NOAH’S RAINBOW SERPENT – observations by Ian MacDougall

Keating’s eulogy for Suharto

Tom Burns, former National President of the ALP, died in 2007. In an obituary, Andrew Fraser and Tony Koch wrote:

As national president of the Australian Labor Party he … played a key role, with Gough Whitlam, in reforming and modernising the party in the early 70s, to the extent that it took office federally in 1972.

Part of this effort was the skilful crafting of a report into alleged branch-stacking when Paul Keating was seeking pre-selection for the Sydney seat of Blaxland in 1968. Burns claimed that some of the so-called voters rested beneath tombstones in Bankstown Cemetery and that “it should never happen again”, but allowed Keating to keep his pre-selection and launch his political career. [1]

If any continuous theme runs through that career, it is power: the acquisition of it, the exercise of it, the company of it, being on the side of it, loss of it, and now reminiscence of it. I cannot put it more appropriately, even though my grandmother once told me never to use language: power has been to Keating as shit to a blowfly.

On Saturday February 2, 2008, the Fairfax papers in Sydney and Melbourne (SMH and The Age) ran a remarkable article by Keating in praise of his avowed friend, the late former Indonesian dictator Soeharto, who came to power in one of the bloodiest military coups of the Twentieth Century. Keating achieved his own goal somewhat differently, but fawned on Soeharto as a man of middling mediaeval rank might have upon a high lord and patron. He enjoyed Soeharto’s company, and Soeharto clearly found some benefit in Keating’s.

So the eulogy is well worth a bit of critical reading, as much for what it tries to say about Soeharto as for what it actually does say about Keating, and for those reasons, it is of historic significance. I also recommend Eye of the Beholder, [2] Michael Baume’s appraisal of the same eulogy in The Australian.

Keating’s essential propositions are listed numerically below. Quotations (in italics) are from the original [3]. I add also some critical comments.


1. Soeharto gave Indonesia and the region stability.


Keating said: In 1965, countries such as Nigeria and Zimbabwe were in the same position as Indonesia… Today, those countries are economic and social wrecks. By contrast, Indonesia is a model of harmony, cohesion and progress. And the principal reason for that is Soeharto.

We can only imagine what Australia’s strategic position would be like if Indonesia’s 230 million people degenerated into a fractured, lawless state reminiscent of Nigeria or Zimbabwe. 

Perhaps rather than make that comparison between widely different societies on different continents, Keating should have compared Indonesia with those other Malay nations, Malaysia and the Philippines. All three have had authoritarian governments arising from a colonial past. Only Indonesia has a record of foreign and imperial aggression (against Malaysia, East Timor, West Papua) and state terror. Only Indonesia has ever qualified as a police state.


Today it is more like Pakistan than like Malaysia or the Philippines. Liberal democracy is weak, its judiciary is a law unto itself, and the military is untouchable, independent of government funding, and ever ready to sieze power again should it perceive the occasion as warranting it. A breakup or ‘balkanisation’ of Indonesia would not occur without separatist forces achieving powerful local support, and a number of independent small states would each probably be no more a threat to each other and the region than is the Sultanate of Brunei today. History shows that big does not mean benign.


2. Soeharto saved Australia from having to spend 10 times as much as it presently does on defence.


Keating said: Had Soeharto’s New Order government not displaced the Soekarno government and the massive PKI communist party, the postwar history of Australia would have been completely different. A communist-dominated Indonesia would have destabilised Australia and all of South-East Asia. 

‘Displaced’ is a sanitising euphemism here. 

In 1965, a (Soekarnoist) Colonel Untung staged an ill-planned and botched coup to forestall (he claimed) an anti-Soekarno coup planned at the General Staff level of the armed forces. The Indonesian communist leadership made a hasty decision to support Untung. While Untung survived until 1967, the communists (the only real rivals to the military for power) were rapidly killed off by the military and in communal violence, along with untold numbers of non-communists. Thus Soeharto can be said to have come to power in a counter-coup against a counter-coup against a coup. A counter-counter-coup, if you wish. Estimates of total deaths range from 70,000 to one million. [4] 

Keating’s proposition “A communist-dominated Indonesia would have destabilised Australia and all of South-East Asia” is domino theory, has never been proven, and is inherently unprovable. Italy and France both had big communist parties at the time, whose only possible road to power was via the ballot box. For the Indonesian communists, like their Russian, Chinese and Vietnamese counterparts before them, the only possible non-electoral road to power was through foreign invasion followed by a massive division in the country’s defending armed forces. That was nowhere in sight. 

