The death of Suharto: Epitaph on a crook and a tyrant

The Economist
02 Feb 08

Free to mourn or cheer, Indonesians have moved on since Suharto stepped down in 1998

He was a despot, a cold-war monster cosseted by the West because his most plausible opponents were communists. Behind his pudgily smooth, benign-looking face lay ruthless cruelty. The slaughter as he consolidated his power in the mid-1960s cost hundreds of thousands of lives. Tens of thousands were locked up for years without charge. After the invasion of East Timor in 1975, the Indonesian occupation led to the deaths of perhaps one-third of its people. Meanwhile, he was robbing his own country blind. Perhaps no leader’s family anywhere has ever amassed so much ill-gotten loot. When he was forced to quit at last, the economy was in a tailspin and the stability he had boasted of creating proved an illusion.

So it seems all wrong that after Suharto’s death this week, Indonesia declared seven days of national mourning. Television stations (some controlled by his kin) showed laudatory documentaries. The streets were lined with crowds for miles on the way to the hillside family mausoleum he had built, in emulation of the Javanese kings whose successor he seemed to think himself. Other statesmen from the region trooped to his funeral to pay their respects: Singapore’s Lee Kuan Yew, Malaysia’s Mahathir Mohamad and even Timor-Leste’s prime minister, Xanana Gusmão.

In Mr Gusmão, from a tiny young nation needing good relations with its neighbour and former coloniser, such magnanimity might be wise. Mr Lee and Dr Mahathir also had reason to honour Mr Suharto, who ended his predecessor’s “confrontation” with Malaysia, nurtured regional unity and, like them, shrugged at the West’s preaching about human rights. Yet for Indonesians themselves to push the boat out so far for the old kleptocrat suggests a failure to come to terms with the scale of his crimes. Yes, their country made huge economic strides under his 32-year rule, thanks to his delegation of much policymaking to competent technocrats, and superficial political calm prevailed. But at a very high cost.

The government of President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono—himself a Suharto-era former general—has been a success in many ways. But it has not fostered a culture of accountability. In 2006, when Mr Suharto seemed to be on his deathbed, it dropped criminal proceedings against him. It then instigated a civil prosecution. But neither Mr Suharto nor any of his family has faced trial for corruption (though his son, Tommy, was jailed on a murder charge). Nor has there been a determined attempt to bring to justice those army officers who oversaw atrocities in East Timor and Irian Jaya (now known as Papua) after Mr Suharto fell, let alone those who committed them while he was still in power.

A different country

Yet, if the bad that Suharto did seems to have been buried with him, this week has also shown how far Indonesia has moved on. It is not in thrall to the former dictator’s memory. A dozen years ago the death of his greedy wife, Tien (known, inevitably as “Madame Tien per cent”), provoked an outpouring of real or synthetic national grief. This week even Suharto-family television channels were soon back to normal programming. Newspapers vigorously debated his legacy.

Some may hanker for the old certainties of his rule, but not at the expense of their new freedoms. To make sure those freedoms endure, Indonesia needs to face up to the past, and to make a proper accounting for the murky atrocities and untold thievery of Mr Suharto’s reign. The rosy nostalgic glow bathing his obsequies is no substitute for true reconciliation. As elsewhere, that needs to be built on historical truth, in which no one in power seemed much interested this week.

Forgiving Suharto?
Joanne Tomkinson
The Christian Science Monitor
02 Feb 08

The death of former Indonesian president Suharto has ignited a vigorous debate about the legacy of his period of bloody rule.

Over half a million people are thought to have died while Suharto was in power, yet many commentators still talk of the positives aspects of this period. A.M. Hendropriyono a commentator for The Jakarta Post sees Suharto’s “flaws” as inevitable given the difficulties associated with running a country as diverse and sprawling as Indonesia.

“After all, if you strip away the corruption, nepotism, and human rights issues from Soeharto’s reign, what do you have? The thankless task of running an often dysfunctional archipelago that revels – and is mired – in diversity,” the commentator says.

“The United States of America, after all, faced serious hurdles during its first decades, though it was able to resolve these without its leaders being scrutinized on CNN and You Tube.” The paper also says that many regional leaders such as Singaporean Minister Mentor Lee Kuan Yew and Malaysian leader Mahathir Mohamad have praised Suharto’s achievements.

Suharto governed Indonesia from 1966 to 1998. He is accused of corruption, repression and causing between 500,000 and a million deaths. Hundreds of thousands of suspected communists were killed as Suharto rose to power in the 1960s. A further 200,000 people are thought to have died during Indonesia’s occupation of East Timor.

Though Britain’s Economist magazine notes his “exceptional brutality”, it is still keen to point out the positive side of Suharto’s regime. “Economic growth accelerated, roads and factories were built, foreign investment flowed. A hugely disparate archipelago of tens of thousands of islands, which had seemed at risk of shattering, was united.” The Inter Press Service (IPS), a civil society news agency says that “The truth is, Suharto still reigns in the heart of people in the villages, despite the fanfare of democracy brought by the new governments.”

The service quotes Warid, a farmer from West Java, as saying “To me, Suharto is the best. When he was in power, fertiliser was abundant and affordable, irrigation worked well. So farming, which is my inherited and only skill, was a reliable business for living.” Mohammad Ainun Najib, a popular columnist in Indonesia, explains this respect in the following way, according to the IPS: “The incapability of the new government makes the people yearn for the Suharto era, when prices of basic necessities were affordable, streets were safe from rallies and anarchism, and jobs were easy to find.”

Economic gains don’t make everyone so forgiving though. “What about the millions of people, alleged members of the Indonesian Communist Party (PKI), who were murdered without trial? How about those who were kidnapped and are still missing? We respect Suharto, definitely. But we also respect those victims of his oppressive rule. All men are equal before the law,” said Fajrun, an activist in Jakarta, speaking to the IPS.

This perspective is reinforced by The East Timor and Indonesia Action Network, a U.S.-based lobbying organisation for East Timor rights, which says that Suharto is “one of the worst mass murderers of the 20th century”. The site says that Suharto’s allies must be brought to justice for the shocking deaths and corruption which took place.

“To overcome Suharto’s legacy and to uphold basic international human rights and legal principles, those who executed, aided and abetted, and benefited from his criminal orders must be held accountable.”

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