General Suharto of Indonesia is fading fast, the news bulletins say.
So when I came into the country, I started asking how people felt about their dying killer. (Body count, around 1 million-plus, overwhelmingly civilian).
The first man I ran into–near a coffee/rice stall–though the radio blared the death watch, said nothing about it, until I raised it.
“So much the better,” he smiled.
Even people I know well did not bother to mention it, though they know I follow politics.
One market lady had just described her own recent ailments–decades of squatting and pounding grain take a toll–when I asked about Suharto.
“Suharto?”, she said. “He ate too much money. He’s full. He ate so such that others can’t eat.”
She chuckled at her own joke. Everybody laughed. The mourning period should be over by lunchtime.
The New York Times, in 1993, after the East Timor massacres, Philip Shenon wrote that Suharto “r[a]n the country with a grandfatherly smile and an iron fist” and lamented that his “accomplishments are not widely known abroad.”
On earth, in Indonesia–below the towers of life-giving-or-taking wealth and distant killing decision–Suharto seemed to have been seen, on the one hand, as a small man, but on the other, as a menace.
You could talk corruption, but you could not mention the murders. You had to work hard to forget them. The government helped with “Clean Environment” laws that banned the surviving relatives from social contacts, on the theory that if they got around, their memories might pollute society.
A grandmother, when pressed, once told me about bodies bobbing in Sumatra rivers.
But as a rule, people don’t like to talk about Suharto’s founding massacre, the one that was, in the words of James Reston of the Times, the “gleam of light in Asia” (June 19, 1966), and in the words of the CIA, which assisted, “one of the worst mass murders of the 20th century” (for background see posting of November 8, 2007: “Duduk – Duduk, Ngobrol-Ngobrol. Sitting Around Talking, in Indonesia.”).
Interestingly enough, on the official, bureaucratic level, it is corruption talk that is taboo.
In 1998, I was being interrogated after giving a press conference on Suharto’s secret aid from Clinton (including snipers and “PSYOP”(s); see posting of December 12, 2007), and Suharto’s man began to read aloud from my file–parts disturbingly accurate, parts ridiculous.