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The Democrats & Suharto: Bill Clinton & Richard Holbrooke Questioned on Their Support for Brutal Indonesian Dictatorship

StoryJanuary 28, 2008
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Brad Simpson

Director of the Indonesia and East Timor Documentation Project at the National Security Archive in George Washington University. He is also Assistant Professor of US History and Foreign Relations at the University of Maryland in Baltimore County. His forthcoming book is called Economists with Guns: Authoritarian Development and U.S. – Indonesian Relations, 1960-1968.

Allan Nairn

award-winning investigative journalist who has reported from Indonesia for years. He runs the web-blog “News and Comment" at

Democracy Now! re-airs Allan Nairn’s questioning of Richard Holbrooke, who is now a senior foreign policy adviser to Hillary Clinton, and Bill Clinton on how the Carter and Clinton administrations backed Suharto despite his brutal human rights record. [includes rush transcript]

This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.


We look at the reign of Suharto on this day that the Indonesian dictator has been buried with full military honors in Indonesia. Our guests are Galuh Wandita, who is the Jakarta director of International Center for Transitional Justice; Allan Nairn, investigative journalist; and Brad Simpson, assistant professor at the University of Maryland, director of the Indonesia and East Timor Documentation Project at the National Security Archives. Professor Simpson, talk to us about the documents that you have been able to acquire that link the United States and Indonesia.


Well, these are documents that we have acquired that detail the thirty-two-year record of support for the dictator Suharto by successive US administrations. And we might go back even to 1965 and 1966 when Suharto came to power on the heels of one of the great massacres of modern history. And the documents that have been declassified by now, CIA and State Department documents, reveal that the United States was aware from the very first moment of the scale and scope of the massacres, that it encouraged the Indonesian army to engage in the widest possible activities to try and exterminate the Indonesian Communist Party and, in fact, told the Indonesian army that unless it destroyed the Communist Party and ousted Sukarno, the former Indonesian president, in addition to going after those who had allegedly carried out the coup attempt that brought Suharto to power, that US and Western economic assistance would not be forthcoming.

Over the succeeding years, the United States made it very clear that unless Indonesia reoriented its foreign policy towards the West, invited back foreign investors, and otherwise made itself amenable to the interests of the US and other Western governments, that it would literally cut off the Suharto regime at the knees and prevent it from coming to power. And we can look year by year, administration by administration, at some crucial moments that illustrate the degree to which the United States prioritized the stability of its relationship with Suharto over democracy, over human rights, and at the expense of the interests of the people of Indonesia and East Timor and elsewhere, as well as the interest of the American public.

And I would like to maybe briefly describe two instances, which I think detail this most effectively. The first is in 1977 during the administration of Jimmy Carter, which people recall was allegedly the human rights president. In August of 1977, then Assistant Secretary of State Richard Holbrooke traveled to Indonesia to meet with Suharto in the midst of one of the Indonesian military’s brutal counterinsurgency campaigns in East Timor in which tens of thousands of East Timorese were being slaughtered. The State Department at the time wrote — Assistant Secretary of State Holbrooke, who is now a leading advisor to the Clinton campaign —- that this would be an unusual opportunity to press the case for human rights and self-determination for East Timor, if that had indeed been the US goal. Instead, once Suharto was met by Richard Holbrooke, he was praised by Holbrooke for Indonesia’s human rights improvements and was told that he in fact welcomed the steps that Indonesia had taken to open East Timor to the West, allowing a delegation of congressmen to enter the territory under strict military guard, where they were greeted by staged celebrations, welcoming the Indonesian armed forces. We might -—


Brad Simpson, I wanted to go for a minute to Richard Holbrooke. In 1977, former US ambassador to the United Nations under Clinton was given an honorary degree. This is in 1997 at Brown University. He delivered an address about everything from Indonesia and Timor to Bosnia. Richard Holbrooke, the State Department officer in charge of East Asia when Indonesia invaded East Timor in 1975. Allan Nairn questioned him shortly after his Brown University speech.


    You were the Assistant Secretary of State in the Carter administration at the height of the genocide in Timor, the years of ’76, ’77, ’78, ’79, when the killing rose to a peak. And you were the Carter administration’s point man on Timor policy. You handled the testimony before Congress and so on. And it was under your watch that the US sent in the OV-10 Bronco planes, the low-flying planes, which were used to bomb and strafe the Timorese out of the hills. Testimony from Catholic Church sources, reports from Amnesty International and others indicated that hundreds of thousands of East Timorese were killed during this period. And during this period, not only was the US sending in these weapons, which were used to kill the Timorese, but it was also blocking the UN Security Council from taking enforcement action on the two resolutions, which called on Indonesia to withdraw its troops without delay. We know this because Daniel Patrick Moynihan, the former US ambassador to the UN, wrote about it in his memoirs. That was the policy that started under Ford and Kissinger, OK, and you continued that policy.