Whatever their internal politics and policy failures, Red China and communist Vietnam did not ‘destabilise’ their region. The US played the greatest destabilising role in Southeast Asia, over the years 1946-1975, by supporting and fighting for the wrong side in each of the two Vietnamese wars of national independence, by bombing neutral Cambodia, and supporting Soeharto’s invasion of East Timor, using domino theory as its justification. The US has a long tradition of military intervention to remove whichever governments whose stability did not suit its current administration, and has arguably been the world’s greatest ‘destabiliser’.


3. Australians’ ‘suspicion’ of Indonesia is all down to the ABC and the Fairfax media. 

Keating said: So why have Australians regarded Indonesia so suspiciously, especially over the past quarter-century, when it is evident that Indonesia has been at the fulcrum of our strategic stability?

Unfortunately, I think the answer is East Timor and the wilful reporting of Indonesian affairs in Australia by the Australian media.

That media have, in the main, been the Fairfax press and the ABC. Most particularly The Sydney Morning Herald and to a lesser extent The Age.

The ‘wilful reporting of Indonesian affairs’ is in reference to numerous articles and exposes of Indonesian atrocities and brutality in East Timor. (The papers ironically cited are the very papers that ‘wilfully’ ran Keating’s article.) The implication is that they should have run nothing on East Timor, or perhaps only Indonesian government handouts during the occupation, which Keating’s government chose to recognise as legitimate, (de jure rather than de facto). This was what made East Timor part of Indonesia in the view of his government, and thus the whole ongoing atrocity an internal affair of Indonesia. His government thereby took its place in a pathetic diplomatic minority. But diplomatic isolation on the matter was seen as a small price to pay when what was to become the Timor Gap Treaty with Indonesia held huge prospects in terms of access to East Timor’s natural gas.

4. That in turn was payback for the Balibo Five

Keating said: [The Fairfax] rancour, and the misrepresentation of the true state of Indonesian social and economic life, can be attributed to the “get square” policy of the media in Australia for the deaths of the Balibo Five – the five Australian-based journalists who were encouraged to report from a war zone by their irresponsible proprietors and who were shot and killed by the Indonesian military in East Timor.

This event was sheeted back to Soeharto by journalists of the broadsheet press. From that moment, in their eyes, Soeharto became a cruel and intolerant repressor whose life’s work in saving Indonesia from destruction was to be viewed only through the prism of East Timor.

More accurately, the Balibo Five “were shot and killed by the Indonesian military” as it invaded East Timor in 1975. More accurately still, they and a freelance journalist, Roger East, were summarily executed after having been taken prisoner by the Indonesians, but the Indonesian cover-up account of them having been caught in the crossfire between the Indonesians and the East Timorese defenders was endorsed with silence by the Fraser, and then the Hawke and Keating governments. This understandably raised the ire of other journalists, who seem to have gravitated exclusively to the Fairfax papers and the ABC in Keating’s view. The suggestion that the human rights issues of East Timor were inconsequential beside the fate of the Balibo Five is an attack on the integrity of all the journalists involved, and above all the right of the public to know the truth. Keating is merely asserting a general slander here and arguing for Soehartoesque information control. 

5. Soeharto reluctantly authorised the invasion of East Timor in order to avoid a ‘Cuba on his doorstep’. This was justifiable.

Keating said: But in mid-1975, communist-allied military officers took control in Portugal and its colonies abroad were taken over by avowedly Marxist regimes. In East Timor, a leftist group calling itself the Revolutionary Front for the Liberation of East Timor, or Fretilin, staged a coup igniting a civil war.

