Crisis and Complicity

Suharto & Clinton - New Naratif

In 1997, Indonesia was problematic by anyone’s standards. It had invaded, and still occupied, East Timor (also known as Timor-Leste), was plagued by allegations of state-sponsored kidnappings of pro-reform activists, and faced a monetary meltdown due to the Asian Financial Crisis. After a 1991 massacre by the Indonesian army in East Timor that left over 270 people dead, the Congress of the United States of America cut off the country from the US’ International Military and Education Training (IMET) programme.

Despite this disastrous human rights record and a series of financial blunders that led Indonesia to seek a bailout from the International Monetary Fund (IMF) in October 1997, the United States was more than happy to back the beleaguered nation—it supported Indonesia’s IMF request and approved an additional USD3 billion line of credit.

Now, a newly released cache of US State Department files—some of which have been classified for 20 years—shines a light on the US-Indonesian relationship of that period: from the close relationship between US President Bill Clinton and President Muhammad Suharto, to the unravelling of the United States’ connection to, and complicity in, Indonesia’s human rights abuses.

They also show that, while the Clinton administration publicly denounced human rights violations in Indonesia, it was also in possession of a swathe of documentation that linked key figures from the Indonesian military and government—who the United States had cultivated and continually engaged with for years—to horrific allegations of abuse and repression.

“I say not only as the President of the United States but as a friend that I think you will have an incredible legacy when you complete your work,” Clinton once gushed to Suharto during a meeting at the November 1997 Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) Summit in Vancouver—the same meeting in which he had weakly tried to discuss the kidnappings and the Indonesian occupation of East Timor.  

From the US to Indonesia: military training and hardware

The United States military had, for years, courted the Indonesian government in an effort to sell military training and equipment. In 2001, World Policy published a special report outlining the flow of weapons and training:

“The United States transferred USD328 million in weapons and spare parts and almost USD100 million in commercial weapons exports to the Jakarta regime in the last decade. Military training has also been significant during this period—the Defense Department allocated more than USD7.5 million in International Military Education and Training program (IMET) funding for Indonesian soldiers.”

But Congress stopped IMET funding to Indonesia in 1992 following a bloodbath in East Timor, during which armed soldiers shot 271 people at a funeral in Santa Cruz Cemetery. Indonesia had invaded East Timor in 1975, and only withdrew in 1999.

In 1993, Congress made the ban official with the Foreign Operations Appropriations Act. The United States was no longer meant to offer military assistance to the Indonesians. But the declassified documents tell a different story; one tied up with the Southeast Asian economic meltdown that hit Indonesia hard.

The declassified documents

The newly released documents, many of which are cables and emails from the US embassy in Jakarta to the US capital Washington DC, reveal how, throughout the 1997 Asian Financial Crisis, the Americans continued to cultivate high-profile figures in the Indonesian army, including Major General Prabowo Subianto—a current presidential hopeful who was alleged to have ordered the kidnappings of pro-reform activists in Indonesia from 1996 to 1998. They also demonstrate how the military relationship between the Indonesians and the Americans informed much of the United States’ attitude to the financial crisis and the escalating violence it caused across Indonesia.  

The cache also includes transcripts of conversations between Clinton and Suharto, highlighting the sympathetic attitude that the former had for his Indonesian counterpart. This position coloured the United States’ support of Indonesia and encouraged the Clinton administration to turn a blind eye to well-documented patterns of abuse by the Indonesian military, even as their president panhandled for financial bailouts on Suharto’s behalf. The bailouts would total over USD43 billion by the end of the crisis in 1999.

Cache of Documents - New Naratif
The cache of documents sheds light on US-Indonesia relations during the Asian Financial Crisis.

Many of the cables and emails in the cache were written by J. Stapleton Roy. As the US Ambassador to Indonesia from 1996 to 1999, he was one of the key players closest to the action. His duties at the US embassy in Jakarta included sending frequent reports on the political, economic and social situation in Indonesia, based on information gleaned from local news reports, embassy sources and his own analysis. For months, Roy monitored the financial crisis as it began to devour Indonesia and fed his thoughts back to Capitol Hill in Washington DC.

The start of the financial crisis

If Roy had any inkling that Indonesia would be forever changed in the six months following 10 October 1997, he didn’t mention it in his report to Madeleine Albright, then-US Secretary of State, updating her on Indonesia’s IMF bailout request:

“In conversations on October 9, the Jakarta-based representative of both the World Bank and the IMF told the ambassador that the intent was to provide Indonesia an IMF Assistance package large enough to restore market confidence without, ideally, having to be used.”

