INDONESIA: Let the death of Soeharto be the moment of truth

January 29, 2007

A Statement by the Asian Human Rights Commission

Soeharto breathed his last in the quiet confines of Pertamina Hospital in South Jakarta in stark contrast to the hundreds of thousands that were compelled to breathe their last in agony in prisons, caves, rivers or places of detention during his rule. There were cases of victims being shot or the heads chopped off at the mouths of caves � no one knowing how or under what circumstances they died in those caves. Only a recent excavation at Wonosobo revealed the signs of misery that these victims may have suffered prior to their ignominious deaths in the cave. A similar fate had awaited those who were imprisoned on Buru Island which is still known as “Soeharto’s Gulag”. The famous Indonesian author Pramoedya Ananta Toer, who for many years was not allowed to publish his writings, was imprisoned on the island for 14 years. Until recently there were several cemeteries on the island to marking the graves of those who died of starvation, torture and disease.

While Soeharto’s era might be over, many of his political allies are still continuing policies of political discrimination from within the current governing league in Indonesia. Their attempts to cover up the atrocities committed by Soeharto and themselves continue to distort the historical picture of the nation. Indonesia is trying to establish an identity based on values of democracy and human dignity, but what Soeharto and his supporters did and are doing is blocking an honest appraisal of his time in office. Many of the victims are still alive unable to find redress which is amalgamated by a lack of acknowledgement of their sufferings through a distortion of history.

The persecution commenced in 1965 by Soeharto continued for decades with various forms of humiliation, deprivation, discrimination and isolation used under his watch. The victims were punished for generations. It was made difficult even for the children of these ‘ex-tapol’ prisoners to gain access to a good school, employment or social benefits. The worst of it all was the destruction of a system by which justice could have been obtained by the victims.

While there is a plethora of praises for the so called “father of development”, the greatest disrespect that he brought to the nation, has not been said. He not only introduced autocratic patriarchy under a system of ‘Pancasila’, which in a subtle manner undermined not only the system of democratic governance, but also the all important system of prosecution. The rural Pancasila served as the suppressing ideology. Under this guise bodies were created even in the most remote villages to monitor and conduct surveillance in order to stifle any form of freedom of expression and association. The same ideology provided the justification of all power both political and economic concentrated in the hands of Soeharto which eventually lead to staggering corruption and nepotism. Transparency International once declared Soeharto as Asia’s most corrupt leader.

To his dubious credentials must be added the forceful annexation of the eastern part of Timor. The harsh repression of the democracy movement in East Timor is estimated to have resulted in the deaths of over 180,000 persons. The same callous treatment was applied to the situations in West Papua and Aceh.

“General Suharto has died in bed and not in jail, escaping justice for his numerous crimes in East Timor and throughout the Indonesian archipelago,” was the remark made by the group East Timor Action Network, as was quoted by the Bangkok Post. The real success of Soeharto was his elimination of any form of justice being meted out to the victims, and thus allowing impunity to reign. All attempts by civil society organizations and more recently by the attorney general to stand trial were thwarted by the persistent claim by his lawyers and the doctors that he is unfit to stand trial. A large section of the people see the death of Soeharto as a missed opportunity for sentence to be passed on the justice system itself crippled and plagued with its own culture of mpunity. This harsh reality was revealed in the trial of the Indonesians accused of war crimes and human rights violations in East Timor at the Ad-Hoc Human Rights Tribunal. Ironically all Indonesians, except for an Eat Timorese, were found not guilty.

The Asian Human Rights Commission fervently hopes that the death of Soeharto be the beginning of a new hope for the reign of justice � a reform of the police, the attorney general and the judiciary, thus heralding a rebirth of the entire prosecution system that was ruined by the legacy of Soeharto.

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About AHRC: The Asian Human Rights Commission is a regional non-governmental organisation monitoring and lobbying human rights issues in Asia. The Hong Kong-based group was founded in 1984.