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Noam Chomsky on Our “Wonderful” Indonesian Moderates

A collection of released documents revealed US support of human rights violations in support of Indonesia.

Noam Chomsky discussed the responsibility of intellectuals and pointed out how, “historical amnesia is dangerous not only because it undermines moral and intellectual integrity, but also it lays the groundwork for crimes that still lie ahead.” According to Josefhine Chitra and Andhyta F. Utami, “His quote holds some truth for Indonesia’s bleak past in settling its human rights violations [with US support].”

Recently, a collection of released documents revealed US support of human rights violations in support of Indonesia and the greater Cold War strategy. In October, Hannah Beech in The New York Times reported “US Stood By as Indonesia Killed a Half-Million People, Papers Show.”

“It was an anti-Communist blood bath of at least half a million Indonesians. And American officials watched it happen without raising any public objections, at times even applauding the forces behind the killing, according to newly declassified State Department files that show diplomats meticulously documenting the purge in 1965-66,” writes Beech. If the New York Times took a moment to review its own archives it would notice that government officials were not the only ones applauding.

Vincent Bevins also reported in the Atlantic that, “While the newly declassified documents further illustrated the horror of Indonesia’s 1965 mass murder, they also confirmed that U.S. authorities backed Suharto’s purge. Perhaps even more striking: As the documents show, U.S. officials knew most of his victims were entirely innocent.” Again, this is accurate reporting but fails to mention mainstream press culpability, endorsement, if not outright denial of the US backing of Suharto for three decades.

While it is good that The New York Times, the Atlantic and the Financial Times reported on the revelation, (very little has been printed elsewhere) Noam Chomsky has indicated what’s interesting about the articles: what doesn’t appear. Chomsky remarked that, “The New York Times certainly knew about the slaughters as early as 1965 as the events occurred. It reported accurately the “staggering mass slaughter,” as did others.

Chomsky also referred to the July 15, 1966 edition of Time Magazine that devoted over 10 pages in regards to the “boiling bloodbath.” These incidents were not pointed out as crimes, but with euphoria. One of the more respected liberal journalists at the time, New York Times columnist James Reston referred to the US backed regime as “a gleam of light in Asia.”

The editors at The New York Times were well aware at once of crucial United States government involvement and praised Washington, DC, for concealing its own role so that full credit would be given to the “Indonesian moderates” who carried out this “wonderful” slaughter. This was welcomed with aid and praise as Suharto compiled one of the world’s worst human rights records and invaded East Timor with US help in the subsequent virtual genocide. Suharto and the Indonesian government represented “Our Kind of Guy” as the Clinton administration called him.

The film Manufacturing Consent outlined the propaganda model set forth by Edward S. Herman and Noam Chomsky. They discovered for every crime committed by Pol-Pot in Cambodia starting in 1975, it would receive enormous press coverage, while the United States was supporting Indonesia’s massacre of the East Timorese, also starting in 1975 and “one of the great evil deeds of history.” US actions in Cambodia from 1970-1975 were similarly heinous, but after the US had Pol-Pot to condemn, The New York Times could focus on the Cambodian region in order to hide an illegal genocide with US support.

Also in the film, western apologists and members of the press such as Karl E. Meyer, an editorial writer for The New York Times, refuted the Herman and Chomsky thesis. He denied that a lack of coverage was evidence for media subservience in support of the state when in fact it appeared to be clear complicity with genocide.

Chomsky pointed out that, “We compared Cambodia with East Timor, two very closely paired examples. And we gave approximately in Political Economy of Human Rights, including a reference to every article we could discover about Cambodia. Many Western intellectuals do not like to face the facts and balk at the conclusions that any untutored person would draw. Many people are very irritated by the fact that we exposed the extraordinary deceit over Cambodia and paired it with the simultaneous suppression of the US-supported, ongoing atrocities in Timor. People don’t like that. For one thing, we were challenging the right to lie in defense of the state. For another thing, we were exposing the apologetics and support for actual ongoing atrocities. That doesn’t make you popular.”

Chomsky notes that there were good reasons for the initial US support of Indonesia. From the perspectives of the wartime planners, it crucially related to the Vietnam War. McGeorge Bundy reflected that the US should have pulled out of Vietnam as early as 1965. Why? Because there was no longer any fear that a major domino would topple.

By failing to take this into account, The New York Times and the Atlantic were remiss.

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