An example of how the left/right, Islamofascist/Western infidel paradigms don’t fit much of SouthEast Asia can be found in the history of General Suharto, who is facing eternal judgment after a long illness.

Many of the obituaries on the dear leader relate his 32 year reign as leader of Indonesia in a mixed light, but in his case, the NYTimes gets it right:

Suharto of Indonesia, whose 32-year dictatorship was one of the most brutal and corrupt of the 20th century, died Sunday in Jakarta. He was 86.

Most of the articles mention that he helped improve the lot of the average Indonesian, but got a little bit rich along the way:

During this 32-year rule, Suharto is credited with stimulating economic growth, cutting the annual inflation rate from 600% to 6.5% and raising personal income from an average of $70 a year to $1,300. The number of Indonesians living in dire poverty fell from 56% to 12%, and literacy rates and average life spans rose.

At the same time, he.. amassing a family fortune estimated at $40 billion. The system of government by kleptocracy that flourished under Suharto has plagued the country ever since.

Most of the obituaries mention the massacres in East Timor, Aceh, Papua New Guinea and maybe even the anti Christian pogroms in Sulawesi. But perhaps the worst genocide under Suharto’s watch occured when he was in charge of previous president Sukarno’s Army, in 1965, when there was an anti Chinese pogrom under the guise of “spontanous riots” in retaliation for an attempted communist coup.

Again, from the NYTimes:

His precise role in the violence is not clear; he managed to keep his name from being directly attached to it. What is clear is that in many areas the army, which he controlled, supplied weapons to and whipped up a tense population to mutilate and murder people suspected of being Communists, many of them of Chinese ancestry. Estimates of the number of dead have ranged from 500,000 to as many as one million.

The ethnic Chinese have been called the Jews of Asia. Essentially they run the business community in many countries, and demagogues frequently stir up envy and hatred in less affluent masses to get control of these businesses. Here in the Philippines, most of the locals can identify which of the round faced Manila elite families are of Chinese ancestry, but since the old Spanish law didn’t allow foreigners to own land, most of them are intermarried with prominent Filipino families.

This resentment of Chinese ethnics isn’t limited to Indonesia and the Philippines: although few American papers reported on it, there was an ethnic cleansing of Chinese after the communists took over Viet Nam, resulting in a short war between China and Vietnam in the late 1970’s.
In Indonesia, some of the Chinese ethnics were indeed involved in starting a communist insurgency, just as they had done earlier in Malaysia:

Under communism, especially during the Cultural Revolution in the late 1960s, overseas Chinese in some southeast Asian countries played important roles in left-wing insurgencies, supported by China. Gradually, these movements petered out. Indonesia’s PKI was destroyed in the massacres of 1965-66.

What this ignores is that not only were the communists embedded in the large Chinese ethnic community of Indonesia, but most of the ethnic Chinese killed had no communist ties, and indeed about half of them were Christian.

This pogrom was often organized by outsiders, not a grass roots spontaneous outpouring of anger. It was an organized campaign of rioting and looting where outsiders encouraged groups to get angry and riot. Some of the riots were instigated by preaching at mosques, since few Chinese were Muslim.

Regular Muslim religious sermons on Fridays, the prayer day of the week, were used as forums by Indonesian officials to attack the Chinese Indonesians. In late January 1998, after a Friday’ prayer at Taman Sunda Kelapa Mosque, General Syarwan Hamid spoke of ‘eradication of rats’ who are not patriotic and at times of crisis “are salting away the fruits of our national development”. Obviously he was referring to the Chinese Indonesians

In a large country such as multi ethnic Indonesia, perhaps no dictator could have clean hands and govern.

But just remember, the next time you hear  talk about a “mixed legacy”, part of that mixture is composed of the blood of innocent people.


Nancy Reyes is a retired physician living in the rural Philippines. Her website is Finest Kind Clinic and Fishmarket.

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