Indonesia & East Timor

Death Toll: 1,500,000

January 27, 2008 – Indonesia’s former dictator General Suharto has died in bed and not in jail, escaping justice for his numerous crimes in East Timor and throughout the Indonesian archipelago. One of the worst mass murderers of the 20th century, his death tolls still shock:

  • 500,000 to over a million Indonesians in the aftermath of his 1965 seizure of power;
  • 200,000 in East Timor, which his troops illegally invaded and committed genocide in 1975;
  • 100,000 in West Papua;
  • tens of thousands more in Aceh and elsewhere.

Suharto also accumulated an appalling legacy of corruption – 15 to 35 billion dollars stolen by him and his family.

Backlands army units are reported to have executed thousands of Communists after interrogation in remote jails…Armed with wide-blade knives called parangs, Moslem bands crept at night into the homes of Communists, killing entire families and burying the bodies in shallow graves…The murder campaign became so brazen in part of rural East Java that Moslem bands placed the heads of victims on poles and paraded them through villages. The killings have been on such a scale that the disposal of the corpses has created a serious sanitation problem in East Java and Northern Sumatra, where the humid air bears the reek of decayed flesh. Travelers from these areas tell of small rivers and streams that have been literally clogged with bodies; river transportation has at places been seriously impeded.

— Time Magazine, December 17, 1965. Cited in David Ransom, “Ford Country: Building an Elite for Indonesia,” reprinted in The Trojan Horse: A Radical Look at Foreign Aid, ed. Steve Weissman, 1975. http://www.cia-on-campus.org/internat/indo%5B2%5D John Roosa, Pretext for Mass Murder: The September 30th Movement and Suharto’s Coup d’Etat in Indonesia, 2006, p. 26.

American-backed Genocide in East Timor

Estimated civilian deaths: 200,000 out of a population of 600,000

After the independence from Portuguese colonialism, East Timor was invaded by the anti-communist regime of Indonesian General Suharto, on orders of American and Australian imperialism and with the support of Soviet and Chinese social-imperialism (the seas of Timor are immensely rich in oil).

Student begin tortured by Indonesian troops in East Timor

During the Indonesian invasion of Timor, Suharto’s reign of terror eliminated one-third of the entire population (from 600.000 to 400.000 inhabitants, according to bourgeois sources) in what amounts to one of the proportionally greatest and harsh genocides in human history.

At the start of the occupation, FRETILIN radio sent the following broadcast:

“The Indonesian forces are killing indiscriminately. Women and children are being shot in the streets. We are all going to be killed…. This is an appeal for international help. Please do something to stop this invasion.” One Timorese refugee told later of “rape [and] cold-blooded assassinations of women and children and Chinese shop owners”.[15] Dili’s bishop at the time, Martinho da Costa Lopes, said later: “The soldiers who landed started killing everyone they could find. There were many dead bodies in the streets — all we could see were the soldiers killing, killing, killing.”

Blood Red – Green Light

The United States and Britain were also key allies supporting Suharto’s December 1975 invasion of East Timor. The day before the attack, while visiting the Indonesian capital, Jakarta, secretary of state Henry Kissinger and president Gerald Ford gave Suharto the green light to invade.

In media coverage immediately following Ford’s death in December 2006, we found a single sentence in the entire UK press describing his complicity in the East Timor genocide. Christopher Hitchens wrote in the Mirror:

“It was Kissinger and Ford who gave permission to the Indonesian generals for their illegal annexation of East Timor, which turned into a genocide.” (Hitchens, ‘The accidental president,’ Mirror, December 28, 2006)

Philip Liechty, CIA desk officer in Jakarta at the time of the invasion, gave an idea of the operative ethics:

“We sent the Indonesian generals everything that you need to fight a major war against somebody who doesn’t have any guns. We sent them rifles, ammunition, mortars, grenades, food, helicopters. You name it; they got it. And they got it direct… No one cared. No one gave a damn. It is something that I will be forever ashamed of. The only justification I ever heard for what we were doing was there was concern that East Timor was on the verge of being accepted as a new member of the United Nations and there was a chance that the country was going to be either leftist or neutralist and not likely to vote [with the United States] at the UN.” (Quoted, John Pilger, Hidden Agendas, Vintage, 1998, pp.285-6.)