    So I have two questions. The first is, would you be willing to facilitate the full declassification of documents regarding what the Carter administration, your administration, did in East Timor by granting a waiver under the Privacy Act? And secondly, would you favor the convening for the case of East Timor an international war crimes tribunal along the lines of what has been done in Bosnia and Rwanda, along the lines of what President Bush called for in the case of Saddam Hussein in Iraq? And would you be willing to abide by his verdict in regard to your own conduct?


    You know, first of all, we’re not going to have time to deconstruct your question and take it on point by point here. We’ve got other questions, and we need to get to them. But let me say very clearly, first of all, I don’t accept every statement you have just made as fact. Far from it. Moynihan, for example, was not the ambassador during the Carter administration; he was the ambassador during the previous administration —


    He started it under Ford, and you continued that policy.


    Let’s not — I don’t think we’re going to have time to deconstruct this here. I do not accept most of your statements. However, in regard to the last questions, of course I favor declassification. I have no — I have nothing to hide about my own role. If I made a mistake or two along the way, I’ll confront it when that goes —- when that comes up. No one is error-free here. But just for the purpose of everyone else in the room, this is not an accurate description of the administration’s policy or my own role in it. As I said in my opening remarks, Indonesia was an important country and remains an important country. And the solution to the problem, as I said to an earlier question, does not, in my view, involve a complete arms cut-off. You’re welcome to disagree. But I am interested in consequences of policy. I’m interested in solving the problem and not -—


    The consequences in this case were genocide, a third of the Timorese population killed.


    If you want to accuse me of genocide, you’re welcome to do so. And if — as far as extending the war crimes tribunal to Timor or, for that matter, Cambodia, where it’s incomprehensibly not of a mandate, I’m all for it. In fact, I have recently written a letter to the Holocaust Commission at the museum, recommending that they take this issue on, precisely because it’s incomprehensible to me why various people who were equally as murderous as of Radovan Karadzic and Ratko Mladic have never been investigated. But I tell you here for the benefit of everyone else that the Timor issue is not as simple as described just now. It just isn’t. This is not what happened, and I don’t think anyone who knows Jimmy Carter or what he stands for would agree that this was a deliberate policy of giving low-flying airplanes or helicopters to the Indonesians so that they could go out and kill people in the hills.


That was former ambassador, Richard Holbrooke, answering journalist Allan Nairn’s questions at Brown University in 1997. Brad Simpson, professor at the University of Maryland, head of National Security Archive, talk more about the documents up through to the Clinton administration.


Well, Richard Holbrooke is simply lying through his teeth. The policy of the Carter administration was to accept Indonesia’s occupation of East Timor and in fact to characterize the resistance of the Timorese as an assault on Indonesian sovereignty. And it was Holbrooke and Zbigniew Brzezinski, both now leading lights in the Democratic Party, who played point in trying to frustrate the efforts of congressional human rights activists to try and condition or stop US military assistance to Indonesia and in fact accelerated the flow of weapons to Indonesia at the height of the genocide.

We can fast-forward to the Clinton administration, during which time congressional and grassroots human rights activists actually began to succeed in limiting the flow of weapons and training to the Indonesian armed forces. And the documentary record here again is crystal clear. The Clinton administration at every turn tried to block the efforts of congressional and grassroots human rights activists, arguing all along that US military assistance would imbibe the Indonesian armed forces with democratic values, with a respect for human rights. We know, of course, from the experience of yourself and countless others that these claims were farcical and that US military training and that the extension of more than 250 separate commercial weapons sales to the Indonesian armed forces through the 1990s in fact bolstered the strength and bolstered the repressive capacity of the very units, including the feared Kopassus special forces units, which were carrying out the worst atrocities, the worst assassinations, disappearances, torture not just in East Timor but elsewhere in the Indonesian archipelago.


Professor Simpson, I wanted to turn to East Timor and Independence Day, May 20, 2002. Former President Bill Clinton was heading up the Bush administration delegation to the official ceremony that was celebrating East Timor becoming an independent nation. Allan Nairn and I were there covering the birth of this new nation. And it was on May 20 in the morning that President Clinton went to the house that was being christened that day as the new US embassy in East Timor. After President Clinton gave an address, Allan Nairn questioned Clinton.


    President Clinton, you sold weapons to the Indonesian military. You brought General Suharto, the Indonesian dictator, to the Oval Office and offered him F16s. The next day, a White House official told the New York Times Suharto was “our kind of guy.” Your administration under the JCET program sent Green Berets into Indonesia. They trained the Indonesian Kopassus Special Forces in advanced sniper technique, urban warfare and similar tactics. In 1999, in April, when the Indonesian military and their militias massacred —

    BILL CLINTON: Get to the point.


