immense scale. But he also brought prospetity, human development, health and schools, electricity and medicine and clean water. I do think that calling him “one of the worst political criminals of [the 20th century]” is simplifying a complicated story. He wasn’t a cartoon villain.”

What is the difficulty here? Life expectancy nearly doubled under Mao, from what I’ve read. In no way whatsoever does that remove Mao from the list of the great mass murderers of history. One could acknowledge the achievements that occurred under Suharto and still say, as you do, that most of them could have occurred without killing a million people. Probably most villains aren’t cartoon villains–that’s why cartoon villains are mostly found in cartoons.

I’m wondering if part of what is going on here is a whitewash of westerners who supported Suharto. First establish Suharto as a complex guy, hard to judge, and then what’s the big deal about supporting him when he was killing a million people?

123

Doug M. 01.31.08 at 8:35 am

Okay, probably my last entry here — this thread is over 100 comments long, and I do have a job and a family.

117: Foreign aid played an important role in Indonesia’s development, especially during the 1970s. But that begs the question of why aid worked in Indonesia, when in (say) the Philippines, it was water poured on a stone. Per capita aid to Indonesia has always been less than to the Philippines, yet one economy has stagnated while the other has surged ahead. And if we go further afield, there are numerous examples around the world — Mobutu’s Zaire comes to mind at once — where developing countries received vast amounts of foreign aid without the lot of the average citizen being improved in the slightest.

“Given that japanese aid in the 70s (when the first bailout occurred) would have been focussed around the same anti-communist principles as the US had at that time… Certainly clearly left-wing governments – even the non-dictatorial ones – didn’t get this kind of treatment from the capitalist powers.”

I’m sorry, but with regard to Japan that’s simply not correct. Japan has been a major source of aid to Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos. (Japanese rice saved the lives of tens of thousands of Cambodians in 1979-80, after Pol Pot was overthrown.)

Also, as mentioned upthread, even a left-wing or outright Communist Indonesia would still have received large amounts of aid from the Dutch and the WTO. So, while aid was significant, it wasn’t decisive, and much of it would have come anyway.

“I think you’re exaggerating the role of suharto in single-handedly bringing about economic improvements, and playing down other forces.”

I don’t subscribe to the Great Man theory of history, and there were multiple causes for Indonesia’s economic growth.

But if you look at the history, you can’t help but notice that growth stagnated until 1965 and then took off rapidly thereafter. Three things changed in 1965: the Communist Party was liquidated, foreign aid came back, and Suharto replaced Sukarno. I’ve already said why I don’t think foreign aid was decisive. (I would also note that, in an Indonesian context, Sukarno’s regime got large amounts of foreign aid up until the early 1960s. Didn’t help.)

That leaves the liquidation of the Party, amidst much bloodshed, and the change at the top.

I don’t subscribe to the Great Man theory… but I do think leadership makes a difference. Sukarno was a fool, a stubborn, charming egotist with hardly a brain in his handsome head. Suharto was something else again.

I’ve seen commenters express a distaste for counterfactuals, but I think they have their place. And if Sukarno had outmaneuvered Suharto and stayed in power, Indonesia would have been much worse off. Having a leader who is stubborn, self-centered, and dumb as a box of hair is not likely to lead to good things in the long run, and by 1965 Sukarno had already run Indonesia’s economy onto the rocks, and its politics into a state of deep crisis that made some sort of violent outcome almost inevitable.

Finally, I have to note that the several commenters who have actually been to Indonesia and/or dealt with Indonesians are the ones saying that things are not so clear-cut. The most dyspeptic eruptions of moral outrage seem to be coming from commenters who have never been within a thousand miles of the place.

I don’t say that you need to have visited a country in order to comment thoughtfully on it. I do say that if you believe X, and all the people who’ve been to the country are telling you Y, then perhaps it you should dig a little deeper than 500-word articles in the _Guardian_.

(It’s a pity that no Indonesians have turned up on this thread. Indonesia has a lively blogosphere, but I guess it doesn’t overlap much with CT.)

Okay, that’s probably it for me. See you next thread.

cheers,

Doug M.

124

buermann 01.31.08 at 6:24 pm

“if you look at the history, you can’t help but notice that growth stagnated until 1965 and then took off rapidly thereafter. Three things changed in 1965″

The numbers I’m looking at say it bottomed out in 1967, and what with the killing spree and imprisonment that would make more sense.

How you can pass judgment so flippantly on Sukarno while being so meticulous about Suharto is beyond me. Sukarno was fighting off outside pressures that deeply undermined the government. That this thread got to 100 posts without any mention of the CIA-run civil war in the late 50s is, to put it one way, dumb as a box of hairs.

“[I]f Sukarno had outmaneuvered Suharto and stayed in power” then Johnson or Nixon would have found some other way to off him. The guy was marked. It’s impossible to say what would have happened had the CIA, for instance, kept its operations restricted to covertly funding opposition parties rather that starting secessionist insurrections and assisting military coups.

125

Donald Johnson 01.31.08 at 7:08 pm

“I don’t subscribe to the Great Man theory of history, and there were multiple causes for Indonesia’s economic growth.

But if you look at the history, you can’t help but notice that growth stagnated until 1965 and then took off rapidly thereafter. Three things changed in 1965: the Communist Party was liquidated, foreign aid came back, and Suharto replaced Sukarno. I’ve already said why I don’t think foreign aid was decisive. (I would also note that, in an Indonesian context, Sukarno’s regime got large amounts of foreign aid up until the early 1960s. Didn’t help.)

That leaves the liquidation of the Party, amidst much bloodshed, and the change at the top.”

