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Canada and Suharto

Fifty years ago this month Indonesian Major General Suharto began a wave of terror that left hundreds of thousands of Communist Party members and landless peasants dead. Did Canada try to stop the killing or at least protest the massive human rights violation? No, Lester Pearson’s Liberal government largely backed Suharto’s terror campaign and overthrow of elected president Sukarno.

Between October 1965 and March 1966 approximately one million “communists” were massacred by the Indonesian military and religious forces they supported. During this slaughter, the Communist Party of Indonesia (PKI), one of the world’s largest, was all but wiped out as a political force. Simultaneously, Suharto steadily usurped Sukarno’s authority and eventually ousted him.

Even though he was aware of General Suharto’s killing, in early 1966 Canada’s ambassador in Jakarta called this mass murderer “a moderate, sensible and progressive leader.” An External Affairs memorandum explained: “Changes in the political orientation of Indonesia have already had a profound effect on the prospects for stability in South East Asia. It is patently in our interests that the new [Suharto] regime be able to consolidate its internal position and to pursue external policies it appears prepared to follow. These are policies which promise to make the situation much easier not only for the smaller countries of the area but also for Australia, New Zealand, the UK and the USA.”

Canadian opposition to the elected Sukarno dated back a number of years. In a bid to maintain its influence in East Asia, in mid-1961 London pushed to merge its colonies of North Borneo, Sarawak and Singapore with Malaya (technically independent from England since 1957) to create Malaysia. Independent Indonesia objected to what it saw as a subservient Malaysian government’s willingness to extend colonial authority on its border. Conflict between Indonesia and Malaysia escalated into a low-level war.

Ottawa sided with the Malaysian leader Tunku. During a visit to Ottawa by Tunku Pearson said “under his leadership the peoples of Malaysia have been brought closer together in freedom, democracy and greater human welfare” despite Indonesian “pressure dedicated to their destruction.” In Fire and the Full Moon David Webster notes: “Ottawa avoided direct military involvement but was clearly a partisan and on the Malaysian side.”

In the midst of the conflict, the Liberal government cut a small disbursement of food aid to Indonesia while releasing $4 million ($28 million today) in military aid to Malaysia. In response, Indonesian President Sukarno added Canada to his list of “imperialists with white skins”, which included the US, New Zealand, Australia and Britain. A nationalist Indonesian newspaper, Suluh, said Ottawa should “go to hell.”

An External Affairs assessment of Indonesian foreign policy during this period concluded that President Sukarno wanted “an endless succession of foreign adventures” to satisfy his “personal and national megalomania.” Canada’s ambassador in Jakarta further explained: “He [Sukarno] wants revolutionary change in the balance of economic power between the developed and less developed nations … We believe that under Sukarno Indonesia is already a lost cause as far as the free world is concerned.”

Sukarno’s aggressive opposition to British policy in Malaysia hastened the slow moving US-backed military takeover by Suharto. In the lead-up to the bloody military coup, the US government authorized a covert program in late 1964 to assist the “good men in the government, armed services and the private sector” who might topple Sukarno if Washington supported their efforts. Washington also worked to paint the Communist Party of Indonesia (PKI) as an agent of China and enemy of Indonesian nationalism. The CIA provided the military with a list of 5,000 PKI members it wanted liquidated.

To aid Suharto, Ottawa selected Indonesia as the main Asian country outside of the Commonwealth to receive Canadian aid. In Rain Dancing: Sanctions in Canadian and Australian Foreign Policy Kim Richard Nossal explains: “The domestic political stability achieved by Suharto after the ouster of Sukarno in 1966, together with a pronounced tilt in foreign policy towards the West, made Indonesia an attractive target in the eyes of [Canadian] policymakers.” Ottawa preferred Suharto’s Western-trained technocrats to Sukarno’s anti-colonial nationalism. “Only with the removal of Sukarno from power,” notes Fire and Full Moon, “would the Government of Canada smile on Indonesia again.”
Canadian aid (mostly bilateral) rose rapidly from a little under a million to nearly $7 million in 1971-2 and then between 1975 and 1996 Canadian aid to Indonesia grew ten-fold. Canadian aid helped the kleptocratic Suharto dictatorship consolidate control.

Those who participated in the slaughter of Indonesian leftists 50 years ago have never been held to account. The same can be said for the Canadian officials who backed this crime against humanity.

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Yves Engler’s latest book is ‪Canada in Africa: 300 years of Aid and Exploitation.

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