Albion Monitor /Features

The Suharto Lobby

by Eyal Press

It was evident that the primary objective was to persuade American reporters to go easy on the Suharto regime
On December 10, 1996, the day the Nobel Peace Prize was jointly awarded to Bishop Carlos Ximenes Belo and Jose Ramos-Horta of East Timor, the Indonesian government held a meeting at the National Press Club in Washington. There, standing before a podium in a room full of reporters, Arifin Siregar, the Indonesian ambassador to the United States, delivered a smoothly worded address downplaying Indonesia's human-rights abuses in East Timor and urging Americans not to judge the Suharto regime by its past actions. "We learn from our mistakes," he said.

Following the speech, an Australian reporter turned attention to the question of lobbying, asking Siregar what role was being played by a Washington-based group called the U.S.-Indonesia Society. There was a moment's pause. Then Siregar responded, "It is not a lobbying organization -- not at all. . . . The primary purpose is to improve relations."

Not five minutes later, the focus shifted to the back of the room, where Paul Wolfowitz, a former U.S. ambassador to Indonesia and now a trustee of the U.S.-Indonesia Society, expounded on the importance of America's relationship to the Suharto regime and the sensitivity of the East Timor question. After Wolfowitz finished, the audience heard more of the same from Edward Masters, another former U.S. ambassador to Indonesia, and currently the president of the U.S.-Indonesia Society. "The best thing to do," Masters explained, "is to work with [the Indonesians], not confront them, and to try to find common ground."

As Siregar gazed contentedly at the audience, his message echoed by the prestigious diplomats, it was evident that the meeting had achieved its primary objective, which was to persuade American reporters to go easy on the Suharto regime.

Downplaying human-rights abuses, and bolstering U.S. commercial, diplomatic, and military support for Suharto
Ever since the Clinton fundraising scandal broke, the U.S. media have flocked to uncover the details of Clinton's relationship to James and Mochtar Riady of the Lippo Group, and John Huang, the former Lippo executive, Commerce Department official, and Democratic Party fundraiser. The speculation is that Lippo, the Riadys, and Huang, through their massive donations and collections, altered U.S. policy toward Indonesia, helping to mute the Administration's concerns about human rights and labor abuses.

But Lippo, the Riadys, and Huang have hardly been acting alone. U.S. corporations, former senior government officials, and Suharto cronies have also played a role. One of their primary channels of influence has been the U.S.-Indonesia Society, a group founded in 1994 by a collection of political and corporate heavyweights. Sponsors of this Society include not only the Lippo Group, but U.S. companies with investments in Indonesia such as Freeport-McMoRan, Texaco, Mobil, Raytheon, Hughes Aircraft, and Merrill Lynch. In addition to former ambassadors Wolfowitz and Masters, the Society's membership list includes George Benson, who was once a U.S. military attache in Indonesia, and President Reagan's Secretary of State, George Shultz, who is the group's honorary co-chair. The U.S.-Indonesia Society also includes Indonesian business leaders and former ministers and generals with close ties to the Indonesian military and to Suharto himself. James Riady, for instance, is a trustee.

This is the real Suharto lobby in Washington. It consists of major multinational corporations, Suharto insiders, Indonesian billionaires, and U.S. foreign-policy elites all working in harmony to achieve two shared objectives: downplaying human-rights abuses, and bolstering U.S. commercial, diplomatic, and military support for Suharto.

The U.S.-Indonesia Society describes itself as a nonprofit educational group. "We're here to educate Americans about Indonesia," says Charlie Zenzie, a spokesman for the group. "There is a glaring lack of understanding about the country." But the actual mission is to counteract Suharto's increasingly vocal human-rights critics in the United States. To Jakarta's alarm, these have grown in recent years to encompass major labor unions (including the AFL-CIO), church groups (both Protestant and Catholic denominations), and grassroots organizations. In March, Peace Action, the largest U.S. peace group, held a rousing demonstration at the Indonesian embassy in Washington, where students from around the country held white crosses and called out the names of individuals killed in East Timor with U.S. weapons. Thirty people were arrested.

Masters informed a U.S. House Committee that the mass starvation in East Timor was a legacy of Portuguese rule, not Indonesian occupation
To counteract these forces, the U.S.-Indonesia Society serves as a sort of P.R. organ for the Suharto regime. Congress is a particular target. The group tries to influence U.S. lawmakers by distributing materials to them, holding occasional briefing sessions on Capitol Hill, and taking Congressional staffers on trips to Indonesia.

At the university level, the group arranges forums on Indonesia, with panels tailored to its ideological agenda, co-funds the prestigious Fulbright scholarship program, and sends college students from across America on summer internships to the country.

Meanwhile, the Society is involved in a massive corporate initiative-backed by Texaco, Freeport, Lippo Bank, and others-to distribute materials on Indonesia to U.S. teenagers.

On the Indonesian excursions, Congressional aides get acquainted with high-ranking officials such as foreign minister Ali Alatas (who has ascribed the genocide in East Timor to "cultural differences") and minister of technology B.J. Habibi. Staff members also visit the town of Lippo Karawici -- built by the Lippo Group. The U.S.-Indonesia Society hosts exclusive receptions, co-sponsored by U.S. corporations, which are attended by the likes of J. Stapleton Roy, current U.S. ambassador to Indonesia.