This, as it turned out, was painfully optimistic.

The Asian Financial Crisis first took hold in Thailand at the start of July 1997. The Thai government had accrued huge amounts of debt from abroad and made the disastrous decision to float the baht, hoping that it would cause export revenues to pick up. The plan failed, and the crisis spread across Southeast Asia as investors pulled out and abandoned Asian currencies in droves. Many of these states had at one time been dubbed the “Asian Economic Miracle Countries”; it was a swift and spectacular fall from grace.

Although many analysts predicted that Thailand would bear the brunt of the crisis, it ultimately wasn’t the country that suffered the most. The Indonesian rupiah began to depreciate from August 1997, losing 30% of its value by October 1997.

By the time the market stabilised in 1998, Indonesia had experienced not only economic near-collapse, but also social and political unrest that caused the government to unravel

Private companies in Indonesia that had been borrowing extensively from abroad—taking on short-term loans for long-term projects—were left saddled with debt as the rupiah destabilised. Indonesia was also being buffeted by other issues: a drought brought on by El Niño; forest fires which caused widespread haze and health problems; a lack of imported products like baby formula; and panic buying and hoarding of basic necessities like oil and rice. By the time the market stabilised in 1998, Indonesia had experienced not only economic near-collapse, but also social and political unrest that caused the government to unravel.

On 29 October 1997, though, Suharto was still full of bluster during a speech at a youth gathering in Pasuruan, East Java. “We are different from Thailand,” he boasted. “Thailand’s economy had already collapsed when they invited the IMF to come help… We are different. Indonesia already has a programme, so come take a look, IMF experts…”

A friend on whom Indonesia can count in the crunch”

Roy, however, was more prosaic. His reports chart how quickly the financial crisis ravaged Indonesia and shines a light on the response from the United States. On 23 October 1997, he reported back to Washington in preparation for East Asian and Pacific Affairs (EAP) Assistant Secretary Stanley Roth’s trip to Indonesia:

“On the eve of your visit, Indonesia together with its ASEAN neighbors is facing a time of troubles more severe than any in Suharto’s long period of rule. Your visit is well-timed to convey a clear signal that the US remains committed to a strong bilateral relationship.”

This relationship was important to the Americans. US funding for military education and training (IMET) had largely been cut off by Congress, and diplomatic accord had been in short supply in previous months. But, Roy assured Roth, “[t]he US-Indonesian relationship has turned a corner since mid-summer.”

The Americans had been rattled by Suharto’s decision to withdraw from a deal to buy F-16 fighter jets, choosing to purchase Sukhoi 30s from Russia instead. “President Suharto personally directed the switch… when he felt congressional critics were having too strong an influence over our approach to Indonesia,” explained Roy, referring to Congress’ enactment of the Foreign Operations Appropriations Act and in-fighting on Capitol Hill about whether to go ahead with the F-16 sale.  

While Roy remained optimistic, he admitted that “the relationship still needs work. Visits by senior US military leaders… have shored up our security ties but the prolonged absence of IMET training or military sales is weakening the links between our two military establishments.”

He suggested other ways to boost morale: “Our responsiveness to the region’s financial troubles will have an enormous impact on our credibility as a friend on whom Indonesia can count in the crunch.” The Americans also knew that both the Chinese and the Russians were offering Indonesia “dazzling deals for sophisticated weaponry, and exploiting the Indonesian perception that we are an unreliable source of military equipment”. 

They were keen to smooth things over and win favour once more.

IMET had long been a source of contention for both Indonesia and the US. After Congress initially cut off IMET funding to Indonesia in 1992, it again tried to stop all military training in 1995, voicing concerns that it was being used in East Timor to kidnap, torture and imprison pro-independence activists.

Congress’ efforts were unsuccessful; a concession was made to allow E-IMET, or Expanded-International Military Education and Training, instead. E-IMET claimed to be an‘educational program’ briefing officers on issues of human rights, military justice and civilian control of the military.”

But in March 1997, the House Foreign Operations Appropriations Subcommittee heard that the Pentagon had gone ahead with military training exercises in Indonesia in 1996 without notification, and thus limited Indonesia’s access to E-IMET as well.

That was meant to be the end of the joint military relationship.

Multiple state officials repeatedly peddled the claim that such exchanges were designed to impart “exposure to our society and values” and give the United States influence in the region

Despite the fact that Congress was opposed to the sale of military training and equipment to Indonesia, some state departments saw it as an important factor in bilateral relations. As reflected in the cache of documents, multiple state officials repeatedly peddled the claim that such exchanges were designed to impart “exposure to our society and values” and give the United States influence in the region to quell unrest if needed.