The US supplied 90% of the weapons. Britain supplied armoured cars and advanced fighter-bombers used against East Timorese targets. The result was the death of 200,000 people out of a total of 700,000 – one of the worst genocides in history by proportion of population killed.

A month after Indonesia invaded, as tens of thousands of people were being massacred, a US State Department official told a major Australian newspaper that:

“in terms of the bilateral relations between the US and Indonesia, we are more or less condoning the incursion into East Timor… The United States wants to keep its relations with Indonesia close and friendly. We regard Indonesia as a friendly, non-aligned nation – a nation we do a lot of business with”. (The Australian, January 22, 1976.


In December 1975, the British ambassador in Jakarta informed the Foreign Office:

“it is in Britain’s interest that Indonesia should absorb the territory as soon and as unobtrusively as possible, and that if it should come to the crunch and there is a row in the United Nations, we should keep our heads down and avoid taking sides against the Indonesian government”. (Quoted, Mark Curtis, The Ambiguities of Power, Zed Books, 1996, pp.219-220)


US reporter Allan Nairn happened to witness, and narrowly survived, one massacre of unarmed protestors in the East Timor capital, Dili, in November 1991:

“The soldiers marched straight up to us [Western journalists]. They never broke their stride. We were enveloped by the troops, and when they got a few yards past us, within a dozen yards of the Timorese, they raised their rifles to their shoulders all at once, and they opened fire. The Timorese, in an instant, were down, just torn apart by the bullets. The street was covered with bodies covered with blood. And the soldiers just kept on coming. They poured in, one rank after another. They leaped over the bodies of those who were down. They were aiming and shooting people in the back. I could see their limbs being torn, their bodies exploding. There was blood spurting out into the air. The pop of the bullets, everywhere. And it was very organized, very systematic. The soldiers did not stop. They just kept on shooting until no one was left standing.”

Suharto with his Generals

“One of the most bizarre and gruesome … atrocities [of the Indonesian invasion] occurred within 24 hours of the invasion and involved the killing of about 150 people. This shocking spectacle began with the execution of more than 20 women who, from various accounts, were selected at random … The women were led out to the edge of the jetty and shot one at a time, with the crowd of shocked onlookers being forced at gun-point to count [out] loud as each execution took place.”

(Carmel Budiardjo and Liem Soei Liong, The War Against East Timor [Zed Books, 1984], pp. 128-29.)

At 2 p.m., 59 men, both Chinese and Timorese, were brought on to the wharf … These men were shot one by one, with the crowd, believed amounting to 500, being ordered to count. The victims were ordered to stand on the edge of the pier facing the sea, so that when they were shot their bodies fell into the water. Indonesian soldiers stood by and fired at the bodies in the water in the event that there was any sign of life.

East Timor: The Price of Freedom (p. 68)

One of the main killing sites “was the area surrounding the Portuguese police barracks in the south of the capital,” where one survivor claimed that:

At about 12 noon, the green berets began to land. … They advanced to where I was. They ordered us all out of our homes, to gather in the street. We were taken to an open space, women, children, old people and men, including me. … There were about fifty of us then, all men, just picked up at random. All able-bodied men. … Then the soldiers, there were three of them, started spraying us with bullets. Many died on the spot, some managed to run off, falling as they fled because they had been hit. As far as I know, only 3 or 4 out of the 50 men are still alive.

(East Timor: The Price of Freedom, pp. 68-69)

East Timor: Nationalism and Colonialism (University of Queensland Press, 1978) that “in late 1976, letters smuggled via [the West Timorese town of] Kupang reached relatives in Darwin [Australia], listing whole families killed during the invasion. … [One letter] said that many of the inhabitants of Dili had fled to the mountains before the invasion but that of those remaining 80% of the men were killed by Indonesian troops” (p. 279).

In July 1984, a priest described military actions against the Kota Boot tribe:

“[F]rom March 1984, [when] many men and youths were imprisoned and killed … almost all men and youths disappeared. They were taken by Indonesian soldiers, killed and thrown on a fallow piece of land. There are eye-witnesses to what happened.” (Quoted in Taylor, pp. 102-03.)

Suharto has avoided personal accountability for the genocide, destruction and corruption he inflicted upon those he presumed to rule. However, the generals, cronies and family members who carried out his orders via massacre, torture and theft must not get off so easily. Those who murdered and pillaged on behalf of Suharto and his “New Order” regime must be brought to justice.

