Good and Bad Genocide
Double standards in coverage of Suharto and Pol
by Edward S. Herman
EXTRA / newsletter of Fairness and Accuracy in
September / October 1998
Coverage of the fall of Suharto reveals with startling clarity
the ideological biases and propaganda role of the mainstream media.
Suharto was a ruthless dictator, a grand larcenist and a mass
killer with as many victims as Cambodia's Pol Pot. But he served
U.S. economic and geopolitical interests, was helped into power
by Washington, and his dictatorial rule was warmly supported for
32 years by the U.S. economic and political establishment. The
U.S. was still training the most repressive elements of Indonesia's
security forces as Suharto's rule was collapsing in 1998, and
the Clinton administration had established especially close relations
with the dictator ("our kind of guy," according to a
senior administration official quoted in the New York Times, 10/31/95).
Suharto's overthrow of the Sukarno government in 1965-66 turned
Indonesia from Cold War "neutralism" to fervent anti-Communism,
and wiped out the Indonesian Communist Party- exterminating a
sizable part of its mass base in the process, in widespread massacres
that claimed at least 500,000 and perhaps more than a million
victims. The U.S. establishment's enthusiasm for the coup-cum-mass
murder was ecstatic (see Chomsky and Herman, Washington Connection
and Third World Fascism); "almost everyone is pleased by
the changes being wrought," New York Times columnist C.L.
Sulzberger commented (4/8/66).
Suharto quickly transformed Indonesia into an "investors'
paradise," only slightly qualified by the steep bribery charge
for entry. Investors flocked in to exploit the timber, mineral
and oil resources, as well as the cheap, repressed labor, often
in joint ventures with Suharto family members and cronies. Investor
enthusiasm for this favorable climate of investment was expressed
in political support and even in public advertisements; e.g.,
the full page ad in the New York Times (9/24/92) by Chevron and
Texaco entitled "Indonesia: A Model for Economic Development."
The U.S. support and investment did not slacken when Suharto's
army invaded and occupied East Timor in 1975, which resulted in
an estimated 200,000 deaths in a population of only 700,000. Combined
with the 500,0001,000,000+ slaughtered within Indonesia in 1965-66,
the double genocide would seem to put Suharto in at least the
same class of mass murderer as Pol Pot.
Good and Bad Genocidists
But Suharto's killings of 1965-66 were what Noam Chomsky and
I, in The Washington Connection and Third World Fascism, called
"constructive terror," with results viewed as favorable
to Western interests. His mass killings in East Timor were "benign
terror," carried out by a valued client and therefore tolerable.
Pol Pot's were "nefarious terror," done by an enemy,
therefore appalling and to be severely condemned. Pol Pot's victims
were "worthy," Suharto's "unworthy."
This politicized classification system was unfailingly employed
by the media in the period of Suharto's decline and fall (1997-98).
When Pol Pot died in April 1998, the media were unstinting in
condemnation, calling him "wicked," "loathsome"
and "monumentally evil" (Chicago Tribune, 4/18/98),
a "lethal mass killer" and "war criminal"
(LA. Times, 4/17/98), "blood-soaked" and an "egregious
mass murderer" (Washington Post, 4/17/98, 4/18/98) . His
rule was repeatedly described as a "reign of terror"
and he was guilty of "genocide." Although he inherited
a devastated country with starvation rampant, all excess deaths
during his rule were attributed to him, and he was evaluated on
the basis of those deaths.
Although Suharto's regime was responsible for a comparable
number of deaths in Indonesia, along with more than a quarter
of the population of East Timor, the word "genocide"
is virtually never used in mainstream accounts of his rule. A
Nexis search of major papers for the first half of 1998 turned
up no news articles and only a handful of letters and opinion
pieces that used the term in connection with Suharto.
Earlier, in a rare case where the word came up in a discussion
of East Timor (New York Times, 2/15/81), reporter Henry Kamm referred
to it as "hyperbole-accusations of 'genocide' rather than
mass deaths from cruel warfare and the starvation that accompanies
it on this historically food short island." No such "hyperbole"
was applied to the long-useful Suharto; one looks in vain for
editorial descriptions of him as "blood-soaked" or a
In the months of his exit, he was referred to as Indonesia's
"soft-spoken, enigmatic president" (USA Today, 5/15/98),
a "profoundly spiritual man" (New York Times, 5/17/98),
a "reforming autocrat" (New York Times, 5/22/98). His
motives were benign: "It was not simply personal ambition
that led Mr. Suharto to clamp down so hard for so long; it was
a fear, shared by many in this country of 210 million people,
of chaos" (New York Times, 6/2/98); he "failed to comprehend
the intensity of his people's discontent" (New York Times,
5/21/98); otherwise he undoubtedly would have stepped down earlier.
