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Emails of the day: Soeharto's legacy

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COMMENTS

24 January 2008 08:36

Two responses to Peter McCawley's email on Soeharto's responsibility for deaths in Bali and Java in 1965-66, the first from Nick Goodwin:

McCawley seems to have missed the point. Even if Soeharto cannot be held responsible for directing each and every killing during 1965-66, he (and his subordinates) did direct and use the killings for his own political and economic advantage, both in the immediate aftermath of 1965 and all the way through the New Order period (eg. the Kedung Ombo damn project, the 1996 PDI split and many others). Therefore, he must be held responsible for these acts. The uncertainty surrounding the facts and the enduring trauma experienced by Indonesian families and the nation as a whole should be grounds enough for a proper Indonesian Government enquiry or commission to address these issues. Only then can the Indonesian nation start to move on.

And Robert Cribb writes:

As someone who has looked closely at the figures for the 1965-66 massacres in Indonesia, I can confirm that there is no better figure than half a million for the death toll. This figure is highly uncertain, but if we take into account the available testimonies, the demographic evidence and assessments made closer to the time, the figure is likely to sit somewhere between 200,000 and 800,000. Half a million is thus a reasonable guess. The figure of 3 million derives from a reported deathbed confession by General Sarwo Edhie, then commander of the paracommando force RPKAD, which conducted large numbers of killings in Central Java and Bali. In the absence of any other evidence supporting his estimate, it needs to be treated with great scepticism.

The issue of Suharto's responsibility is more complex, though his case is typical of the issue of responsibility as it applies to generals and heads of state who broadly authorize but do not personally conduct mass killings. Although Peter McCawley is correct in saying that Suharto's power was not yet firmly established in 1965-66, authorizing the killings was part of his strategy for consolidating power. The killings eliminated an important rival (the communist party) and undermined the power base of President Sukarno, whom Suharto eventually deposed. We know now that the army's broad strategy prior to 1965 had been to wait for (or possibly to provoke) precipitate action by the Indonesian Communist Party which would then justify a crackdown. A large number of killings were carried out by army units (such as the RPKAD) which were aligned with Suharto. Still more were carried out by civilian vigilantes acting under the direction of such army units. Many of the remainder were carried out by independent vigilantes who quickly came to understand that the army offered them impunity if they killed communists. The combination of intense local political tensions and impunity offered from above proved to be lethal.  Suharto thus does not bear sole responsibility, but Elson's formulation — 'central responsibility' — is pretty much spot-on.

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