Tag Archives: PKI

Invading East Timor. What was Suharto thinking?

East Timor Grunge Flag, powerful symbol of a quarter of a century's resistance. Image courtesy of domdean/FreeDigitalPhotos.net

East Timor Grunge Flag, powerful symbol of a quarter of a century’s resistance. Image courtesy of domdean/FreeDigitalPhotos.net

There is no doubt that when Indonesian troops invaded East Timor in December 1975, it was a deliberate decision taken at the highest levels of the Indonesian government and personally approved by President Suharto. The question remains, why did he do it?

Suharto was notoriously inscrutable, capable of hiding his true thoughts from all around him. He was also highly skilled at playing different factions off against each other. Aloof and impenetrable, his true motives were never easy to discern. However, it is possible to isolate a number of reasons why Indonesia might have chosen to annexe East Timor. Here are the main ones:

1. Oil. Indonesia was blessed with massive reserves of oil, and there was good reason within the geological community to suppose similar reserves lay under the Timor Sea. Incorporating East Timor into Mother Indonesia would give the country control of these potential reserves and access to the wealth they promised.

Having said that, Indonesia had never made any territorial claims on East Timor, and certainly not while Portugal was in control. Whilst Suharto was a tough dictator, he was no Saddam Hussein, and didn’t have a history of aggressive expansionism. He was also sensitive to his reputation in the West and was scrupulous about ensuring he would not upset the United States before embarking upon any foreign policy adventure. Besides, he had enough on his hands controlling the 3,000 or so islands that made up Indonesia without taking on additional troublesome commitments. Indonesia was already mineral rich, Suharto’s problems lay elsewhere.

2. Fear of Communism. Suharto loathed communism, and presided over the 1965 bloodbath that effectively extinguished communism as a political force in the country. The idea of a socialist state setting itself up on his doorstep would have been anathema to him; taking decisive action to crush it would have been a fairly easy sell to the Americans, still reeling from defeats in Vietnam and Cambodia.

3. Opportunism. The collapse of the Salazar regime in Lisbon created a power vacuum in East Timor, and although the socialist leaning Fretilin attempted to fill it, they were no match for the economic or military might of Indonesia. Neither was Portugal, despite their protests, in a position to do anything. With the covert blessing of the United States and the reluctance of Australia to stand up to Indonesia, Suharto could be excused for seeing East Timor as a gift handed to him on a plate. All he had to do was turn up and march in.

No doubt each of these factors played a part in Indonesia’s decision to go ahead and take East Timor for themselves. What is harder to ascertain is the relative importance each factor had in the equation. To do that one would have to get an insight into the workings of Suharto’s mind, something few, if any, individuals ever came close to achieving.

The Act of Killing – Suharto’s communist purge

Suharto was Indonesia’s second president, effectively overthrowing his predecessor Sukarno in a 1965 coup. As one of the leaders in the struggle to wrestle independence from the Dutch, Sukarno was anti-imperialistic in temperament, and began to ally Indonesia with both Russia and China. By 1965 the Indonesian Communist Party (PKI) had some 3 million members.

All this changed when Suharto took over the reins. Although Sukarno was still nominally president, Suharto was now calling the shots, having taken control of the army. Along with religious leaders, he inspired and led a purge of communists, initially in Java, but spreading out across Indonesia. Communists, and those suspected of communist sympathies, were ousted from the military, government and any positions of authority. The purge then spiralled into a bloodbath, with estimates suggesting more than half a million people killed over a two year period.


General, later President Suharto held office from 1967 to 1998. Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

A timely reminder of this appalling episode in Indonesia’s history comes in a newly released documentary, The Act of Killing, by Joshua Oppenheimer. In this film, which is attracting attention from all over the world and garnering excellent reviews, Oppenheimer makes the acquaintance of former death squad members and has them re-enact their murders for the cameras.

Aside from the surreal and bizarre sight of a septuagenarian in a batik shirt simulating a garotting between dance moves, what strikes me most in the short clips I’ve seen are the similarities between Suharto’s death squads and documented accounts from former torturers in Latin America, particularly El Salvador. In both cases their recollections reinforce the long-held claim made by human rights organisations such as Amnesty International that torture not only degrades the victim, but has the same effect on the perpetrator. Like the Salvadorians, Suharto’s killers seem condemned to remain forever haunted by the monstrosity of what they once did, their sole refuge from their crimes coming in transitory oblivion through alcohol and drugs.

Suharto’s communist purge took place a decade prior to the invasion of East Timor and the main action of Francesca. However, some of the characters in the novel were involved, the events are referred to in the story, and they certainly set the tone for the way the Indonesian forces conducted themselves in East Timor.

View a clip of The Act of Killing at http://www.guardian.co.uk/film/video/2013/jun/26/act-of-killing-indonesia-genocide-video