August 11, 2013
Few people in the USA know about the 1965 genocide in Indonesia that killed at least 1 million people, including 10% of Bali’s total population. During an impromptu conversation with my supervisor at work, we both cried as I learned the story of America’s role in the subsequent 32-year reign of terror and continued corporate stranglehold in Indonesia.
Please note, this historical account is simplified and is largely a retelling of the story as it was told to me through two films, personal conversations, and online research. Many history textbooks – and western governments – will disagree with what I say, and of course you have every right to question it as well.
In the years following Indonesia’s official independence in 1945, the Dutch and Japanese continued to vie for control of the country. President Sukarno knew that the developed world was not about to give up its access to Indonesia’s rich natural resources without a fight. He recognized the value of preserving the rich cultural heritage of each island, while banding together to create a strong identity and ability to collectively resist foreign intrusion. He refused to join the Olympics and the United Nations, believing them to be a subtle manifestation of colonial oppression, and at one point said to the US government, “To hell with your aid!”
“Well,” thought the western leaders, “this simply won’t do.” Using “fighting the commies” as their excuse, the USA worked to create a faction among the Indonesian army, bribing several corrupt generals, handing them a list of people to kill, promising them unimaginable riches and power if they complied. Entire villages were slaughtered in the bloody chaos, along with the pro-Indonesian politicians including Sukarno. Suharto, one of the bribed generals, was installed as the next president. Western leaders patted each other on the back and toasted the victory. ‘The west’s best news for years in Asia,” claimed Time Magazine; “the greatest prize in the Southeast Asian area,” boasted Nixon.
The millions of dollars that Suharto received came at a terrible price for Indonesia. Laws restricting foreign corporations’ ability to “develop” the country vanished overnight. Foreign corporations swooped in and set up deadly efficient mechanisms for siphoning away the country’s resources. Destroying the sacred virgin forest and forcing Indonesians into mindless labor in dangerous working conditions fueled a life of luxury for American CEOs and a desire to buy, buy, buy for the markets they pressed their products on to. Suharto reigned for 32 years and corporate greed continues to plague the country today.
These days, hegemony manifests in sneakier ways. Foreign aid is not only often inefficient and misguided, but shamelessly self-serving. After the tsunami hit the Indonesian island of Aceh in 2004, the main road to the island was destroyed, which seriously complicated sending emergency aid to the island. So it was natural that US AID built a road into Aceh as part of its recovery program. But barely any of Aceh’s citizens owned cars, so why did they build a six-lane highway? Less than a year later, with brand-new foreign-owned palm oil plantations and cement factories lining the road, those six lanes got put to good use hauling Aceh’s natural resources off to foreign markets.
My coworker knows a man who compiled a document comparing the reported results of several UN-funded projects with reports compiled by objective auditors.
UN report: “Now 20 farmers are able to improve their soil and increase their yields by 30% thanks to the tractors, fertilizer and training we brought to the village.”
The real story: “Yields increased by 30% the first year. Now the tractor is sitting in the corner of the field rusting, because it was a cheap piece of junk with no way for locals to order spare parts and no instructions on maintenance given. The soil is ruined and two people died from an overexposure of pesticide whose application instructions were written only in Chinese.”
Time and time again, you could laugh until you cried. I don’t wish to imply that all of the work that the UN and World Bank is a joke and a conspiracy, just cautioning us all to question the true motives behind our governments’ actions. I learned that lesson two years ago in Madagascar, where major global environmental organizations stole forest from villages and made money selling credits for the carbon they “saved,” and stacks of funded proposals gathered dust in old filing cabinets as officials pocketed the money and fabricated reports at their leisure. At the time I prayed that that was just Madagascar, a country of basically nonexistent infrastructure, governance and accountability. But no – it had little to do with Madagascar’s people, and everything to do with the western world’s manipulation of struggling post-colonial cultures like it.
Everyone shares a different side to the story, but my boss’ account and subsequent research shatters any belief I had that the bureaucratic institutions in the USA and other powerful countries are set up for altruistic motives. So where to go from here? When you support organizations through your time and money, make sure they prioritize helping local communities develop greater agency. Locally-owned NGOs often do the best work, with the greatest percentage of aid money remaining in the local community (with large foreign NGOs, typically only 10% of the money actually reaches the country, much of which pays the western workers’ salaries). Look for organizations with a specific, clear mission. Know exactly where your money’s going. And just be aware, question everything. Keep the dialogue about events like the Holocaust, Apartheid (shout out to Moriah), and 1965 alive, for through acknowledging these past atrocities we can recognize and stand up against similar threats to in the present.
For an accessible, quick read into how geopolitics influenced Indonesia 50 years ago and today, I would suggest reading this review of The Act of Killing, a documentary about the genocide. http://www.tcdailyplanet.net/arts/2013/08/01/act-killing-director-joshua-oppenheimer-talks-about-uncovering-indonesian-genocide
For a detailed account of how international politics unfolded in Indonesia in 1965, take a look at the series of articles that begins here http://www.workers.org/indonesia/intro.html