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The Independent Online

Suharto's reputation, alas, is now one of corruption and vindictiveness. Twas not always so, writes Tam Dalyell [further to the obituary by Derek Davies, 28 January].

In the autumn of 1965 Ted Short, Lord Glenamara as he now is, government chief whip, selected me as a member of the all-party defence delegation to Sarawak, Singapore and Kuala Lumpur. I formed the view that Britain was on a hiding to nothing in pursuing its policy of "Confrontasi" against Indonesia. So, in the Whit recess of 1966, through the good offices of Suryo-Di-Puro, the Indonesian chargé d'affaires in London, I went, with Colin Jackson, MP for Brighouse and Spenborough, and my wife on a private visit. (We cleared it with the Prime Minister, Harold Wilson, who said: "Yes, I'm glad that you are going, provided you understand I can disown you if necessary.")

We were taken to the sandbagged army headquarters outside Jakarta, where, sitting behind a trestle table, with pictures behind him of six senior generals recently brutally murdered by the PKI, was a soldier in uniform who might have been an officer cadet at Sandhurst, so young did he look. Jackson and I, accompanied by John Cambridge, then the Head of Chancery at the British Embassy, were the first white politicians Suharto had encountered; he was very nervous, and obviously traumatised by what had happened to his colleagues. Pointing to the pictures on the wall of the bunker, he said he would probably be joining them, since he had escaped a similar fate only by luck and mistaken identity.

Later in that visit, when we were invited to a hugely extended breakfast with President Sukarno in the Merdeka Palace, I told him of our meeting 48 hours previously with his young general, Suharto. Sukarno waved his hand dismissively and said he hardly knew who Suharto was and that he was a man of little consequence.

Three years later, in 1969, I was a member of the Inter-Parliamentary Union delegation to Indonesia led by John Cronin, MP for Loughborough. We went to the Merdeka Palace again where, looking at Sukarno's treasures, Suharto greeted me with the words: "The surroundings are rather different from the last time you saw me!" Over dinner, he talked movingly of wanting to be a conciliator, to heal the murderous events of 1965 (where Muslims had slaughtered some 750,000 adherents of the Communist Party).

The seriousness of his claim to be a healer was confirmed to us separately by Ali Sadikin, then the very powerful governor of Jakarta; General Pangabeam, the head of the army; and Aurora Selmanjuntak, librarian of the Indonesian parliament. I don't think they were expressing favourable opinions of Suhato to us because they had to. Only later did his regime go sour. In the second half of the 1960s it was full of promise.