Last days of the general: Suharto's legacy
Former president Suharto's stamp on Indonesia was so strong that a decade after his ouster as its leader, the world's fourth-most populous country is still struggling to deal with his legacy.world Updated: Jan 27, 2008 14:25 IST
Former president Suharto's stamp on Indonesia was so strong that a decade after his ouster as its leader, the world's fourth-most populous country is still struggling to deal with his legacy.
Suharto, who died on Sunday, ruled for 32 years. He boosted growth and kept a lid on communal violence, but left in his wake a brutal army, crippled economy, neutered political system, and dysfunctional national institutions.
"Suharto ran Indonesia like a mafia don," said Jeffrey Winters, professor of political economy at Northwestern University, Chicago.
"Everything turned on the don, all business went through the don, the don was the source of security, and he destroyed everything, parliament, the rule of law, the intellectual community, and turned the police and military into his personal instruments."
Not everyone agrees.
"Yes, there was corruption. Yes, he gave favours to his family and his friends. But there was real growth and real progress," Lee Kuan Yew, longtime autocratic prime minister of neighbouring Singapore, said after visiting Suharto's hospital bedside on Jan. 13.
"I think the people of Indonesia are lucky. They had a general in charge, had a team of competent administrators including a very good team of economists."
Suharto came to power in 1965, crushing what was officially described as a Beijing-backed communist coup. As many as 500,000 Indonesians suspected of being communists or sympathisers died in an army-inspired bloodbath in the following months.
Over the next three decades, his army continued to kill, on student campuses, in the rebellious provinces of Aceh and Papua, and in East Timor, where about 200,000 died from war and famine, as well as in "mysterious shootings" of criminals.
Elsewhere in the sprawling archipelago of 17,000 islands and 226 million people, much of his rule was relatively peaceful, but stability often came at the cost of repression of dissent.
Thousands of political prisoners were kept in labour camps on Buru Island, including Indonesia's best-known author Pramoedya Ananta Toer and other members of the intelligentsia.
Independent analysts and NGOs said violations of human rights were common. But Suharto never faced any charges for crimes against humanity.
By the time he stepped down, amid the social and economic chaos of 1998, many Indonesians summed up his era with the initials KKN, the local acronym for Corruption, Collusion and Nepotism. Transparency International ranked him as the world's top kleptocrat, with a fortune estimated at $15-35 billion.
He denied the charges of corruption, and partly because of claims of poor health he was not prosecuted.
Suharto's supporters -- and he had plenty in the West and in Asia -- pointed to the fact he encouraged foreign investment, boosted economic growth, and raised living standards.
He inherited an economic shambles from former president Sukarno, and turned Indonesia into one of Asia's tigers, growing 6-7 percent a year.
But many of his economic policies proved ill-conceived. He doled out licences and monopolies to his family and friends, stifling competition, and used costly fuel and food subsidies to win the support of the man on the street.
"The growth was enjoyed by the elite, and the benefits were not distributed among the poor," said Wimar Witoelar, a media commentator.
"You cannot separate his political and economic legacy, what is the value of economic growth when he killed, or damaged so many people?"
Corruption permeated all levels of society, including the courts and legal system, and became a way of life for many. Indonesia has had only limited success in tackling endemic graft, still cited as a major obstacle to investment.
In Jakarta, sleek skyscrapers towered above slums and open sewers, and millions lived on less than $2 a day, although in the countryside many farmers still remember his rule fondly as a time when they prospered.
When he resigned, the financial system was exposed as a mess. Banks had violated the most basic lending rules, steering huge loans to his cronies, who wouldn't or couldn't pay up.
Given Indonesia's oil, coal, copper and other resources, its growth fell far short of its potential, critics say.
"Suharto squandered Indonesia's best years, when it had ample oil and gas, and had very close ties to the United States and the West, with access to developmental funds at very cheap rates," said Winters. "The growth rate should have been much higher."
Subsequent governments have pushed through economic reforms, but Indonesia has taken years to recover. The economy expanded 6.3 percent in 2007, the fastest pace in 11 years, but still well below the kind of growth enjoyed by China and India.
The oligarchs who prospered under Suharto have bounced back from the 1997-98 financial crisis and once again rank among the country's wealthiest. Some escaped punishment, thanks to corrupt courts, but with Suharto's death that may change.
"It's not just Suharto's children, but the children-in-law and business associates who over the next few months will be far more vulnerable," said Richard Robison, emeritus professor at Murdoch University, Perth.
"The death of Suharto lifts the last protective cloak for these people," who may now face new charges or the more aggressive pursuit of existing cases, he added.
Suharto employed his security forces and political machine Golkar to hold together a vast archipelago of assorted religions, languages, and cultures, while squashing serious opposition.
He continued to use Communism as a convenient bogeyman, and long after the Cold War ended, Indonesians deemed to have communist links were stigmatised and even denied jobs.
His authoritarian style prevented any democratic development. Opposition parties were crushed and while the country quickly embraced democracy in Suharto's wake, holding its first direct elections for president in 2004, its political parties remain immature and lacking in clear ideology.
The armed forces, which had a quota of seats in parliament, have been depoliticised, and are under pressure to get out of business. But Golkar remains a powerful force backed by wealthy businessmen.
As for its modern history, Indonesia has yet to conduct the painful self-scrutiny seen in post-Nazi Germany or post-apartheid South Africa. Schools have only recently started to teach an alternative version of the events of 1965-66.
"It's been largely expunged from the history books," said Damien Kingsbury, associate professor at Australia's Deakin University. "It's an indication of the reluctance to recognise the darker elements of Indonesian history."
The media, however, has flourished in the past decade and is now free to report on corruption and injustices, and, as Suharto lay dying in hospital in recent weeks, could cover every tiny, most intimate detail of the condition of an old general who for years ensured they were censored or shut down.