"We hope they come back with a favorable impression," former ambassador Masters says of the trips. "I feel it's very important that staffers who brief Congress see Indonesia first-hand." Masters says the agenda for such trips is completely open. In a recent Society newsletter, he even nods toward some of Indonesia's problems, noting that Congressional visitors may be exposed to "continued poverty, limited outlets for popular expression, East Timor."

But the pro-Suharto message of the trips is clear. Masters has long been an apologist for Suharto. Back in December of 1979, as then-U.S. ambassador to Indonesia, Masters informed a U.S. House Committee that the mass starvation in East Timor was a legacy of Portuguese rule, not Indonesian occupation, a line he repeated when interviewed.

"The people of East Timor were left in desperate poverty when the Portuguese left," he explained. "So Indonesia moved in. . . . Economically, I think they've done very well."

Asked about the 200,000 people who have been killed in the process, Masters replied sharply, "Nobody who knows anything about East Timor would accept that figure." According to Masters, the actual number is "perhaps 30,000, mostly from malnutrition and starvation."

In fact, the most careful demographic analysis, performed by James Dunn, former Australian consul general to Dili, concludes that the figure 200,000 -- one-third of the population -- is in the right vicinity, though one Indonesian official told him it was too low.

Masters's relations to the Suharto regime -- like those of many of the U.S.-Indonesia Society's members -- go way back. In 1965, when Suharto came to power by massacring as many as 500,000 Indonesians ("one of the worst mass murders of the twentieth century," according to the CIA), Masters was serving as head of the political section at the U.S. embassy in Jakarta. He admitted in 1990 that the Embassy supplied the names of thousands of communist leaders to the Indonesian Army, which then hunted down and killed them. "Oh sure. . . . We knew where the names were going," he told journalist Kathy Kadane in an article that appeared in The Washington Post. Today, Masters recants the testimony he gave to Kadane. "She put two and two together to get sixteen," he says.

Bolstering the myth that Suharto has orchestrated an economic miracle in Indonesia, modernizing the country while lifting the masses out of poverty
Other members of the U.S.-Indonesia Society have also lent Suharto a hand. One of the group's chief financial sustainers and trustees is Roy Huffington, a Texas oilman who made his fortune in natural gas by teaming up with Pertamina, the Indonesian state oil company, which is partially controlled by the Indonesian military.

Back in the early 1980s, Huffington's Texas oil company, Huffco, made eight separate shipments of torture equipment-shock batons, handcuffs, billy clubs, fingerprint kits-to the Suharto regime. The shipments were illegal, and the Commerce Department gave Huffco a $250,000 slap on the wrist. On the board of trustees of the U.S.-Indonesia Society are numerous Suharto cronies, including Sumitro Djojohadikusumo. For years a minister in Suharto's cabinet, Sumitro is known as the "grand old man" of the Indonesian economic community -- a senior architect of economic policy under Suharto who has, over the years, used his family to erect an influential power bloc within the ruling oligarchy. ("I have never met a person with so much natural intelligence," he has said of Suharto.) Recently, with pro-democracy riots spreading throughout Indonesia, Sumitro issued dire warnings of a "crisis of authority," which he believes "can be resolved with a strong show of political will."

Sumitro's own son, major general Prabowo Subianto, is well positioned to carry out such a task. Trained in the United States [Fort Benning] -- he was first in his U.S. Special Forces officer class, according to a profile in Jane's Intelligence Review -- Prabowo is married to one of Suharto's daughters and heads the Indonesian army's notoriously brutal special forces, Kopassus. His specialty has been putting down rebellions and directing combat units in Indonesia's so-called hot spots, meaning Aceh, East Timor, and Irian Jaya.

Another son of Sumitro, Hasim, is also a trustee of the U.S.-Indonesia Society. Hasim heads a $3 billion business conglomerate with interests in Indonesian energy, cement, petrochemicals, and banking. And Sumitro's daughter Bianti Djiwandono is a Society trustee; she is married to the governor of the bank of Indonesia.

The U.S.-Indonesia Society held its inaugural ball in Jakarta on November 1, 1995. The lavish affair was attended by 200 people, including former ambassador Wolfowitz, Sumitro, and representatives of numerous U.S. and Indonesian firms. "There was delicious food and boilerplate speeches about the importance of what was being started . . . with assurances that this was not a P.R. operation," says one partygoer who wishes to remain anonymous.

The launching of the new group did not go unnoticed. The Jakarta Post, which frequently echoes the Indonesian government's line, printed a glowing editorial about the U.S.-Indonesia Society, noting the group's importance "in view of the absence of a strong Indonesia lobby in the United States."