    I’m getting to the point. I’m getting to the point.

    BILL CLINTON: Get to the point.


    Yes, I’m getting exactly to the point. You were just talking about freedom in Timor —

    BILL CLINTON: You want to make a speech. Give him a hand, he’s got a good speech.


    I wanted to ask you about the facts, President. In 1999, in April, the Indonesian military and their militias massacred fifty people in the rectory in Liquica. They hacked them with machetes. Two days later, Admiral Blair, the Commander for the Pacific, your commander, met with General Wiranto, the Indonesian commander. He offered to help him in lobbying the US Congress to get full US military training restored. He made no mention of the Liquica massacre. During that same period, the Indonesian militias rampaged here in downtown Dili. They attacked the house of Manuel Carrascalao. They massacred the refugees there. Yet you continued for months with aid to the Indonesian military. Why?

    BILL CLINTON: What is your question, sir?


    Why did you continue with aid to the Indonesian military if they were killing civilians?

    BILL CLINTON: First of all, I can’t answer the question you asked about Admiral Blair. You’ll have to ask him that because I’m not aware of that.

    ALLAN NAIRN: He was working for you. Why did you continue military aid to Indonesia?

    BILL CLINTON: I understand that. I think, first of all, I don’t believe America or any of the other countries were sufficiently sensitive in the beginning and for a long time, a long time before 1999, going all the way back to the ’70s, to the suffering of the people of East Timor. I don’t think we can defend everything we did.

    I think that — I think that our objective, which was to try to keep Indonesia from coming apart and from having some of the influences that I think we still worry about in Indonesia dominate, led us to do some things, which, in my judgment, made us not as sensitive as we should have been to the suffering of the people here. And all I can tell you is that when it became obvious to me what was really going on and that we couldn’t justify not standing up for what the East Timorese wanted and for the decent treatment for them, just under the guise of trying to hold Indonesia together for larger foreign policy reasons, I tried to make sure we had the right policy. And that’s what I said today. That’s what we tried to do.

    I can’t say that everything we did before 1999 was right. I’m not here to defend everything we did. We never tried to sanction or support the oppression of the East Timorese, but I think if you look at American foreign policy for the thirty or forty years before that, all during the Cold War, there were times when there were all kinds of reasons we thought we needed to support countries in holding them together and keeping them going in a certain direction, which made us insufficiently sensitive to what was happening to some minority groups. So that’s my answer.

    I think we did the right thing in New Zealand. I think we did the right thing in the UN. I think we did the right thing in bringing the Australians and the ASEAN troops here. And I think the right thing to do is to do what the leaders of East Timor said. They want to look forward. You want to look backward. I’m going to stick with the leaders. You want to look backward, have at it, but you’ll have to have help from someone else.


President Clinton being questioned by journalist Allan Nairn in East Timor on May 20, 2002, the day East Timor became the newest nation in the world. We only have two minutes left. Allan Nairn, President Clinton said you want to look backward, he wants to look forward. Your response?


That’s an interesting defense for murder. Imagine, I take out a gun, I shoot a guy. The police arrest me. And then I say to the police, “Sorry, you can’t touch me. That was in the past. You want to look back, I want to look forward.”

I think the question today is for Hillary. Hillary is saying she has experience. That experience is based on the Clinton administration. Ask her, what was her role in the decisions to send snipers and sniper training to Suharto, to give them training in psyops and air assault and ground assault? If she didn’t have a role, ask her why didn’t she speak out publicly and protest what her husband was doing.

Clinton talked about keeping Indonesia together, stability. Well, it is stability for a ruler when you rule a country with an iron fist and a grandfatherly smile, as the New York Times

put it in 1993. But it’s not stability for the people. If somebody can kick down your door in the middle of the night and drag you away, that’s not stable. If you don’t know if you’re going to be able to feed all your kids the next day, that’s not stable. If you can go to jail for criticizing the president, that’s not stable.

Another important point, it’s not just Suharto who’s dead. It’s today’s Indonesia. Just this week, General Djoko, the handpicked new military commander of the current general running Indonesia, General Susilo, he said Indonesia is not ready for democracy. Right now in West Papua, in the rural regions especially —


We have five seconds.


— the Indonesian military is carrying out Timor-type killing operations, using the Kopassus, using many of the same officers. One of the very generals, Tono Suratman, who carried out those ‘99 Timor massacres, has just been promoted and put in charge of all of Kalimantan, a big area in Indonesia.


Allan Nairn, we’re going to have to leave it there. We want to thank you for being with us, speaking to us from Asia from the region just out of Indonesia, as well as Galuh Wandita from Jakarta and Brad Simpson, University of Maryland. We’ll link to the documents. This has been a special on Suharto.

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