Oct
25
2010

NYT Questions Efforts to Rehabilitate Suharto–a Dictator It Boosted for Decades

I was struck by this New York Times headline on Saturday (10/23/10):"Effort to Rehabilitate Suharto's Reputation Grows in Indonesia." (The headline seems to have been changed somewhere along the way.)

The piece led with this:

JAKARTA, Indonesia– To millions, Suharto, the military strongman who ruled Indonesia for 32 years, was a tyrant, a thief and a murderer.

But more than 12 years after his fall from power in a popular uprising, and two years after his death at age 86, an effort is under way to redefine his legacy: as a national hero.

Coming from the New York Times, this is rich. In the waning days of his rule, the paper (3/8/98) reassured readers that"Suharto is no Saddam." As FAIR's Jim Naureckas (In These Times, 4/19/98) asked at the time:

How so? The Indonesian dictator's rule is no less autocratic than Saddam Hussein's. Like Hussein, Suharto has attempted to annex a smaller neighbor–in fact, his ongoing occupation of East Timor has been far bloodier than Hussein's assault on Kuwait. While Hussein's rule has been brutally repressive, Suharto is directly responsible for one of the greatest acts of mass murder in post-World War II history: the genocide that accompanied his rise to power in 1965….

Suharto immediately organized a systematic slaughter of the ethnic Chinese minority, which was believed to be the main base of support for the Communist Party. Conservative estimates of the death toll are in the hundreds of thousands; a 1977 Amnesty International report cited a tally of "many more than one million."

And Ed Herman noted in Extra! (9-10/98) after Suharto's death:

In the months of his exit, he was referred to as Indonesia's "soft-spoken, enigmatic president" (USA Today, 5/14/98), a "profoundly spiritual man" (New York Times, 5/17/98), a "reforming autocrat" (New York Times, 5/22/98). His motives were benign: "It was not simply personal ambition that led Mr. Suharto to clamp down so hard for so long; it was a fear, shared by many in this country of 210 million people, of chaos" (New York Times, 6/2/98); he "failed to comprehend the intensity of his people's discontent" (New York Times, 5/21/98), otherwise he undoubtedly would have stepped down earlier. He was sometimes described as "authoritarian," occasionally as a "dictator," but never as a mass murderer. Suharto's mass killings were referred to–if at all–in a brief and antiseptic paragraph.

It is interesting to see how the same reporters move between Pol Pot and Suharto, indignant at the former's killings, somehow unconcerned by the killings of the good genocidist. Seth Mydans, the New York Times principal reporter on the two leaders during the past two years, called Pol Pot (4/19/98) "one of the century's great mass killers…who drove Cambodia to ruin, causing the deaths of more than a million people," and who "launched one of the world's most terrifying attempts at utopia" (4/13/98). But in reference to Suharto, this same Mydans (4/8/98) said that "more than 500,000 Indonesians are estimated to have died in a purge of leftists in 1965, the year Mr. Suharto came to power." Note that Suharto is not even the killer, let alone a "great mass killer," and this "purge"–not "murder" or "slaughter"–was not "terrifying," and was not allocated to any particular agent.

The use of the passive voice is common in dealing with Suharto's victims: They "died" instead of being killed ("the violence left a reported 500,000 people dead"–New York Times, 1/15/98), or "were killed" without reference to the author of the killings (e.g., Washington Post, 2/23/98, 5/26/98). In referring to East Timor, Mydans (New York Times, 7/28/96) spoke of protesters shouting grievances about "the suppression of opposition in East Timor and Irian Jaya." Is "suppression of opposition" the proper description of an invasion and occupation that eliminated 200,000 out of 700,000 people?

Just as important, the Times was remarkably supportive in real time of Suharto's early, bloody rise to power (Extra!, 7-8/90):

A clue might be found in the Times' reporting on Indonesia at the time of the massacre. While some of its coverage did invoke the horror of the massive killing (as early as 1/16/66), in general the Times' commentary and analysis viewed the destruction of the Communist party quite favorably. "A Gleam of Light in Asia" was the headline of a James Reston column (6/19/66). "Almost everyone is pleased by the changes being wrought," C.L. Sulzberger commented (4/8/66). The Times itself editorialized (4/5/66) that the Indonesian military was "rightly playing its part with utmost caution."

But perhaps the most enthusiastic of all the Times' writers was Max Frankel, then Washington correspondent, now executive editor. "U.S. Is Heartened by Red Setback in Indonesia Coup," one Frankel dispatch was tagged (10/11/65). "The Johnson administration believes that a dramatic new opportunity has developed both for anti-Communist Indonesians and for United States policies" in Indonesia, Frankel wrote. "Officials… believe the army will cripple and perhaps destroy the Communists as a significant political force."

After the scale of the massacre began to be apparent, Frankel was even more enthusiastic. Under the headline "Elated U.S. Officials Looking to New Aid to Jakarta's Economy" (3/13/66), Frankel reported that "the Johnson administration found it difficult today to hide its delight with the news from Indonesia…. After a long period of patient diplomacy designed to help the army triumph over the Communists, and months of prudent silence…officials were elated to find their expectations being realized." Frankel went on to describe the leader of the massacre, Gen. Suharto, as "an efficient and effective military commander."

Some Indonesians view Suharto as a hero? Maybe they're longtime readers of the New York Times.

About Peter Hart

Activism Director and and Co-producer of CounterSpinPeter Hart is the activism director at FAIR. He writes for FAIR's magazine Extra! and is also a co-host and producer of FAIR's syndicated radio show CounterSpin. He is the author of The Oh Really? Factor: Unspinning Fox News Channel's Bill O'Reilly (Seven Stories Press, 2003). Hart has been interviewed by a number of media outlets, including NBC Nightly News, Fox News Channel's O'Reilly Factor, the Los Angeles Times, Newsday and the Associated Press. He has also appeared on Showtime and in the movie Outfoxed. Follow Peter on Twitter at @peterfhart.