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