We cannot forget that the United States government consistently supported Suharto and his regime. As the corpses piled up after his coup and darkness descended on Indonesia, his cheerleaders in the U.S. welcomed the “gleam of light in Asia.”

In the pursuit of realpolitik, U.S. administration after administration, fully aware of his many crimes, provided military assistance and hardware, training and equipping Suharto’s killers. The Indonesian dictator sought and received U.S. approval before he launched his invasion of East Timor; ninety percent of the weapons used in this illegal attack came from the U.S.

In the face of broad domestic opposition as his “economic miracle” had collapsed in 1998, he finally stepped down. But only after U.S. Secretary of State Albright hinted he should do so, even as the White House insisted she was not calling on the U.S.-backed dictator to “step down now.”

Persistent advocacy by concerned activists from East Timor, Indonesia, the U.S. and within Congress finally succeeded in curtailing U.S. military assistance to the Suharto regime in the 1990s. After Suharto was ousted, East Timor broke free and the Indonesian military lost some perks. Since then, military reform efforts have stalled or been reversed. Suharto’s favored military still maintains substantial power. Its higher-ranking officers, and powerful retired military, like President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, built their careers during his reign. The military continues to violate human rights with impunity and in West Papua and some areas operates by Suharto-era rules, restricting outside access and employing terror in service of its commercial interests.

Limited investigations dealing with Suharto-era crimes have added some information to the public record, but the few trials that have occurred have largely failed, as defendants have lied, intimidated or bribed their way to acquittals, crushing the hopes of the victims and their families for justice or even an apology.

To overcome Suharto’s legacy and to uphold basic international human rights and legal principles, those who executed, aided and abetted, and benefited from his criminal orders must be held accountable. The U.S. must undergo a complete accounting for its role in backing the dictator.

As a start, the U.S. government must support for an international tribunal to prosecute human rights and war crimes committed in East Timor from 1975 to 1999, and Washington should condition military assistance to Indonesia “on progress towards full democratisation, the subordination of the military to the rule of law and civilian government, and strict adherence with international human rights” as recommended by East Timor’s Commission for Reception, Truth and Reconciliation.

American-backed Genocide of the Indonesian People

Estimated civilian deaths: 500,000 – 1,000,000 people

A CIA study of the events in Indonesia assessed that:

“In terms of the numbers killed the anti-PKI massacres in Indonesia rank as one of the worst mass murders of the 20th century…”

In 1958, US Secretary of State John Foster Dulles informed the National Security Council that the main problem in Indonesia was the PKI – what scholarship calls “the party of the poor” – which was winning “widespread support not as a revolutionary party but as an organization defending the interests of the poor within the existing system,” developing a “mass base among the peasantry” through its “vigor in defending the interests of the…poor.” State Department official George Kennan argued that: “A political victory for the PKI in Indonesia would be an infection that could sweep all South Asia.”

Communist Party of Indonesia (PKI) speech – 3 million strong, before it was massacred by Suharto it was the largest non-ruling Communist party in the world.

The 1965-6 massacres that accompanied Suharto’s rise to power claimed the lives of between 500,000 and 1 million people, mostly landless peasants. A 1977 Amnesty International report cited a tally of “many more than one million” deaths. In the words of a leaked CIA report at the time, the massacre was “one of the worst mass murders of the 20th century”. (Declassified US CIA Directorate of Intelligence research study, ‘Indonesia – 1965: The Coup That Backfired,’ 1968.

Sukarno, overthrown by Suharto in a military coup

Infamously, while assuring readers of US involvement, leading New York Times commentator James Reston described these events as “a gleam of light in Asia”. Max Frankel, then the New York Times’ Washington correspondent, wrote an article titled, “US Is Heartened by Red Setback in Indonesia Coup.” He commented:

“The Johnson administration believes that a dramatic new opportunity has developed both for anti-Communist Indonesians and for United States policies. Officials… believe the army will cripple and perhaps destroy the Communists as a significant political force.”

The United States had been heavily involved, not just in bringing Suharto to power, but in arming, equipping and training his army. In May 1990, Kathy Kadane of the Washington-based States News Service reported admissions of US government officials that the US embassy in Jakarta had drawn up lists of 5,000 suspected Communist leaders. These “zap lists” were given to the Indonesian military who used them to track down and kill party members. One former embassy official told Kadane:

“I probably have a lot of blood on my hands, but that’s not all bad.”