He was sometimes described as "authoritarian," occasionally
as a "dictator," but never as a mass murderer. Suharto's
mass killings were referred to-if at all-in a brief and antiseptic
It is interesting to see how the same reporters move between
Pol Pot and Suharto, indignant at the former's killings, somehow
unconcerned by the killings of the good genocidist. Seth Mydans,
the New York Times principal reporter on the two leaders during
the past two years, called Pol Pot (4/19/98) "one of the
century's great mass killers . . . who drove Cambodia to ruin,
causing the deaths of more than a million people," and who
"launched one of the world's most terrifying attempts at
utopia." (4/13/98) But in reference to Suharto, this same
Mydans said (4/8/98) that "more than 500,000 Indonesians
are estimated to have died in a purge of leftists in 1965, the
year Mr. Suharto came to power." Note that Suharto is not
even the killer, let alone a "great mass killer," and
this "purge"- not "murder" or "slaughter"-was
not "terrifying," and was not allocated to any particular
The use of the passive voice is common in dealing with Suharto's
victims: They "died" instead of being killed ("the
violence left a reported 500,000 people dead"-New York Times,
1/15/98), or "were killed" without reference to the
author of the killings (e.g., Washington Post, 2/23/98, 5/26/98).
In referring to East Timor, Mydans (New York Times, 7/28/96) spoke
of protectors shouting grievances about "the suppression
of opposition in East Timor and Irian Jaya." Is "suppression
of opposition" the proper description of an invasion and
occupation that eliminated 200,000 out of 700,000 people?
The good and bad genocidists are handled differently in other
ways. For Suharto, the numbers killed always tend to the 500,000
official Indonesian estimate or below, although independent estimates
run from 700,000 to well over a million. For Pol Pot, the media
numbers usually range from 1 million-2 million, although the best
estimates of numbers executed run from 100,000-400,000, with excess
deaths from all causes (including residual effects of the prior
devastation) ranging upward from 750,000 (Michael Vickery, Cambodia;
Herman and Chomsky, Manufacturing Consent).
Pol Pot's killings are always attributed to him personally-the
New York Times' Philip Shenon (4/18/98) refers to him as "the
man responsible for the deaths of more than a million Cambodians."
Although some analysts of the Khmer Rouge have claimed that the
suffering of Cambodia under the intense U.S. bombing made them
vengeful, and although the conditions they inherited were disastrous,
for the media nothing mitigates Pol Pot's responsibility. The
only "context" allowed explaining his killing is his
"crazed Maoist inspiration" (New York Times, 4/18/98),
his Marxist ideological training in France and his desire to create
a "utopia of equality" (Boston Globe editorial, 4/17/98).
With Suharto, by contrast, not only is he not responsible
for the mass killings, there was a mitigating circumstance: namely,
a failed leftist or Communist coup, or "leftist onslaught"
(New York Times, 6/17/79), which "touched off a wave of violence"
(New York Times, 8/7/96). In the New York Times' historical summary
(5/21/98): "General Suharto routs Communist forces who killed
six senior generals in an alleged coup attempt. Estimated 500,000
people killed in backlash against Communists."
This formula is repeated in most mainstream media accounts
of the 1965-66 slaughter. Some mention that the "Communist
plot" was "alleged," but none try to examine its
truth or falsehood. What's interesting is that the six deaths
are seen as a plausible catalyst for the Indonesian massacres,
while the 450,000 killed and maimed in the U.S. bombing of Cambodia
(the Washington Post's estimate, 4/24/75) are virtually never
mentioned in connection with the Khmer Rouge's violence. By suggesting
a provocation, and using words like "backlash" and "touching
off a wave of violence," the media justify and diffuse responsibility
for the good genocide.
The good genocidist is also repeatedly allowed credit for
having encouraged economic growth, which provides the regular
offset for his repression and undemocratic rule as well as mass
killing. In virtually every article Mydans wrote on Indonesia,
the fact that Suharto brought rising incomes is featured, with
the mass killings and other negatives relegated to side issues
that qualify the good. Joseph Stalin also presided over a remarkable
development and growth process, but the mainstream media have
never been inclined to overlook his crimes on that basis. Only
constructive terror deserves such contextualization.
A New York Times editorial declared (4/10/98): "Time
cannot erase the criminal responsibility of Pol Pot, whose murderous
rule of Cambodia in the late 1970s brought death to about a million
people, or one out of seven Cambodians. Trying him before an international
tribunal would advance justice, promote healing in Cambodia and
give pause to any fanatic tempted to follow his example."
But for the New York Times and its media cohorts, Suharto's
killings in East Timor-and the huge slaughter of 1965-66- are
not crimes and do not call for retribution or any kind of justice
to the victims. Reporter David Sanger (New York Times, 3/8/98)
differentiated Suharto from Iraq's Saddam Hussein, saying that
"Mr. Suharto is not hoarding anthrax or threatening to invade
Australia." The fact that he killed 500,000+ at home and
killed another 200,000 in an invasion of East Timor has disappeared
from view. This was constructive and benign terror carried out
by a good genocidist.
Edward S. Herman, professor emeritus at the Wharton School
of the University of Pennsylvania, is the author of several books,
including Demonstration Elections (with Frank Brodhead) and Manufacturing
Consent (with Noam Chomsky).
Policy and Pentagon