Suharto: 'One of the greatest mass murderers of the 20th century'

When General Suharto came to power in 1965 he overthrew the grandfather of journalist Chris Kline, who explains here why he will not mourn the death of Indonesia's dictator

When I was five or six, the Indonesian dictator Suharto, who died last week, came to Rome for a state visit. My Indonesian mother and I were summoned to the embassy to pay homage.

But when it came time for photographs, and Suharto picked me up, I shouted for him to put me down, and began punching him while he awkwardly kept smiling. I called out that he was a “uomo cattivo”, a bad man. Millions of Indonesians who thought the same would never have dared to say so aloud.

Why did Suharto permit this? Because I am the American grandson of the founder of modern Indonesia, Sukarno. General Suharto (both men, like many Indonesians, are known by only one name) overthrew him in a blood-soaked coup in 1965, covertly aided and enthusiastically abetted by the US, Britain and Australia.

I was just two when Suharto unleashed his “New Order”, living in Europe with my American father, Frank Latimore, and my Indonesian mother, Rukmini Sukarno. He was a Hollywood and Broadway actor, she was a European opera diva. We were far from Indonesia, home to a fifth of the world’s natural resources, which my grandfather led to independence after a long liberation struggle against colonial rule by the Netherlands. But we were not free from Suharto’s dictatorship.

Much of my family that hadn’t been purged after the coup remained in Indonesia, where Suharto held them hostage. Some in the family changed sides willingly, but for the sake of “national unity”, and out of fear of retaliation, the rest of us had to play along, even if we lived in exile. It was particularly loathsome for my mother, haunted all her life by the fate of her cousin, Brigadier General Sabur, who was slowly hacked to death in one of Suharto’s dungeons.

So I will not mourn Suharto. His death is some small measure of justice, far too late, for all those he killed during nearly 32 years as the absolute dictator of the world’s fourth most populous nation, and largest Muslim country. And until he fell in 1998, Suharto enjoyed Western support.

Sukarno, a fiery nationalist, was one of the key architects of the Non-Aligned Movement. The Cold War was at its height, the US was escalating its role in Vietnam, and the “domino theory” held sway. Indonesia’s Communist Party, the PKI, then the third largest in the world, openly declared it would arm itself as a rival force to the Indonesian military. Sukarno, rightly or wrongly, was regarded as a crypto-Marxist who would empower the PKI further. He told America and Britain to “go to hell”; clearly his days were numbered.

The military and intelligence attachés in the US and British embassies were sending helpful death lists to the Indonesian high command when Suharto struck. In the midst of the mass executions, the British ambassador, Sir Andrew Gilchrist, sent a chilling telegram to London, saying: “I have never concealed from you my belief that a little shooting in Indonesia would be an essential preliminary to effective change.”

Time magazine described the horrors Gilchrist so calmly endorsed: “The killings have been on such a scale the disposal of corpses has created a serious sanitation problem in east Java and northern Sumatra, where the humid air bears the reek of decaying flesh. Travellers from those areas tell of small rivers and streams that have been literally clogged with bodies.” At least 500,000 Indonesians died violently in the months following the takeover, but studies suggest the figure might have been between a million and two million.

A decade later, again with a green light from Washington, London and Canberra, as many as 230,000 more people, or a third of the civilian population of East Timor, died when Suharto invaded the former Portuguese colony. Australia monitored busy Indonesian military radio traffic in the build-up, but said nothing. As Suharto’s marines and paratroopers conquered the territory, a satisfied CIA internal communiqué stated: “Without continued heavy US logistical, military support the Indonesians might not have been able to pull it off.”

The man who has just died in Jakarta is one of the greatest mass murderers of the 20th century, but he was never indicted by the International War Crimes Tribunal at The Hague. Throughout, Suharto received all the weaponry his brutal military wanted. Britain sold him Scorpion armoured vehicles and Spartan troop carriers after a “thorough assessment” that they would not be used for “internal repression”, according to the then Defence Secretary, Michael Heseltine. Curious, then, how they turned up on the streets to hold back angry crowds demanding change.

Suharto’s advocates claim he modernised Indonesia and returned the country to the community of nations. Indonesia is now praised as the third-largest democracy on the planet, which has resisted Islamist radicalisation. But what of the estimated $15bn to $30bn Suharto plundered, while 49 million of his people survive on less than $2 a day, deprived of primary education and basic medical care? If Indonesia has moved forward at all, it is despite Suharto, not because of him.

I have visited many countries as a foreign correspondent for CNN and Fox, but all my life I have been excluded from Indonesia, because of Suharto. Now that he is gone, I will be able to embrace my own heritage at last. And the man who overthrew my grandfather will take his place beside Pol Pot, Pinochet, Milosevic, Stalin, Idi Amin, Mao and all the other great murderers of their own people.