Ralph McGehee, a senior CIA operations officer in the 1960s, described the terror of Suharto’s takeover as “the model operation” for the US-backed coup that later destroyed Chile’s Salvador Allende. McGehee indicated the key deception that had sparked Suharto’s massacre:

“The CIA forged a document purporting to reveal a leftist plot to murder Chilean military leaders… [just like] what happened in Indonesia in 1965.” (John Pilger, ‘Our model dictator,’ The Guardian, January 28, 2007.

The British government was secretly involved in the slaughter. Roland Challis, BBC south-east Asia correspondent at the time, later revealed:

“British warships escorted a ship full of Indonesian troops down the Malacca Straits so they could take part in the terrible holocaust… I and other correspondents were unaware of this at the time… There was a deal, you see. In establishing the Suharto regime, the involvement of the IMF and the World Bank was part of it… Suharto would bring them back. That was the deal.” (Ibid)

The “deal” involved opening up what Richard Nixon had called “the richest hoard of natural resources, the greatest prize in south-east Asia”. Suharto transformed Indonesia into an “investors’ paradise”. Foreign investment was attracted by a law which protected property from nationalisation for 30 years. The new regime also offered to return to their original owners American, British and Dutch firms which had been taken over by Suharto’s predecessor, Sukarno. In November 1967, Nixon’s “prize” was delivered at a three-day conference in Geneva. The Freeport company got West Papua’s copper. A US/European consortium got much of the nickel. The Alcoa company got Indonesia’s bauxite. America, Japanese and French companies got the tropical forests of Sumatra.

The West, unsurprisingly, was delighted to do business with Indonesia’s new “moderate” leader, who was “at heart benign,” the Economist declared.

 From FAIR blog:

I was struck by this New York Times headline on Saturday (10/23/10): “Effort to Rehabilitate Suharto’s Reputation Grows in Indonesia.” (The headline seems to have been changed somewhere along the way.)

The piece led with this:

JAKARTA, Indonesia — To millions, Suharto, the military strongman who ruled Indonesia for 32 years, was a tyrant, a thief and a murderer.

But more than 12 years after his fall from power in a popular uprising, and two years after his death at age 86, an effort is under way to redefine his legacy: as a national hero.

Coming from the New York Times, this is rich. In the waning days of his rule, the paper (3/8/98) reassured readers that “Suharto is no Saddam.” As FAIR’s Jim Naureckas (In These Times, 4/19/98) asked at the time:

How so? The Indonesian dictator’s rule is no less autocratic than Saddam Hussein’s. Like Hussein, Suharto has attempted to annex a smaller neighbor–in fact, his ongoing occupation of East Timor has been far bloodier than Hussein’s assault on Kuwait. While Hussein’s rule has been brutally repressive, Suharto is directly responsible for one of the greatest acts of mass murder in post-World War II history: the genocide that accompanied his rise to power in 1965….

Suharto immediately organized a systematic slaughter of the ethnic Chinese minority, which was believed to be the main base of support for the Communist Party. Conservative estimates of the death toll are in the hundreds of thousands; a 1977 Amnesty International report cited a tally of “many more than one million.”

And Ed Herman noted in Extra! (9-10/98) after Suharto’s death:

In the months of his exit, he was referred to as Indonesia’s “soft-spoken, enigmatic president” (USA Today, 5/14/98), a “profoundly spiritual man” (New York Times, 5/17/98), a “reforming autocrat” (New York Times, 5/22/98). His motives were benign: “It was not simply personal ambition that led Mr. Suharto to clamp down so hard for so long; it was a fear, shared by many in this country of 210 million people, of chaos” (New York Times, 6/2/98); he “failed to comprehend the intensity of his people’s discontent” (New York Times, 5/21/98), otherwise he undoubtedly would have stepped down earlier. He was sometimes described as “authoritarian,” occasionally as a “dictator,” but never as a mass murderer. Suharto’s mass killings were referred to–if at all–in a brief and antiseptic paragraph.

