The Strongman gets a Whitewash


There appear to be two ways to start an article about Suharto. One is to declare him a bloodthirsty dictator who "ruled the country with an iron fist", and then allow that he made a few improvements to the place. The other is to announce him as "the father of development" and then slip in a mention of the million or so people he saw off.

The truth is that he was both. He took power of a country that was fractious and backward, and hauled it up by the scruff of the neck, instituting national reforms, education, health and infrastructure programs, and turning it into an Asian success story by the mid-1990s.

He also came to power on the back of a coup that saw up to a million supposed Communists murdered in its aftermath, ruthlessly eliminated his opposition, united the country through cracking down on separatist groups and dissidents, and allowed his children and mates free access to the country’s coffers, with the result that when the Asian economic crisis occurred, Indonesia was in no position to ride it out. The country’s financial health had been weakened by years of pilfering and bad deals and the people finally became sufficiently riled that he could no longer ignore their demands.

He stepped down, and Indonesia has spent the last ten years repairing the damage – and sometimes undoing the good that he did. Health programs such as the national family planning initiative, "Dua Anak Cukup" (two children are enough), which was popularised by his wife, Tien, fell by the wayside because of their association with the old man.

Meanwhile, religious tensions exploded as they had never before, with attacks on churches and the rise of militant Islam filling the void left by a man who had encouraged national unity. Life is better for Chinese Indonesians (until 2000, the public celebration of Chinese New Year was illegal and until 2006, Confucians were forced to pick another religion, as theirs was not recognised), the moderately religious (the hijab, an integral part of faith for many Muslim women, was banned in all public service jobs under Suharto’s reign), and, of course, anyone inclined to disagree with the government. The last laws banning criticism of the president were struck down last year.

Thanks to Fiona Katauaskas

But for many of the country’s poor, there is little to cheer about. Prices of basic foodstuffs, carefully controlled under the New Order, have risen like never before – the current crisis is over the price of soybeans, which make tofu, a basic ingredient of many Indonesian dishes – and they have yet to see democracy effect any real change. Thirty-two million people live on less than US$1 a day, and 100 million (more than a third of the country) live on less than US$2. And while the people of East Timor may have found independence, and the Acehnese were able to strike a deal, freedom is unlikely to be forthcoming for Papua any time soon – at least not until that gold mine runs out.

Finally, in a form of persecution that seems amazingly retro to anyone from the West, the Communist Party is still illegal in Indonesia. Last year, a school textbook that made the suggestion that possibly the 1966 coup had gone a little differently to what Suharto had always claimed caused a giant stink and was banned. Meanwhile, a new political party, Papernas, running on a socialist platform, was attacked by religious and nationalist fundamentalists who accused its members of being communists. They threw rocks at a bus carrying members (mainly women and their children) on the way to a party congress. The police did little to stop them.

So his legacy, as they say, lives on, but it seems to be only the nastier sides of it that have flourished, although from the television coverage that has greeted his death you could forgive someone with no knowledge of the man to think that all he touched turned to gold. From the footage of the prayer session over his body as it lay at his home in the wealthy suburb of Menteng last night (featuring shots of his family looking tear-stained and distraught) to the sepia and Vaseline-covered montages of his life (slaughtered Lefties not included) and the wall-to-wall programming of his funeral on Monday, everything points to a beloved leader whose death has left the country in a state of devastation.

Except that it hasn’t. Jakarta is perfectly normal today. True, most flags are at half-mast, as the government ordered as part of the national week of mourning, although I passed a few on my way to work that were still flying full, whether out of forgetfulness or a purposeful protest on the part of the owners I don’t know. When I left home this morning, the security guards and maids at the boarding house I live in were watching the TV coverage of the funeral. Are you sad? I asked them. Not really, came the answer. He did some good things, and the country was safer, but he killed a lot of people. My cab driver on the way to work said much the same thing. In the office of the Jakarta Post, where I work, people laughed while watching the funeral, commenting on the pious faces of his children ("That’s his son Sigit," one of the editors said to me. "He made Indonesian diplomats sell off the country’s properties overseas to pay his gambling debts.").

My younger Indonesian friends express little but loathing and happiness that he is gone. One friend, a journalist, told her parents they shouldn’t lower their flag and complained to me that the TV stations in particular were over the top in their treatment of the funeral and the man being buried. Another announced through his Facebook status that he was "very happy the old man bastard has died" and told me that he was "very pissed" at the media coverage and asked, "Am I crazy or are they?"

Dominating much of the discussion while Suharto lay ill in hospital was what lay ahead legally. The Indonesian Government halted criminal investigations some time ago, after his doctors declared him too ill to stand trial. A civil case is ongoing, although with his death it is now in a grey area. It seems reasonable to suggest that his children should start getting a little worried about the contents of their bank accounts. While a certain amount of affection was held for their father, Tutut, Tommy and co inspire little more than hatred for the way they rode their father’s coattails and stole from the country.

Indonesia, it has been noted before, often has difficulties coming to grips with the past. Events are paved over, smoothed out and rewritten. Sukarno, the country’s first president and independence leader, is glorified as Bung (big brother) Karno, his more dubious activities blurred out, in part by the man who came after him, who was happy to indulge ideas of national glory.

While the current establishment seems to be willing to do the same for Suharto, it is to be hoped that the residents of Indonesia won’t let them. Too many people suffered under his 32-year reign for him to be whitewashed into simply another hero.

Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.