The Clinton Administration has also welcomed the group. "The United States-Indonesia Society can play an important role in promoting the broad, informal mutual understanding that must underpin long-term cooperation," Ambassador Roy said about a year later at an exclusive Jakarta dinner in his honor. This one was sponsored by the Lippo Group, Freeport-McMoRan, Mobil, and GE. Lauding his hosts as "exceptionally knowledgeable and sympathetic," Roy explained that U.S. policy should "not become dominated by too narrow viewpoints." Roy went on to congratulate the group for having recently "sponsored its first Fulbright-USINDO scholar," saying he hoped "American and Indonesian companies will do the same."

Ron Brown, former head of the Commerce Department, attended the opening of the U.S.-Indonesia Society in 1994 in Washington. He was joined by other American officials, including Winston Lord, who until recently was the State Department's leading voice on Asia.

The U.S.-Indonesia Society claims to distribute information that is "authoritative and nonpartisan." That's "outrageous," says Jeff Winters, an Indonesia specialist at Northwestern University. "They sent me the latest Indonesia Source Book produced by the NDIO [Indonesia's National Development Information Office]. NDIO was established back in the 1970s with [P.R. company] Hill & Knowlton, and they wrote all the speeches in English for Indonesian ministers to speak in front of people."

The 1996 NDIO Source Book contains a glowing overview of Indonesia's economic performance, cleansed of references to endemic corruption, inequality, and massive labor repression. A note on the cover included a U.S.-Indonesia Society order form and a message from Edward Masters, who said he was "pleased to forward" this "useful" guide.

The guide is, in fact, "useful" for one very particular reason: It bolsters the myth that Suharto has orchestrated an economic miracle in Indonesia, modernizing the country while lifting the masses out of poverty. This theme runs through the U.S.-Indonesia Society's newsletters, the talks it sponsors, and the publications it distributes.

One such booklet is called "Economic Policy Under President Suharto: Indonesia's Twenty-Five Year Record." It paints a bright picture of the Indonesian economy, claiming that problems of corruption and military rule are "exaggerated," and not mentioning human-rights or labor abuses. In the preface, Masters comments on the regime's economic record: "This has been a very human endeavor -- one that is almost as rare as a miracle." To celebrate Indonesia's fiftieth year of independence, the group helped sponsor a dinner in October 1995 in Washington. The dinner was held at the CARE foundation, in honor of Suharto and in celebration of a half century of progress. At that dinner, Freeport CEO James ("Jim Bob") Moffett introduced Suharto. Masters published an op-ed timed for the occasion in the Journal of Commerce. Under Suharto's stewardship, wrote Masters, "the percentage of the [Indonesian] population living below the poverty line has been slashed from 60 percent thirty years ago to 14 percent today."

This assertion, repeated endlessly by the Suharto apologists and the World Bank, is highly misleading. As the Far Eastern Economic Review recently pointed out, "Jakarta's definition of poverty is questioned by economists. For city dwellers, the poverty line is fixed at a mere 930 rupiah [roughly forty cents] per capita per day; in the countryside, it's 608 rupiah [twenty-five cents]."

Faisal Basri, an Indonesian economist, calculates that 82 percent of Indonesians subsist on $30 per month or less. Professor Winters also questions the official figures, in part because, back in 1990, he was on hand when the Suharto regime handed them to the World Bank. "The World Bank lowered its own estimate of the number of Indonesian poor to 30 million (a number Suharto claimed in a speech) so that Suharto would not be offended. The World Bank's original figure was more than two times higher."

In 1994, Indonesia's industrial wages were the lowest in all of Asia, according to a report produced by the investment bank Morgan Stanley (though Vietnam may now lay claim to this distinction). Indonesia keeps wages low by cracking down on labor. It is these low wages, plus the country's abundant natural resources, that attract the corporate leaders of the U.S.-Indonesia Society.

In late 1995, David Johnson of the Center for Defense Information, a Washington-based research group, attended a forum on Indonesia at the Carnegie International Center in Washington that was co-sponsored by the U.S.-Indonesia Society. In attendance was Ambassador Roy and former ambassador to Indonesia (under Reagan) John Holdridge. Speakers included Karl Jackson, a former Defense Department official now at Johns Hopkins, and Masters.

"The main theme of all speakers," Johnson recorded in a memo on the event, "was that the U.S. government, the U.S. Congress, and the U.S. media were all anti-Indonesia and that the tremendous accomplishments of President Suharto had not been understood or appreciated." No one said a critical word about Suharto, Johnson noted. Former ambassador Holdridge did identify "one ray of hope: that American businesses involved in Indonesia might be able to help overcome the existing anti-Indonesia climate in the U.S."

They are doing their best. In March, a 100-strong delegation of U.S. business leaders, headed by former U.S. Secretary of State Alexander Haig, visited Jakarta to proclaim that the country's recent political riots are "not a problem." "I'm very optimistic," Haig said of Indonesia.

One week later, on March 23, the Indonesian military cracked down on peaceful protesters at the Mahkota Hotel in Dili, East Timor. According to Amnesty International, which issued an emergency alert, eleven youths were taken to a military hospital, and the security forces detained at least forty-eight others. Protesters allege that the military blocked their exits, beat them, and fired rubber bullets at them.

Eyal Press is a New York-based journalist.
This article first appeared in The Progressive

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Albion Monitor December 3, 1997 (

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