Article: Soeharto’s Australian whisperer

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    Soeharto’s Australian whisperer

    How a former Jehovah’s Witness activist became a secret intermediary between the Indonesian leader and the West

    For decades the outside world tried to understand Soeharto, the little-known Indonesian army general who emerged from Jakarta’s shadowy putsch attempt of 30 September 1965, seized power from the ailing independence leader Sukarno and obliterated the army’s communist opponents by orchestrating mass slaughter.

    It took a while for diplomats to realise they had a window into the mind of this reticent figure courtesy of a Westerner — an Australian, in fact —who had become part of Soeharto’s household a decade before these events and was to remain a key intermediary between the general and the West until Soeharto stepped down in 1998. In the words of an American diplomat in Jakarta at that time, Clive Williams was Soeharto’s “Australian whisperer.”

    But as former Australian diplomat Shannon Smith writes in his intriguing biography, Occidental Preacher, Accidental Teacher, Williams’s role was kept largely secret from the public for more than fifty years. “Those who knew him in an official capacity are confined to several dozen international diplomats, journalists and politicians, and they had national interest, and sometimes self-interest, in keeping his name, his position and his role out of the public spotlight,” says Smith. The man himself would divulge only that he came from Geelong. “Beyond that, to every single person who ever came across Clive Williams, he was a puzzle, a riddle, a mystery, an enigma.”

    So who was Clive Williams? How did this cashiered Jehovah’s Witness missionary and self-trained chiropodist become attached to Soeharto? How important was he in the power transition and Soeharto’s long presidency? And what did he know about the manoeuvrings around the night of 30 September 1965? Thanks to exhaustive research, Smith has answers to the first three of these questions, but only a hint about the fourth.

    Williams was born in Geelong in 1921 to a family on the edge of survival, his father shattered by two years as a German prisoner of war. His mother died when he was sixteen, robbing him of close emotional support just as he was coming to the realisation that he was homosexual.

    Feeling “hunted” in Geelong, Smith conjectures, Williams needed somewhere to “hide in plain sight.” He found it as a Jehovah’s Witness. Though the sect had only about 2000 followers in Australia, it was well known thanks to its early adoption of new technologies. Sound vans cruising the streets, radio broadcasts, pamphlets and foot-in-the-door house calls — all these were used pushed its millenarian belief that Christ would soon return to Earth and replace all worldly governments with a paradise populated only by Witnesses.

    The group was unpopular, of course, and as Australia entered the second world war it was also suspect for its pacifism. Its eventual banning in 1941 added to the attraction for Williams. “An ardent, proselytising Jehovah’s Witness must have felt a real adrenalin rush pitting themself against community standards, breaking laws, and actively seeking pushback or confrontation,” Smith thinks. “Living in a society where one felt pressure for being ‘other’ or ‘less,’ such as a homosexual, it would have been an ideal outlet for barely twenty-year-old Williams to fight back, especially where the attention was on one’s religious beliefs not sexuality.”

    Having started out as a self-supporting “pioneer” roaming the towns in a sound-van, Williams graduated to a central role in the Jehovah’s Witnesses headquarters in Sydney, got exempted from call-up as a religious minister even as the sect continued to operate semi-underground, and then, in 1950, gaining induction into the sect’s global training centre, Gilead, in upstate New York. The following year, when his class was dispatched as missionaries, he landed in Manado, the province in the north of Indonesia’s Sulawesi island.

    Williams lasted not quite three years in that role. Smith found a cryptic reference in the sect’s records for 1954 — “During the course of the year it became necessary to disfellowship a person from the congregation for unchristian conduct” — but Williams was otherwise expunged from the sect’s history books. He might have been expelled for attending more to charity than conversions, Smith generously observes, but his sexuality seems a more likely cause.

    Aged thirty-six, Williams then moved to Semarang in Central Java, taking with him a younger Manadonese man. “It was also a good place to lose oneself or, indeed, hide from view. A place to shake off a religion and find some spirituality, to conceal sexuality, and to reset,” Smith writes. “Over the next few years, Williams delved into Javanese culture, became fluent in the local languages and established a series of lifelong friendships. Like many who enter witness protection, he emerged with a new identity.”

    Despite his humble schooling, Williams had always been well spoken, had become a confident speaker from years as a missionary, and no longer had a mission to convert the local Muslims. He quickly tapped into the immense demand for English-language tuition in the new nation, particularly among upper-echelon Indonesians who could pay for classes and textbooks.

    Word of Williams’s activities reached Tien Soeharto, wife of the rising army officer. The two struck up a rapport: “he delighted her with his demonstrations of Western etiquette and customs, he became the couples’ English tutor, and like most Australians, he was practical and handy at fixing things (including cutting her in-grown toenails).” Clive also followed international affairs: “he had travelled to London and New York! And his knowledge about the human condition, gained from travelling around the cities and isolated communities of Australia and his missionary work, was extremely broad. To the inward-looking Javanese couple, Williams was a revelation.” READ MORE:

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