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Suharto's legacy persists in Indonesia

As former Indonesian dictator Suharto hovers between life and death in hospital, the one thing his allies and critics agree is that his legacy still looms large in political, economic and cultural life in the country.

india Updated: Jan 14, 2008 15:59 IST
Aubrey Belford
Aubrey Belford

As former Indonesian dictator Suharto hovers between life and death in hospital, the one thing his allies and critics agree is that his legacy still looms large in political, economic and cultural life in the country.

Over more than three decades in power, Suharto's autocratic rule was marked by rampant corruption, cronyism and widespread human rights abuses.

At the same time, he established much-needed stability and presided over a 1970s oil boom that raised the living standards of millions of Indonesians and allowed the nation to become self-sufficient in its staple food, rice.

Despite his overthrow ten years ago sparked by the Asian financial crisis, Suharto's rule is fondly remembered by many here as a time when the basics of life such as foodstuffs and fuel were more affordable.

Small groups of supporters have occasionally gathered in the past two weeks outside the hospital in Jakarta where he is being treated for multiple organ failure, signalling the nostalgia he still stirs.

Protesters, too, have emerged, still angered by the lack of justice meted out to the former dictator who stands accused of massive corruption and human rights abuses.

Suharto took power from founding father Sukarno in 1966 following a bloody massacre of communist sympathisers.

His model, a mix of pro-Western free market policies and institutionalised cronyism, proved a hollow shell that collapsed spectacularly in the financial crisis and unwound much of the progress it had achieved.

"The technocratic approach of the government of Indonesia at the time basically went in the wrong direction in establishing an economic system," said Kusnanto Anggoro, a political scientist at the University of Indonesia.

That system, which welded corruption to the highest levels of government, meant the country was unable to deal with economic uncertainty and set the template for today's Indonesia, where more "chaotic" graft reigns, he said.

Though accused of illegally amassing billions of dollars, a criminal corruption trial against Suharto was abandoned on health grounds in 2006. A 1.4 billion dollar civil suit is still pending.

Suharto's 32-year dominance of politics also stifled the emergence of new leaders in the wake of his downfall. The result, Anggoro said, is an elite devoid of new ideas to move the country forward in the face of persistent poverty and unemployment.

Some parts of Suharto's legacy have collapsed or been curtailed.

The centralisation of all power in Jakarta has been replaced with devolution that has given the archipelago nation's far-flung provinces an unprecedented say in their own affairs.

The long separatist war in restive Aceh province is at a lull while East Timor -- invaded by Suharto in 1975 and the site of some of his regime's worst abuses -- is now an independent nation.

The previously dominant military has also made a modest retreat from politics, but still acts with impunity in far-flung areas such as Papua, according to human rights groups.

The continued existence of a Suharto-era system that puts military commands in every village means shady military business activities still bring sporadic violence, said Haris Azhar, a campaigner with rights group Kontras.

"The structure of violence that is still running now has its heritage in the Suharto regime," Azhar said.

Suharto's personal quirks have also had an influence on Indonesian life.

A Javanese man from the country's largest ethnic group, his error-laden and heavily accented version of the national language was imitated by sychophantic officials during his reign and leaked into wider usage, to the horror of purists.

Although a Muslim, Suharto's devotion to traditional pre-Islamic mysticism also influenced the national culture.

His Javanese brand of synchretic Islam, popularly known as Kejawen, later was added to the list of five major religions then recognised by the state, but under a different name: Belief in God Almighty.

Suharto's 1998 fall was quickly followed by a rise in more orthodox Islamic piety, but the supernatural still looms large -- especially when it comes to talk of the ex-dictator himself.

While many would see Suharto's team of doctors as the main reason for his survival so far, theories popular among millions of Indonesians include possession by black magic and his ownership of a Javanese royal family's sacred dagger.