Washington, D.C., July 24, 2018 – The Clinton administration sought to preserve close ties to the Indonesian Armed Forces as President Suharto’s rule came to an end in May 1998, even as the Army carried out significant human rights abuses, according to recently declassified documents posted today by the National Security Archive based at The George Washington University. US officials were aware of the military’s involvement in kidnappings and disappearances of student activists going on at the time but saw preservation of the Army’s role as central to political stability in the country, the records show.
The United States was actively engaged in Indonesian affairs in Spring 1998. Officials monitored the growing military opposition to Suharto, including noting the view of his own son-in-law, Prabowo, that Suharto needed to step down. Clinton also pressed Indonesia on its economy, specifically urging acceptance of an IMF structural adjustment package that actually worsened the political crisis and helped bring about Suharto’s ouster.
The newly released documents add to the significant declassified record on U.S.-Indonesia relations, which includes important materials the National Security Archive has posted on topics such as Indonesia’s occupation of East Timor and regime human rights abuses dating to the mid-1960s.
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Twenty Years after Suharto’s Downfall
By Brad Simpson
Twenty years after the 1997-1998 Asian Financial Crisis and the May,1998 resignation of former Indonesian dictator Suharto, the National Security Archive published formerly classified documents detailingUS policy toward Indonesia during the Asian Financial Crisis, the Clinton Administration’s response to growing student protests against Suharto, its awareness of the involvement of Suharto and Indonesian military personnel in a wave of student abductions, and its commitment to preserving its relationship with the Indonesian Armed Forces (TNI) in the wake of Suharto’s ouster.
Indonesian President Suharto came to power in 1966 following an alleged coup attempt by the September 30th Movement on September 30, 1965 which he blamed on the Indonesian Communist Party (PKI). Following the September 30th Movement, the Indonesian Army and its paramilitary allies launched a campaign of annihilation against the PKI and its affiliated organizations, killing up to 500,000 alleged PKI supporters between October 1965 and March 1966, imprisoning up to a million more, and eventually ousting Indonesian President Sukarno and replacing him with General Suharto, who ruled Indonesia for the next 32 years before he himself was overthrown in May 1998.
In the summer of 1997 the collapse of the Thai currency (the baht) produced a regional financial crisis that severely impacted Indonesia, which saw its currency (the rupiah) plunge in value and its economy severely contract, with devastating consequences for Indonesia’s population. The financial crisis highlighted the vulnerability of the Indonesian economy and the widespread corruption which had enriched Suharto, his family, and associated supporters. In response the International Monetary Fund, with US backing, pressed Indonesia to adopt a structural adjustment package as a condition for receiving $43 billion in loans to prop up the economy, worsening the impact of the financial crisis on the country’s poor.
The economic crisis emboldened critics of the Suharto regime, including moderate Muslims, opposition politicians such as Megawati Sukarnoputri, and a growing student movement, which in April and May, 1998 launched large-scale protests. On May 12, 1998, Indonesian soldiers opened fire on unarmed demonstrators at Trisakti University who were demanding Suharto step down, killing six. The killings sparked even larger protests and riots, as well as the defection of key military supporters, which on May 20 forced Suharto’s resignation and replacement by Vice-President BJ Habibie. The Clinton Administration maintained support for Suharto until virtually the end, and continued to view the Indonesian armed forces as the guarantors of stability.
In the aftermath of Suharto’s resignation, human rights groups began demanding accountability for the Trisakti killings, the kidnapping of student activists, and other military abuses. Suharto’s ouster, moreover, emboldened independence activists in Aceh and West Papua, as well as the resistance to Indonesia’s illegal occupation of East Timor.