Just so that we are all clear about Suharto

January 12, 2008
Singapore Democrats

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SuhartoMr Lee Kuan Yew’s recent visit to Jakarta to see Suharto has raised questions about the former Indonesian leader’s role in society. Mr Lee said Suharto deserved recognition for the “progress and development” he brought to the Southeast Asian nation.

Just so that history is not re-written, as Mr Lee is so fond of doing, we present some facts and figures about Suharto’s reign.

After he came to power in 1965 following a military putsch in which president Sukarno was ousted, Suharto embarked on a campaign against the political left and communists.

In the months that followed, Suharto ran a terror campaign that makes the current regime in Burma look like backyard school bullies. An estimated 500,000 to 1 million of Suharto’s opponents and suspected communists were murdered during the dictator’s killing spree.

To put it in perspective, this number was five times more than those killed during the entire Vietnam War. And while former dictators like Slobodan Milosevic (Serbia) and Charles Taylor (Liberia) were charged and tried for war crimes, Suharto has gotten away scot-free.

The repression was especially difficult for Chinese Indonesians. Suharto banned the use of Chinese characters and literature and forced them to adopt indigenous names in place of their Chinese ones.

As for the progress and development that Mr Lee now waxes nostalgic about his friend, it is true that the World Bank had once promoted Indonesia under Suharto “as one of the great success stories” in Asia.

After the collapse of the Indonesia economy in 1997, however, the Bank, in a humiliating about-turn, admitted that it had lied about Suharto’s economic perfomance and that it had paid “too little attention to a sick banking system and Suharto’s refusal to reform the legal system and open up the political system.” The Bank also confessed that it knew of many problems but did not want to offend Suharto’s government by bringing them up.

And like all dictatorships, Suharto played fast and loose with its statistics. A US Agency for International Development (AID) consultant in Jakarta in 1989 said that Suharto’s claim of poverty-reduction, with the World Bank’s collusion, was “a lie”.

In the aftermath of the 1997 financial meltdown, it was estimated that 140 million people 60 percent of Indonesians would have lived below the poverty line, a level not seen since the 1960s. If that’s progress one shudders to think of what Mr Lee’s definition of regression is.

What about the stability that Suharto brought to Southeast Asia? The entire region, Australia included, was on tenterhooks when Indonesia imploded from the 1997 crisis. Southeast Asia was bracing itself for the waves of boat people, which thankfully didn’t occur, following Suharto’s years of misrule and ultimate ouster.

This is not to say that nobody benefited from Suharto’s policies. His family members, military generals and cronies siphoned off billions of dollars meant for public use. International funds amounting to hundreds of millions of dollars meant for reforestation of Indonesia’s rainforest was diverted to Suharto’s son for a national car project.

In fact, the United Nations and World Bank named Suharto as the world’s most corrupt dictator ever, siphoning off an estimate of US$15-30 billion dollars.

For those who value genuine progress and development for the people and not just the crony-elite, Suharto’s political and economic crimes cannot be plastered over with feel-good remembrances like giving him “recognition that he deserves.”

The reality is that the praise of one despot cannot erase the misdeeds of another, no matter how close they were as buddies.