In reality, the US had been the largest supplier of weapons and military training to Indonesia” until 1992; the ongoing relationship was much less about imparting human rights and democratic values than it was about economic and political incentives.

It wasn’t a relationship the Americans were prepared to lose.

The IMF bailout

On 14 October 1997, the US embassy in Jakarta received a copy of a report prepared by the US Treasury Department. The report detailed a number of different loan options, in addition to the IMF bailout, for the United States to consider. Although the report noted that a medium-term loan would carry “significant political risk”, it pointed out such a move would “provide the strongest possible signal of US support.”

In the end, the United States chose to approve a USD3 billion line of credit to Indonesia and threw its support behind the IMF bailout package. Indonesia signed an arrangement for USD10 billion from the IMF in November 1997 and another USD1.4 billion in July 1998. It also received USD8 billion from multilateral institutions and another USD18 billion from bilateral donors.

But all was not well on Capitol Hill. On 4 November 1997, Congress member Bernie Sanders sent a letter of complaint to Robert E. Rubin, the Secretary of the Treasury. The letter referenced the 1994 Frank/Sanders Amendment—which Sanders had drafted—which required the US Treasury to make decisions that supported workers’ rights around the globe through their votes at institutions like the IMF.

Sanders wrote:

“Since this provision was first enacted in 1994, I have been deeply disappointed that its implementation and enforcement have been essentially ignored. Nevertheless, the financial relief package for Indonesia, an egregious violator of worker rights by anybody’s standards, now being negotiated and finalised at the IMF and World Bank presents anew a fresh opportunity for you to uphold the dictates of US law.”

The letter also called out the Indonesian military:

“As a matter of government policy, the Government of Indonesia continues to systematically deny freedom of association and the right to organise independent trade unions and bargain collectively to Indonesian workers. This brutal suppression of internationally recognised worker rights is routinely enforced with the iron fist of the Indonesian armed forces.”

This was swiftly followed on 6 November 1997 by another letter, signed by five more members of Congress: Barney Frank, Patrick Kennedy, Joseph Kennedy, Tony Hall and Nancy Pelosi. The letter expressed “serious concerns” about the IMF and World Bank loans, as well as the US’ USD3 billion commitment.

The letter raised another issue: “Indonesian rule in East Timor is one of the most oppressive and brutal we have seen.” The letter urged the Treasury to withdraw support for the IMF bailout package and the credit from the US.

The letter’s assessment of the Indonesian government was also scathing: “They are not accepting this assistance as a favor to us. They are doing it because it is even more in their self-interest than in ours.”

On 9 December 1997, Rubin replied: “The United States and the international community have a strong interest in restoring market confidence in Asia and heading off contagion to other financial markets. In addition, emerging economies, including those of Southeast Asia, account for a significant share of total US exports.”

The Clinton administration, at best, sent mixed messages to the Indonesian government; on the one hand chiding Suharto for human rights abuses, and on the other pushing for a larger stake in the Indonesian market

The export market coloured pretty much every decision made by the Clinton administration regarding Indonesia. This focus also explained the “friendship” (Clinton’s word) between Clinton and Suharto, which began in earnest in 1996. Before that, while still on the presidential campaign trail, Clinton had been vocal about human rights abuses in East Timor and his administration had supported a UN resolution in 1993 criticising the Indonesian government after the 1991 attack at Santa Cruz Cemetery.

But Clinton’s tune changed soon enough after assuming office. He’d realised the potential for American companies to make money in Indonesia—regularly touted as one of the big emerging markets in Southeast Asia. If Clinton wanted a way in, he needed to curry favour with one man. “American firms want access to the Indonesian market, but President Suharto is the Indonesian market,” said an article, “Clinton and Indonesia”, in 1996.  

The ‘driving dynamic’ behind US policy, one senior official told the Washington Post, has been the desire ‘not to totally screw up the trade relationship’ while keeping up demands for a better human rights performance. In practice, that means Clinton and his advisers ‘raise’ human rights issues whenever they meet with Suharto and his ministers,” it continued.

But this was all pretty toothless. The Clinton administration, at best, sent mixed messages to the Indonesian government; on the one hand chiding Suharto for human rights abuses, and on the other pushing for a larger stake in the Indonesian market. At its worst, the US government had clearly prioritised getting a piece of Indonesia’s emerging economy over the well-being of Indonesian activists and the people of East Timor.