Chris Kline is an international print and broadcast journalist

News
people
News
people And here is why...
News
peopleStella McCartney apologises over controversial Instagram picture
Life and Style
Laid bare: the Good2Go app ensures people have a chance to make their intentions clear about having sex
techCould Good2Go end disputes about sexual consent - without being a passion-killer?
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebooksAn unforgettable anthology of contemporary reportage
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Burr remains the baker to beat on the Great British Bake Off
tvRichard remains the baker to beat as Chetna begins to flake
News
i100
Sport
footballArsenal 4 Galatasaray 1: Wenger celebrates 18th anniversary in style
Arts and Entertainment
Amazon has added a cautionary warning to Tom and Jerry cartoons on its streaming service
tv
News
people
News
The village was originally named Llansanffraid-ym-Mechain after the Celtic female Saint Brigit, but the name was changed 150 years ago to Llansantffraid – a decision which suggests the incorrect gender of the saint
newsWelsh town changes its name, but can you spot the difference?
Arts and Entertainment
Kristen Scott Thomas in Electra at the Old Vic
theatreReview: Kristin Scott Thomas is magnificent in a five-star performance of ‘Electra’
News
Destructive discourse: Jewish boys look at anti-Semitic graffiti sprayed on to the walls of the synagogue in March 2006, near Tel Aviv
peopleAt the start of Yom Kippur and with anti-Semitism flourishing, one Jew can no longer ignore his identity
Life and Style
Couples who boast about their relationship have been condemned as the most annoying Facebook users
tech
Arts and Entertainment
Hayley Williams performs with Paramore in New York
musicParamore singer says 'Steal Your Girl' is itself stolen from a New Found Glory hit
News
i100
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Associate Recrutiment Consultant

£18000 - £23000 per annum + Uncapped OTE: SThree: SThree Group have been well ...

Trainee Recruitment Consultant

£18000 - £23000 per annum + OTE: SThree: Real Staffing Group is seeking Traine...

Year 6 Teacher (interventions)

£120 - £140 per day: Randstad Education Leeds: We have an exciting opportunity...

PMLD Teacher

Competitive: Randstad Education Manchester: SEN Teacher urgently required for ...

Day In a Page

Italian couples fake UK divorce scam on an ‘industrial scale’

Welcome to Maidenhead, the divorce capital of... Italy

A look at the the legal tourists who exploited our liberal dissolution rules
Time to stop running: At the start of Yom Kippur and with anti-Semitism flourishing, one Jew can no longer ignore his identity

Time to stop running

At the start of Yom Kippur and with anti-Semitism flourishing, one Jew can no longer ignore his identity
Tom and Jerry cartoons now carry a 'racial prejudice' warning on Amazon

Tom and Jerry cartoons now carry a 'racial prejudice' warning on Amazon

The vintage series has often been criticised for racial stereotyping
An app for the amorous: Could Good2Go end disputes about sexual consent - without being a passion-killer?

An app for the amorous

Could Good2Go end disputes about sexual consent - without being a passion-killer?
Llansanffraid is now Llansantffraid. Welsh town changes its name, but can you spot the difference?

Llansanffraid is now Llansantffraid

Welsh town changes its name, but can you spot the difference?
Charlotte Riley: At the peak of her powers

Charlotte Riley: At the peak of her powers

After a few early missteps with Chekhov, her acting career has taken her to Hollywood. Next up is a role in the BBC’s gangster drama ‘Peaky Blinders’
She's having a laugh: Britain's female comedians have never had it so good

She's having a laugh

Britain's female comedians have never had it so good, says stand-up Natalie Haynes
Sistine Chapel to ‘sing’ with new LED lights designed to bring Michelangelo’s masterpiece out of the shadows

Let there be light

Sistine Chapel to ‘sing’ with new LEDs designed to bring Michelangelo’s masterpiece out of the shadows
Great British Bake Off, semi-final, review: Richard remains the baker to beat

Tensions rise in Bake Off's pastry week

Richard remains the baker to beat as Chetna begins to flake
Paris Fashion Week, spring/summer 2015: Time travel fashion at Louis Vuitton in Paris

A look to the future

It's time travel fashion at Louis Vuitton in Paris
The 10 best bedspreads

The 10 best bedspreads

Before you up the tog count on your duvet, add an extra layer and a room-changing piece to your bed this autumn
Arsenal vs Galatasaray: Five things we learnt from the Emirates

Arsenal vs Galatasaray

Five things we learnt from the Gunners' Champions League victory at the Emirates
Stuart Lancaster’s long-term deal makes sense – a rarity for a decision taken by the RFU

Lancaster’s long-term deal makes sense – a rarity for a decision taken by the RFU

This deal gives England a head-start to prepare for 2019 World Cup, says Chris Hewett
Ebola outbreak: The children orphaned by the virus – then rejected by surviving relatives over fear of infection

The children orphaned by Ebola...

... then rejected by surviving relatives over fear of infection
Pride: Are censors pandering to homophobia?

Are censors pandering to homophobia?

US film censors have ruled 'Pride' unfit for under-16s, though it contains no sex or violence