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Home > English > Website archives > Rainbow of Crisis > From Suharto to Iraq: Nothing has changed

From Suharto to Iraq: Nothing has changed

Thursday 24 November 2005, by John PILGER

“The propagandist’s purpose”, wrote Aldous Huxley, “is to make one set of people forget that certain other sets of people are human”. The British, who invented modern war propaganda and inspired Joseph Goebbels, were specialists in the field. At the height of the slaughter known as the First World War, the prime minister, David Lloyd George, confided to C. P. Scott, editor of the Manchester Guardian: “If people really knew [the truth], the war would be stopped tomorrow. But of course they don’t know, and can’t know.” What has changed? “If we had all known then what we know now”, said the New York Times on August 24, “the invasion [of Iraq] would have been stopped by a popular outcry”. The admission was saying, in effect, that powerful newspapers had betrayed their readers by amplifying the lies of US President George Bush and British Prime Minister Tony Blair. The direct consequences were a criminal invasion called “Shock and Awe” and the dehumanising of a whole nation.

A “forgotten” massacre

When will journalists cease to be establishment managers and confront the critical part they play in the violence of rapacious governments? An anniversary provides an opportunity. Forty years ago this month, Major General Suharto began a seizure of power in Indonesia by unleashing a wave of killings that the CIA described as “the worst mass murders of the second half of the 20th century”. Much of this episode was never reported and remains secret. None of the reports of recent terror attacks against tourists in Bali mentioned the fact that near the major hotels were the mass graves of some of an estimated 80,000 people killed by mobs orchestrated by Suharto and backed by the US and British governments. Indeed, the collaboration of Western governments and business laid the pattern for subsequent Anglo-American violence across the world: such as Augusto Pinochet’s bloody coup in Chile in 1973; the arming of the shah of Iran and the creation of his secret police; and the backing of Saddam Hussein in Iraq, including black propaganda by the British Foreign Office, which sought to discredit press reports that Hussein had used nerve gas against the Kurdish village of Halabja.

Propaganda War

In 1965, in Indonesia, the US embassy furnished General Suharto with roughly 5000 names. These were people for assassination, and a senior US diplomat checked off the names as they were killed or captured. Most were members of the Indonesian Communist Party (PKI). Lyndon B. Johnson, then President of the US, allowed Suharto’s generals to coordinate the massacres. However, it was in the field of propaganda that the British shone. British intelligence officers outlined how the British press could be manipulated. “Treatment will need to be subtle”, all activities should be strictly unattributable. British government participation should be carefully concealed”. To achieve this, the Foreign Office opened a branch of its Information Research Department (IRD) in Singapore. The IRD was a top-secret Cold War propaganda unit headed by Norman Reddaway, one of Her Majesty’s most experienced liars. Reddaway manipulated the “embedded” press so expertly that he boasted that the fake story he had promoted — that a communist takeover was imminent in Indonesia — “went all over the world and back again”. Prevented from entering Indonesia, Roland Challis, the BBC’s South-East Asia correspondent, was unaware. “My British sources knew what the American plan was. There were bodies washed up on the lawns of the British consulate in Surabaya. It was only later that we learned that the American embassy was supplying names. There was a deal. In establishing the Suharto regime, the involvement of the IMF and the World Bank was part of it. Suharto would bring them back.” The bloodbath was ignored by the Western media. The headline news was that “communism” had been overthrown in Indonesia, which, Time reported, “is the west’s best news in Asia”. In November 1967, at a conference in Geneva overseen by the billionaire banker David Rockefeller, the booty was handed out. All the corporate giants were represented, from General Motors, Chase Manhattan Bank and US Steel to ICI and British American Tobacco. With Suharto’s connivance, the natural riches of his country were carved up.

The Legacy

When Suharto was overthrown in 1998, it was estimated that he had up to US$10 billion in foreign banks, or more than 10% of Indonesia’s foreign debt. With British-supplied Hawk jets and machine-guns, Suharto’s army went on to crush a quarter of the population of East Timor. Using the same guns, the same genocidal army is now attempting to crush the life out of the resistance movement in West Papua and protect the Freeport Company, which is mining a mountain of copper in the province. Some 100,000 Papuans, 18% of the population, have been killed. What continues to happen in Indonesia is a mirror image of the attack on Iraq. Both countries have riches coveted by the West; both had dictators installed by the West to facilitate the passage of their resources; and in both countries, Anglo-American actions have been disguised by propaganda willingly provided by journalists prepared to draw the necessary distinctions between Saddam’s regime (“monstrous”) and Suharto’s (“moderate” and “stable”). Since the invasion of Iraq, I have spoken to a number of principled journalists working in the pro-war media, including the BBC, who say that they “lie awake at night” and want to speak out and resume being real journalists. I suggest now is the time.

John Pilger is a journalist and writer based in London. His webpage can be found at