In the end it was, as always, all about the money.

Raising human rights abuses

On the same day the five Congress members sent their letter to Rubin, East Asian and Pacific Affairs (EAP) Assistant Secretary Stanley Roth was in a Jakarta meeting with Indonesian Special Forces Commander, Major General Prabowo Subianto.

Roth touched on the special relationship between the United States and Indonesia, and mentioned the USD3 billion support money that the US had contributed to the IMF bailout package. Then talk turned towards military matters.

Prabowo wanted “to buy US military training through foreign military sales (FMS),” Roy wrote of the meeting. “He wants to send Special Forces officers overseas to be exposed to Western values, standards of accountability and professionalism.”

Prabowo also had a complaint: “‘somebody’, he claimed, in the State Department or the Pentagon has stopped his request for FMS training.” Roth promised to follow up and check the current status of plans by the Indonesian government to buy more military training from the Americans using FMS, under which purchases of military hardware would be accompanied by training for personnel. It was a way to work around the restrictions on both IMET and E-IMET.

According to the cable, no one at the meeting made any reference to human rights abuses by the Indonesian military either in East Timor or elsewhere

According to the cable, written by Roy and cleared by Roth, no one at the meeting—including the Deputy Chief of Mission in Jakarta and Defense Attaché Colonel Don McFetridge—made any reference to human rights abuses by the Indonesian military either in East Timor or elsewhere.

Five months later, in April 1998, Roy reported on a luncheon between US staff delegates and Indonesian pro-reform activists regarding the “disappearances” that had been a feature of the Suharto government since 1996. For years, pro-reform activists, NGO workers and opposition figures had been vanishing—accused of wanting to overthrow the government, they were allegedly kidnapped and intimidated into silence. Some were never heard from again. “Many interlocutors believed Major General Prabowo to be behind the disappearances,” Roy noted in his report, without going into detail.

On 24 November 1997 Clinton and Suharto met at the APEC summit in Vancouver. It was the last APEC meeting that Suharto would ever attend. The Indonesian president was tired, having flown to Vancouver via South Africa, and the meeting was tense. While pledging his support to the Indonesian president, Clinton raised the ongoing human rights abuses in East Timor and the clampdown on pro-reform individuals. These issues, Clinton said, were hurting Suharto’s image abroad, and could jeopardise support from the IMF and foreign investors.

Suharto was dismissive: “Those who commit offences or defy the people entrusted to uphold the constitution and those who violate the constitution will be brought to court to face the rule of law. This is what Indonesia has been doing for years and outsiders do not understand. Thank you.”

“End of conversation,” reads the next line on the meeting transcript.

The IMF’s stipulations

Suharto’s unwillingness to discuss or rein in oppressive actions was not Clinton’s only problem.

On 8 January 1998, he called Suharto from Air Force One. While at great pains to remind Suharto of their close relationship, Clinton also knew the Indonesian president hadn’t been implementing the reforms required by the IMF as part of the bailout package deal. “I have long valued our friendship, and I just wanted to talk to you personally,” he said.

The deal included a 50-point reform plan and items such as ending public subsidies and quashing Suharto’s system of patronage. 16 banks owned by Suharto’s cronies were closed down… only for some of them to later reopen under new names. Clinton described it as having “a huge influence on the psychology of investors” in the United States.

Failure to implement the IMF reforms and get the country back on a sound financial footing was not enough for the United States to withdraw their support

Still, failure to implement the IMF reforms and get the country back on a sound financial footing was not enough for the United States to withdraw their support. Clinton went on to explain other ways to deal with the crisis, including keeping interest rates high—an idea that didn’t appeal to Suharto. He ended with another moment of bonhomie:

“I also intend to release a statement in the next few minutes reiterating the importance of the relationship between our countries and to make it absolutely clear that we support you and that we will stand with you throughout these difficult times.”

But the United States was coming under more and more pressure to justify its support of Indonesia, particularly as it hadn’t offered similar financial assistance to Thailand. On 12 January 1998, a document was circulated to all Asian and Pacific posts with press guidelines. It provided a glimpse of the media scrutiny that the United States was dealing with.

“Aren’t critics at least partially right when they allege that these IMF programs are bailing out investors and corrupt governments?” read one anticipated question.

“If these efforts were directed at bailing out investors, we would not spend a penny on them,” was the tart suggested response.