When Fretilin overran the colony by force, Soeharto’s government became alarmed. This happened at the height of the Cold War. Saigon had fallen in April of that year. Fretilin appealed to China and Vietnam for help. Fearing a “Cuba on his doorstep”, Soeharto reluctantly decided on military intervention. In his 33 years as leader, he embarked upon no other “foreign” exploit. And he would not have bothered with Timor, had Fretilin not made the going too rough. Indeed, Jose Ramos-Horta told the Herald in 1996 that “the immaturity, irresponsibility and bad judgment of the East Timorese provoked Indonesia into doing what it did”. Xanana Gusmao also told anyone who would listen that it had been a “bad mistake” for Fretilin to present itself as a “Marxist” outfit in 1975. 

Following the death of the Portuguese dictator António de Oliveira Salazar in 1975, Portugal was left without a government, with a power vacuum and no successor named, and the country divided over what to do. That meant that Portugal’s colony of East Timor had no government either, and all the Portuguese officials there packed up, boarded a ship and sailed unceremoniously away, leaving another power vacuum and the East Timorese population to its fate. That was the basis of the Fretilin ‘coup’. If Keating knows that, he chooses to ignore it. If he did not know that, he is ignorant about a key fact in his story. The way Keating tells it, Ramos-Horta and Gusmao endorsed and excused the Indonesian invasion of their definitely foreign (to Indonesia) country, with all its massacre, torture, looting, rape and atrocity piled on atrocity. Pretty incredible stuff. 

Keating said: But none of this stopped a phalanx of Australian journalists, mostly from the Fairfax stable and the ABC’s Four Corners, from reporting Indonesian affairs from that time such that Australians could only view the great economic transformation of Indonesia and the alleviation of its poverty and its tolerance primarily through the warped and shattered prism of East Timor. 

Precisely: Australia’s old World War 2 ally East Timor, ‘warped and shattered’ by Soeharto’s army.


6. The Fairfax media performed most irresponsibly thereafter.


Keating said: The Herald even editorialised in favour of an Australian invasion of East Timor, then Indonesian territory. That is, right up front about it, the Herald urged the Australian government to invade Indonesia. So rabid has Fairfax been about Indonesia and so recreant of Australia’s national interest has it been.

East Timor was Indonesian occupied territory. Only in the view of Keating’s government and a six or seven minor members of the UN was it legitimately so. One must ask also how actually pragmatic Keating’s coterie of realpolitik ‘pragmatists’ were in the light of subsequent events. During the crisis of 1999 Foreign Minister Alexander Downer was on TV announcing that Australia was not about to go to war with Indonesia, a situation which arose directly out of the ‘pragmatism’ on East Timor of all Australian governments since (and including) Gough Whitlam’s. East Timor was the greatest Australian foreign policy failure ever. 

7. If Soeharto had not made Indonesia a secular state, it could today be an Islamist one like Iran.


Keating said: Look what happened to us in Bali at the hands of a handful, literally a handful, of Islamic fundamentalists. Imagine the turmoil for Australia if the whole 230 million of Indonesia had a fundamentalist objection to us. But this jaded bunch of Australian journalists could only report how Soeharto was corrupt because his son Tommy, might have elbowed his way into some carried equity with an American telephone company or his daughter something with a road builder. True as those generalisations might have been, in terms of the weight of Australia’s interests, the deeds of Soeharto’s public life massively outweigh anything in his private affairs.

I got to know Soeharto quite well. He was clever and utterly decisive and had a kind view of Australia. The peace and order of his country, its religious and ethnic tolerance and the peace and the order of South-East Asia came from his goodwill towards neighbouring states and from his wisdom. He was self-effacing and shy to a fault. One had to tease him out of himself to get him going, but once got going, his intellectualism took over.

Soeharto lived in what we would call in Australia a rather old and shabby McMansion in Jakarta. I have been there on a number of occasions. He lived as simply as anyone of his high standing could live.

Mussolini drained the swamps and Hitler got the trains running on time. What is a bit of family corruption, a few billion here or there, beside all the good things that happened? Ultimately, this sort of apologetics can excuse anything. Again, the assertion that without Suharto’s brutal rule Indonesia would have become a hornet’s nest of Islamists assumes that there is no liberal democratic current in Indonesian political life. Actually, Soeharto’s repression was directed more at liberalism than at Islamism.

Keating said: But Time magazine claimed that Soeharto had stashed away $30 billion-odd, as if those ning-nongs would know, presumably so he could race off to live it up in Miami or the Bahamas. Errant nonsense. Soeharto was an Indonesian who was always going to remain an Indonesian. He lived a simple life and could never have changed that.

