Suharto, by the Book

David Jenkins
This is one of the stories I did during my internship at The Jakarta Globe. I thoroughly enjoyed interviewing Jenkins, the Australian journalist, who was very inspirational and made me really wanna jump up, hit the streets and dig up a good, juicy story.

NOT MANY PEOPLE CAN CLAIM that they were literally part of history. But retired Australian journalist David Jenkins, who was banned by President Suharto from Indonesia for eight years, may be one of those who can actually truthfully make this claim.

Over his four-decade journalism career, Jenkins has had a keen interest in Southeast Asia. He worked as a correspondent for the Far Eastern Economic Review from 1976-84, when he covered Indonesia as part of his assignment, and as an editor of the Sydney Morning Herald and The Times on Sunday from 1985-2004.

Jenkins has also written a lot on Indonesia, including a controversial book and story that had far-reaching diplomatic consequences.

Jenkins was in Jakarta on June 30 for the relaunch of his book, “Suharto and His Generals: Indonesia Military Politics 1975-1983.”

The English edition of the book was republished by Equinox Publishing and the Indonesian edition published by Komunitas Bambu. The book was originally published in English by the Cornell Southeast Asia Program Publications in 1984.

“Suharto and His Generals” was banned in Indonesia in 1984 due to its in-depth and critical analysis of the political situation at the time.

It tackles the complex military and the parallel government political structure of the country, as well as opposition against the state, which was mainly led by retired generals.

Jenkins described Suharto, who was in power for 32 years, as someone who kept his subordinates guessing.

“The story of Suharto is of someone who made good despite a very troubled early life,” Jenkins said.

“He was of very modest educational background, a troubled family background, but extremely intelligent, capable, thorough in his preparations and a difficult man to read.”

The book, as well as the article Jenkins wrote for the Sydney Morning Herald with the headline, “After Marcos, Now for the Suharto Billions,” earned him Suharto’s ire.

Jenkins was banned from Indonesia in 1986 and was only able to re-enter in 1994 to cover a Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation summit.

Jenkins’s Sydney Herald story delved into the Suharto family’s wealth and made explicit comparisons between former Philippine President Ferdinand Marcos and his Indonesian counterpart.

“Indonesians at the top level, generals, editors and ambassadors were all saying, what’s the difference between the Philippines and here?” he said.

“I don’t want to sound disingenuous, but I was just holding up a mirror and genuinely reflecting on what people were saying. I did make the point that Suharto was very different from Marcos because Suharto had done a lot of good.

“But this was a very sensitive topic, precisely because this is what the elite was talking about.”

The article wasn’t intended to run as a cover story, Jenkins said. It was meant to be a feature, but the editor decided that it was more suitable as the lead.

“When I look back, I should have objected strongly, but I didn’t,” he said. “It’s my responsibility. I knew I was getting into dangerous territory and it’s a pity that it happened because it caused a lot of damage.”

The article is said to be one of the reasons why Australia-Indonesia relations crumbled. Australian news bureaus here were shuttered and even Australian journalists traveling with the American press on Air Force One were not allowed to disembark.

Jenkins said that despite this, “others had it worse.”

“For foreigners, if you can’t come [to Indonesia], you can do something else,” he said. “But if you’re an Indonesian journalist fighting for an open society, it was very risky. They were the ones who really suffered the consequences.”

Jenkins wrote the book as a result of “seeing a bit of what it is here [in Indonesia] and [what it] would [be] like to try [and] put it all together in a book form.”

The most interesting and perhaps contentious parts of the book revolve around the numerous exclusive interviews he obtained from various high-ranking generals, such as Benny Murdani, Ali Murtopo and Sumitro, who were staunch critics of Suharto.

In addition, it also details the internal politicking of Suharto loyalists as they maneuvered against one another to win his favor.

“They were speaking very frankly about the rival groups,” Jenkins said. “It is one thing to be speaking critically about the opposition generals, but within these five or six groups [who were Suharto loyalists], ‘Ah, he did this and that.’ It was just funny.”

Through details provided in the book, one is able to visualize life during the New Order era, a term that Suharto coined to describe his regime.

Looking back at his days as a journalist in Indonesia, Jenkins said that it was an amazing experience for him to be able to speak with personalities who contributed to the nation’s independence.

One of them was Darsono, one of two co-founders of the Indonesia Communist Party.

“He was worried about deforestation. He said, ‘We’re cutting down all the trees up high in the mountains of Java. The water’s running down and will cause flooding.’ This was 40 years ago. Nobody said something like that that I knew of,” he said.

Jenkins is currently working on another book about Suharto’s early years and his rise to the presidency. Will it be able to live up to the hype of the first book? It still remains to be seen.

Original story could be found here.

6 thoughts on “Suharto, by the Book

  1. wow! as a book nerd myself ur blog is AhmaZZZinng! love it love it. I read use my (best) kindle too and have the great time of keeping all my book with me without the heaviness. Would really great if we can chat/email i want to share books stuff info with you.heheh


  2. Hi! I stumbled upon your blog a few days ago and I’ve thorougly enjoyed reading your writing.

    I want to ask you, if you don’t mind, how I could work as an intern for the Jakarta Globe. I’ve tried searching online but I couldn’t find anything about internship opportunities. Thank you! 🙂

    1. Hello Sung-jin,
      It’s great hearing that you are enjoying my blog posts and thank you so much for stopping by.

      I was lucky enough to have arranged the internship through my college back when I was in school, so the arrangement was quite smooth in my case.

      Those guys at The Globe are amazing and very friendly, so you could try dropping the editorial team an email to seek for opportunities. Hopefully they’ll get back to you real soon and good luck with that!


  3. Hi jieyi, I heard you are getting sick. Hope you get better now. I have a conference in Malaysia on Aug. 7-8 and I will go there by Singapore. I will arrive Singapore on Aug. 5 and go to register the conference the next day. And on Aug. 9 I will leave for HK from Singapore too. So if possible I would like to visit you. Do you have an address and phone number? I have your sister’s number already by Gerund. Leave me a message or email if you get this. Looking forward to see you soon.

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