Note the rhetorical ploy here–Doug M doesn’t believe in the great man theory and admits there are multiple causes for Indonesia’s economic growth–he then dismisses one possible cause and leaves us with the million man massacre and Suharto.

I started out thinking that Doug M was just doing what Sen and others have done with Mao–pointing out that a mass murderer can also double life expectancies. But this tendency to say that anything bad that happened was inevitable, while anything good that happened was to Suharto’s credit leaves a bad taste in one’s mouth. This doesn’t sound like someone simply trying to deepen our understanding of the complexities of recent Indonesian history–this is an apologist.

I knew someone from China who said Mao was a great man who’d made some mistakes, so this “I’ve been to Indonesia and this is how Indonesians look at it” argument isn’t quite as compelling as it might otherwise have been. Possibly the families of those who were murdered might look at it differently from people who didn’t lose a friend or loved one to the violence. And I assume Indonesians are probably about as callous as Americans when it comes to the harm they inflict on outsiders, so what happened to East Timor may not matter as much. Not too many Americans care what we did with respect to Timor.

126

Damien R. S. 01.31.08 at 10:27 pm

No mention of population size and per capita effects?

Seems to me that once someone has made the decision to be brutal, whether out of callousness or of a belief that they’re heading off worse deaths from a Communist take over, that how many people die is a function of the size of the country as much as anything else. A bog-standard takeover will kill 100x as many people in a country with 100x the population; does that mean the dictator is 100x more evil? Conversely, killing 1 million out of 4 million seems different than killing 1 million out of 100 million. Not that the latter becomes good, but making a comparison of the two megadeaths without taking base population into account seems like it’s missing something important.

And even more so for corruption. Suharto was “most corrupt” — why, because he had the biggest bank account? Is someone who takes $35 billion and 1% of an economy more corrupt than someone who takes $300 million and 10% out of a much smaller and poorer country? Indonesia has a big population — and being able to siphon a lot of money out might be a sign of his overseeing economic growth, such that there was money to siphon.

127

Mark 01.31.08 at 10:36 pm

But this tendency to say that anything bad that happened was inevitable, while anything good that happened was to Suharto’s credit leaves a bad taste in one’s mouth.

Donald, the issue is not the flavor it leaves in your mouth, but whether or not the case Doug makes is true. It seems to me that you don’t have much of a clue one way or another, other than to the extent that it would better suit your prejudices if it were not. If that’s the case, maybe you should leave off throwing insults like “apologist” around unless and until you have a better understanding of the facts.

128

Roy Belmont 02.01.08 at 2:18 am

Since people are ultimately virtually identical economic units, if a bunch of radicals(leftists, jihadists, whatever, etc.) are creating economically disruptive social and political tension and chaos, but then they all get functionally liquidated, or beaten into silence (or hammered into it by a natural disaster), and anybody sympathetic to them gets terrorized by example into silence, and consequently without that disruption the business of business is allowed to proceed relatively unimpeded, then removing those radicals etc. could well be said to have lead to happier times economically.
And since that measurement of happiness is in levels of prosperity for virtually identical economic units, the absence of radicals etc. could well be viewed as a good thing, for everyone except the radicals etc. themselves.
This view then seems to lead inevitably to sentiments like the one behind this at #28:
“Perhaps we in the West sometimes overvalue political and civil freedoms as opposed to freedom from extreme poverty.”
the blurry edge of rationalized cowardice. Death must be seen as a state of ultimate poverty in that light, and a thing to be avoided at all costs. The refusal to sacrifice liberty for comfort, the willingness to sacrifice economic well-being for altruistic ideals like freedom becomes merely a case of poor economic judgment, or a kind of mental illness, in that light.

129

engels 02.01.08 at 2:31 am

being able to siphon a lot of money out might be a sign of [Suharto]’s overseeing economic growth, such that there was money to siphon

Wow, we’re really scraping the barrel now, aren’t we?

130

Priscilla 02.01.08 at 7:06 pm

As Indonesian, I don’t know what should I say. For me personally, He did a lot of bad things, but also he is a very powerful man.

131

David Weman 02.01.08 at 7:53 pm

“I truly don’t know what sort of moral calculus should be applied in this case. Suharto was a mass murderer and a thief on an immense scale. But he also brought prospetity, human development, health and schools, electricity and medicine and clean water. I do think that calling him “one of the worst political criminals of [the 20th century]” is simplifying a complicated story. He wasn’t a cartoon villain.”

Doug, it’s as clearcut as any issue can be. The man was guilty of genocide. So, the economic wellbeing of his people was a 2nd order or 3d order priority of Suharto’s, as opposed to no priority for someone like Mobutu, but that’s it as far as redeeming qualities. And in any case, nothing could redeem genocide. Suharto *was* one of the worst political criminals of the 20th century.

132

Donald Johnson 02.01.08 at 11:06 pm

“Donald, the issue is not the flavor it leaves in your mouth, but whether or not the case Doug makes is true.”

But Mark, I accepted everything Doug said on factual matters. It’s his moral compass and perhaps yours that needs fixing. Some of us think it’s wrong to murder 1 million people, even if you also manage to do a lot of good. There were commies, after all, who reasoned much as Doug did with respect to their heroes.

133

geo 02.02.08 at 5:18 am

Some of us think it’s wrong to murder 1 million people…

Donald, may I suggest that if you ever find yourself in conversation with someone whom you truly suspect of not thinking it’s wrong to murder a million people, you should save your breath. Meanwhile, try not to take that tone with someone whom you are anything less than quite certain is indifferent to mass murder.

Comments on this entry are closed.