If the ‘ning-nongs’ of Time say it was $30 billion, and Keating says it was a bit, but not worth worrying about, who would one believe? One must be careful in dismissing the ‘ning-nongs’ of Time, even though their investigations into Soeharto’s wealth induced an Indonesian court to award Soeharto $129 million damages over “a 1999 article which alleged that Suharto and his family stashed a massive amount of money abroad during his time in power.” [5] That was more like a point in their favour.

But how anyone could know what was stashed away by the Soeharto family and cronies is of course, a valid question. After all, the family has been understandably coy about it. In Soeharto’s time in office there was a news blackout on discussion of it, just as there was over what was going on in East Timor under the Indonesian occupation. (The 1991 Dili massacre would not have got the publicity it did had it not been smuggled out of East Timor on a single cassette of videotape.)  Soeharto’s men were meticulous about information control. But at the present time there is little doubt about it in Indonesia, with the family admitting guilt and asking ‘forgiveness’ without offering to return any of the loot. Meanwhile, for a former Australian prime minister, Keating is remarkably cavalier on the issue of grand-scale corruption.


Keating said: The descriptions of Soeharto as a brutal dictator living a corrupt high life at the expense of his people and running an expansionist military regime are untrue. Even Soeharto’s annexation of East Timor was not expansionist. It had everything to do with national security and nothing to do with territory.  

Now, leaving aside the matter of whether the invasion of East Timor can be defined as ‘expansionist’, we are compelled to ask: why should that be? Why should the government of a nation with so much larger a population fear one so much smaller? Indonesia today has a population of 231,627,000. East Timor has 1,155,000. (Both figures by the way, are UN estimates [6], and bear in mind that the Indonesian military killed about 200,000 of the 650,000 [then] East Timorese population during the occupation.)

The ‘Cuba on the doorstep’ argument offered at the time by the Indonesians and their supporters in Australia, including the newly installed Fraser government, was quite a powerful card to play in the wake of the 1962 Cuban missile crisis 13 years before, which brought the world closer than it had ever been to nuclear war.

‘Cuba’ is a word that conjures up images of nuclear missile bases, a population armed to the teeth and largely dressed in combat fatigues, and general bearded Marxist subversion. The  other side of the story: the Cuban government and population understandably feared another invasion along the lines of the Bay of Pigs attempt (18 months before the October 1962 missile crisis) which sought to return power to supporters of the deposed dictator Fulgencio Batista [6] who had mostly fled to Miami following the 1959 Castro revolution.


But what could Soeharto’s government have feared from East Timor, even if it had become a ‘Cuba’? Soviet nuclear missile bases? Chinese ones, perhaps? In the unlikely event that the Soviets believed they could gain something from a repeat of their disastrous Cuban mistake or an even more unlikely Chinese emulation of it, invasion and removal of provocative bases would have been easy, as Indonesia has a land border with East Timor; much easier than it would have been for the Americans in relation to Cuba. Moreover, East Timor’s position would in those circumstances have been morally weak, rather than as strong as it was in the years of occupation. The US would hardly have refused an Indonesian request for assistance in the cold war environment of the time, had such bases even been contemplated.


East Timor grows excellent coffee, and has large reserves of natural gas. I suggest that the real reason for the invasion was Soeharto’s understandable concern about the influence and example (set by its very existence) of an independent and prospering East Timor on the rest of the population of the shambolic Javanese Empire; on Soeharto’s effort to encourage that population to believe that ‘Indonesia’ despite its internal divisions and differences, was one nation, and that it was not being ruled in the interests of its corruption-prone Javanese elite.


It is for the continuing atrocity that was the Indonesian occupation of East Timor, involving on a pro rata basis 1.9 times greater total casualties than those suffered by Poland in WW2, [7] that Soeharto should be remembered. That will be Soeharto’s real story, no matter how many layers of cosmetics are plastered onto his corpse by fawning acolytes like Paul Keating; who incredibly, was Prime Minister of Australia from 1991 to 1996.












Also recommended: John Pilger’s article on Suharto at Not that I agree with him on everything.

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