Wednesday 25 Nov 2020 | 02:12 | SYDNEY
Wednesday 25 Nov 2020 | 02:12 | SYDNEY

Was Soeharto responsible?


Stephen Grenville

16 January 2008 08:08

In response to my post of yesterday on the killings in Java and Bali under Soeharto, Peter McCawley writes:

Stephen Grenville's report that the London Financial Times has carried a story that the number of deaths in Indonesia in late 1965 and early 1966 was 'anywhere between 500,000 and 3m' is worrying.  The FT is risking its credibility by reporting highly unreliable estimates of this kind.  Facts are important, and there are two sets of facts that are germane to this discussion. 

First, the number of deaths. One of the most reliable estimates is that reported in the best biography of Soeharto, which is by R.E. Elson, Suharto; a political biography. Elson suggests a figure at the bottom end of the FT's scale, 'perhaps half a million people' (p. 125). The truth is that we don't know. However, the FT's estimate of 3 million certainly reflects remarkable inflation over most earlier estimates. 

The second set of facts that is germane relates to Soeharto's personal responsibility for the events.  Elson suggests that 'Suharto must bear central responsibility for the massacres' (p.125).  But it is clear that in this period (late 1965 and early 1966), Soeharto's own authority in Indonesia was uncertain. While Elson is sharply critical of Soeharto he also notes that 'Suharto was, in one sense, no more than a primus inter pares' amongst the military during this period who 'had to take infinite pains to win the trust and support of his fellows' (p. 127). In fact, Soeharto did not really emerge as the chief power-holder in Indonesia until well into 1966. The terrible truth is that in the awful period in late 1965-early 1966 in Indonesia, it seems that nobody in Jakarta was really in control of the country – not even Soeharto.