Indonesian Destinies by Theodore Friend

Toothless history of an Asian tiger
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The Independent Culture

Why do Indonesians hate America so much? One would expect a scholarly history of Indonesia to throw some light on this pressing question. But Theodore Friend's mammoth study provides few clues.

Friend divides the history of Indonesia, the largest Muslim country in the world, into three neat chunks. We begin with Sukarno, who led the former Dutch colony to independence in 1945. Then we move to Suharto who, in 1967, ousted Sukarno. The collapse of the Asian "economic miracle" in the late Nineties led to the fall of Suharto in 1998 and the emergence of a new brand of leaders. The last section deals with the mechanics of Suharto's departure, the troubles in East Timor and the simultaneous emergence of anarchy and democracy.

Indonesian Destinies is an exceptionally well-researched and comprehensive work. Friend enriches his political history with a thorough analysis of Indonesia's complex ethnicities, its multifaceted religious thought, and economic failures and successes. He writes with paternalistic love for his subject, being particularly good at explaining the role of myth in society and politics.

But when it comes to America's role in shaping the destiny of Indonesia, Friend's analysis is rather limited. Considering that America engineered the departure of Sukarno, helped to shape Suharto's "New Order", encouraged Indonesia's assault on East Timor, armed the army as well as the feared counter-insurgency units, is implicated in the massacres of communists in 1965, and systematically undermined the democratic movement, this is a rather serious limitation.

The unsavoury parts played by Henry Kissinger and Daniel Patrick Moynihan, former US Ambassador to the UN, in promoting the excesses of Suharto are dismissed in less than two pages. The index does not even contain an entry for the CIA. And the hurried discussion of America complicity in the 1965 "mass murders" downplays US involvement.

The CIA and the Pentagon began undermining Sukarno in 1955. He had actively supported the non-aligned movement, and had nationalised most Indonesian industry, including oil reserves. He held the first democratic general election in Indonesia; and tried to bring the communists into the government.

American efforts to damage Sukarno included stealing elections, setting up terrorist groups, and assassinations. After the US had engineered the coup that brought Suharto to power, the CIA compiled an extensive "death list" of communists which was given to the military to implement. No one knows how many were killed in the slaughter, but the estimates vary between 500,000 and a million. Another million or so died in prisons, or of untreated illnesses.

A decade later, the US gave the go-ahead for Suharto to invade East Timor; and sabotaged the efforts of the UN to condemn the attack and force him to give up his conquest. For over three decades, Suharto was kept in power by the United States.

While suppressing his people with unspeakable brutality, he allowed Indonesia's oil, natural gas, mineral deposits and rainforests to be plundered by US corporations. That's why Bill Clinton saw Suharto as "our kind of guy". Yet Friend sees him as the leader who brought "the smile of progress" to Indonesia.

Ziauddin Sardar's books include 'The Consumption of Kuala Lumpur' (Reaktion)