On 15 January 1998 Clinton called Suharto once more, this time from the Oval Office. He’d sent Deputy Treasury Secretary Larry Summers to Indonesia to meet with the beleaguered president, who had also been visited by Deputy Managing Director of the IMF, Stanley Fischer, and Managing Director Michel Camdessus.

“I am glad to hear your voice,” cooed Clinton, before Suharto launched into a spirited explanation of how he’d set up a Council of National Economic and Financial Resilience to better manage the implementation of the stipulations made by the IMF. He’d also signed a letter of intent promising to make good on the reform measures in the IMF package and appeal to overseas investors who were rapidly losing confidence in the Indonesian government’s handling of the crisis.

Clinton was charmed: “First of all, I think the agreement is good, but I am most encouraged by the explanation of how it will be implemented… I will release a statement saying you called me and that I welcomed these steps, and I am encouraged by them.”

Transcripts - New Naratif
The documents include transcripts of phone conversations between Bill Clinton and Suharto.

This peace of mind was not to last.

The documents show that, less than a month later, the United States was once again rattled by Suharto’s increasingly erratic response to the crisis. On 13 February 1998 Clinton called Suharto again; he’d heard that Suharto had a wild plan to implement a currency board—which takes the power of managing the exchange rate away from the central bank by pegging it to a fixed rate with a foreign currency—and wanted to warn against it.

“I wanted to stay in touch and am calling now because I am concerned about the financial situation,” said Clinton. “If markets go after the board, it could create a run that seriously depletes Indonesia’s reserves and complicates the efforts of the IMF and the international community to provide support.”

Suharto seemed, if not reluctant to accept advice, at least out of his depth. “If the currency board is not introduced, what is the alternative?” he asked. “How do we stop the rupiah’s fall? I appeal to you to approach the G-7 and ask them to pay attention to the situation in Indonesia.”

Clinton agreed.

Letting the cat out of the bag

By now, things weren’t looking good—not just in Jakarta, but also in Washington DC.

On 16 March 1998, an American reporter in Jakarta held a press conference to publicise allegations about previously undisclosed US-Indonesia joint training programmes, which coincided with the release of a cache of Pentagon documents by Congressional allies of the East Timor Action Network (ETAN).

Both the reporter and the documents alleged that the Pentagon had sold military training to Indonesia behind Congress’ back, and not just in 1996. They said that the US army had been training Indonesian soldiers since 1992 via something called the Joint Combined Exchange Training (J-CET) programme—an attempt to circumvent the ban on IMET.

“Indonesian troops were trained in air assault, urban warfare, and psychological operations 36 times between 1992 and 1997 without congressional knowledge or approval”

“Indonesian troops were trained in air assault, urban warfare, and psychological operations thirty-six times between 1992 and 1997 without congressional knowledge or approval,” said World Policy’s special report.

It was also alleged that many of the J-CET training exercises had involved Kopassus, Indonesia’s elite counter-insurgency unit that also operated in East Timor and which was “accused of carrying out torture, disappearance and extra-judicial killings”.

This training, while not illegal, “clearly violated Congressional intent”, wrote Kurt Biddle, Washington coordinator for the Indonesia Human Rights Network, in 2007.

On 28 March 1998, a cable, signed off by Albright, was sent from Washington DC to the US embassy in Jakarta, noting tensions between Congress and the wider administration:

“We are getting vibes from the Hill, indicating that Congress is greatly displeased with the administration’s response to the J-CET training issue. We may see fallout in the form of a congressional restriction on all joint training/exercises with the Indonesian military.”

By April, demonstrations were taking place across Indonesian university campuses. Students were losing patience with the lack of financial stability; to make matters worse, people were still going missing, only to turn up months later claiming that they’d been kidnapped and tortured by the Indonesian military—who, it was now apparent, had received undisclosed training from the Americans.

Not only had the US administration been selling military training to Indonesia—which, while legal, had been done without informing Congress—but it had also agreed to a loan of USD3 billion to assuage Indonesia’s financial woes, and Clinton had released statement after statement in support of Suharto. It was now clear that they’d continued to do this even in the face of all the human rights violations laid at the Suharto administration’s door.

On 6 April 1998 Roth requested a meeting at the US State Department with the Indonesian Ambassador to the United States, Dorodjatun Kuntjoro-Jakti. Roth said he hoped that Indonesia would reach another agreement with the IMF for more bailout money before 15 April 1998, but added that the Clinton administration and Congress had concerns about potential plans by the Indonesian government to stop on-campus demonstrations, the detentions of hundreds of peaceful demonstrators, and the continued disappearances of activists.