It is interesting to see how the same reporters move between Pol Pot and Suharto, indignant at the former’s killings, somehow unconcerned by the killings of the good genocidist. Seth Mydans, the New York Times principal reporter on the two leaders during the past two years, called Pol Pot (4/19/98) “one of the century’s great mass killers…who drove Cambodia to ruin, causing the deaths of more than a million people,” and who “launched one of the world’s most terrifying attempts at utopia” (4/13/98). But in reference to Suharto, this same Mydans (4/8/98) said that “more than 500,000 Indonesians are estimated to have died in a purge of leftists in 1965, the year Mr. Suharto came to power.” Note that Suharto is not even the killer, let alone a “great mass killer,” and this “purge”–not “murder” or “slaughter”–was not “terrifying,” and was not allocated to any particular agent.

The use of the passive voice is common in dealing with Suharto’s victims: They “died” instead of being killed (“the violence left a reported 500,000 people dead”–New York Times, 1/15/98), or “were killed” without reference to the author of the killings (e.g., Washington Post, 2/23/98, 5/26/98). In referring to East Timor, Mydans (New York Times, 7/28/96) spoke of protesters shouting grievances about “the suppression of opposition in East Timor and Irian Jaya.” Is “suppression of opposition” the proper description of an invasion and occupation that eliminated 200,000 out of 700,000 people?

Just as important, the Times was remarkably supportive in real time of Suharto’s early, bloody rise to power (Extra!, 7-8/90):

A clue might be found in the Times’ reporting on Indonesia at the time of the massacre. While some of its coverage did invoke the horror of the massive killing (as early as 1/16/66), in general the Times’ commentary and analysis viewed the destruction of the Communist party quite favorably. “A Gleam of Light in Asia” was the headline of a James Reston column (6/19/66). “Almost everyone is pleased by the changes being wrought,” C.L. Sulzberger commented (4/8/66). The Times itself editorialized (4/5/66) that the Indonesian military was “rightly playing its part with utmost caution.”

But perhaps the most enthusiastic of all the Times’ writers was Max Frankel, then Washington correspondent, now executive editor. “U.S. Is Heartened by Red Setback in Indonesia Coup,” one Frankel dispatch was tagged (10/11/65). “The Johnson administration believes that a dramatic new opportunity has developed both for anti-Communist Indonesians and for United States policies” in Indonesia, Frankel wrote. “Officials… believe the army will cripple and perhaps destroy the Communists as a significant political force.”

After the scale of the massacre began to be apparent, Frankel was even more enthusiastic. Under the headline “Elated U.S. Officials Looking to New Aid to Jakarta’s Economy” (3/13/66), Frankel reported that “the Johnson administration found it difficult today to hide its delight with the news from Indonesia…. After a long period of patient diplomacy designed to help the army triumph over the Communists, and months of prudent silence…officials were elated to find their expectations being realized.” Frankel went on to describe the leader of the massacre, Gen. Suharto, as “an efficient and effective military commander.”

Some Indonesians view Suharto as a hero? Maybe they’re longtime readers of the New York Times.

From Killing Hope by William Blum:

A complex series of events, involving a supposed coup attempt, a counter-coup, and perhaps a counter-counter-coup, with American fingerprints apparent at various points, resulted in the ouster from power of Sukarno and his replacement by a military coup led by General Suharto. The massacre that began immediately — of Communists, Communist sympathizers, suspected Communists, suspected Communist sympathizers, and none of the above — was called by the New York Times “one of the most savage mass slayings of modern political history.” The estimates of the number killed in the course of a few years begin at half a million and go above a million.

It was later learned that the U.S. embassy had compiled lists of “Communist” operatives, from top echelons down to village cadres, as many as 5,000 names, and turned them over to the army, which then hunted those persons down and killed them. The Americans would then check off the names of those who had been killed or captured.

“It really was a big help to the army. They probably killed a lot of people, and I probably have a lot of blood on my hands,” said one U.S. diplomat. “But that’s not all bad. There’s a time when you have to strike hard at a decisive moment.”

Added note: To this day, Indonesia’s military and police forces continue to be one of America’s best customers for weapons, training, and torture devices.

Starving East Timorese children in Laga, East Timor.

The famine in East Timor, while largely unnoticed by the world, has been described as “as bad as Biafra” by the International Red Cross.

Starvation became widespread in 1979 as communities, subjected to bombardment in the mountains, were unable to grow food supplies.

These photos were published on the front page of “The Sydney Morning Herald” at the time, subsequently causing a storm of criticism from Indonesia. As of 2001, 12.4% of the children in East Timor die before reaching the age of five.

Suharto died at age 86 in January, 2008. He and his generals were never tried for any of their crimes.