Despite this, Roth also said that, “The USC [US Congress] appreciates the military’s restraint to date in dealing with protests, the allowance of on-campus demonstrations so far, and the decrease in anti-Sino Indonesian violence,” all of which he called “positive developments”.

Even though Suharto had wilfully ignored most of the IMF’s stipulations over the previous months, the IMF, supported by the United States, signed a third agreement with Indonesia in April 1998 and poured another tranche of money into the country, on the understanding that Suharto would work on restructuring the banking system and implement bankruptcy laws.

Rumblings in Washington

As Indonesia continued to struggle with the social and economic fall-out, the issue of kidnappings and disappearances was becoming a real headache for the United States.

Of all the documents in the newly declassified cache, one of the most explosive was sent by Roy on 7 May 1998—it had been classified for 20 years. In a cable, sent with a priority notice to Washington DC, Roy detailed how the US embassy in Indonesia solicited sources, including student activists, to inform on where those kidnapped were being held and who was responsible.

The document doesn’t explain what brought on the sudden desire for this information; the problem had existed since 1996, and was hardly a new mystery. It seems possible that the embassy was under newly applied pressure from Washington DC to find out if there was a provable link between Kopassus—the elite force within the Indonesian army that carried out special operations for the government—and human rights abuses, and if they were using skills learned through J-CET to kidnap and torture pro-reform individuals.

The report continues: “Disappearances were ordered by Prabowo, who was following an order from President Suharto”

The names of the sources that the embassy solicited are redacted, but the report is clear: “A leader of a mass student organisation told Poloff [Political Officer] that he was informed by a Kopassus source that the disappearances were carried out by ‘Group Four’ of Kopassus…”

Even more devastatingly for the Americans, the report continues, “Disappearances were ordered by Prabowo, who was following an order from President Suharto.”  

The cable then goes on to list one of the potential locations where the victims were taken, described as “[t]he old ‘Kopassus team 81 anti-terrorist unit’ facility located off the old road to Bogor [a city south of Jakarta].”

While previous reports sent by Roy to Washington DC detailed rumours about Prabowo and the military’s involvement in the kidnappings, this document is the clearest sign that the Americans now had a firm idea of who was responsible for the human rights abuses: Suharto, who had had months of financial and bilateral support from the United States and the IMF; Prabowo who had been hosted by a cheerful Roth back in November to discuss military sales; and Kopassus, who had been trained by the US military without Congress’ knowledge.

The next day, 8 May 1998, the Pentagon sent a memo that stuck stubbornly to its narrative:

“Continued contact with the Indonesian military can serve US national security interests and contribute to our efforts to urge ABRl [The Indonesian Armed Forces] and other Indonesian authorities to exercise restraint”.

The memo did, however, try to put some space between the United States and the Indonesian actions:

“However, in the current situation in Indonesia, careful policy-level review of individual activities is necessary. Accordingly, effective immediately, and until further notice, all US military activities in Indonesia will require prior approval by the Under Secretary of Defense for Policy”.

The J-CET activities were put on ice.

The fall of Suharto

Regardless of this decision by the Pentagon, Suharto still had the IMF’s money and continued to ignore the stipulations in the bailout package. As part of a new set of reforms, the IMF gave Suharto until October 1998 to gradually decrease fuel subsidies; in May 1998, he slashed them in one fell swoop.

It turned out to be a fatal mistake. Violent riots erupted and Indonesian security forces from the army and the police started shooting protesters, including four students at Trisakti University in Jakarta on 12 May 1998.

Roth had also spoken too soon about the “decrease in anti-Sino Indonesian violence”. In May 1998, student protests against the government that began in Medan became a flashpoint for anti-Chinese violence that spread across the country.

The wheels had come off the US-Indonesia relationship: by this point, the J-CET programme had been suspended and an upcoming US-Indonesian joint military exercise had been cancelled. Congress was in uproar, and had forced the Department of Defense Assistant Secretary, Franklin D. Kramer, to testify in front of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee; Indonesia was consumed by rioting against the Suharto government; and the security forces were rapidly losing control, shooting demonstrators and displaying none of the “restraint” that Roth had previously praised, and that the Pentagon had insisted would come out of continued engagement.

Just six months after he confidently welcomed the IMF to “come take a look” at Indonesia, Suharto called a press conference on 21 May 1998 to announce his resignation.

His 32 year rule of Indonesia was over; Clinton would have to find a new friend.

* We thank Brad Simpson and his team at the National Security Archive for facilitating access to the declassified documents. Their briefing book can be found here.

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