Free to mourn or cheer, Indonesians have moved on since Suharto stepped down in 1998
The death of Suharto
Epitaph on a crook and a tyrant
Jan 31st 2008
From The Economist print edition
HE WAS a despot, a cold-war monster cosseted by the West because his most plausible opponents were communists. Behind his pudgily smooth, benign-looking face lay ruthless cruelty. The slaughter as he consolidated his power in the mid-1960s cost hundreds of thousands of lives. Tens of thousands were locked up for years without charge. After the invasion of East Timor in 1975, the Indonesian occupation led to the deaths of perhaps one-third of its people. Meanwhile, he was robbing his own country blind. Perhaps no leader’s family anywhere has ever amassed so much ill-gotten loot. When he was forced to quit at last, the economy was in a tailspin and the stability he had boasted of creating proved an illusion. So it seems all wrong that after Suharto’s death this week, Indonesia declared seven days of national mourning. Television stations (some controlled by his kin) showed laudatory documentaries. The streets were lined with crowds for miles on the way to the hillside family mausoleum he had built, in emulation of the Javanese kings whose successor he seemed to think himself. Other statesmen from the region trooped to his funeral to pay their respects: Singapore’s Lee Kuan Yew, Malaysia’s Mahathir Mohamad and even Timor-Leste’s prime minister, Xanana Gusmão.
In Mr Gusmão, from a tiny young nation needing good relations with its neighbour and former coloniser, such magnanimity might be wise. Mr Lee and Dr Mahathir also had reason to honour Mr Suharto, who ended his predecessor’s “confrontation” with Malaysia, nurtured regional unity and, like them, shrugged at the West’s preaching about human rights. Yet for Indonesians themselves to push the boat out so far for the old kleptocrat suggests a failure to come to terms with the scale of his crimes. Yes, their country made huge economic strides under his 32-year rule, thanks to his delegation of much policymaking to competent technocrats, and superficial political calm prevailed. But at a very high cost.
The government of President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono—himself a Suharto-era former general—has been a success in many ways. But it has not fostered a culture of accountability. In 2006, when Mr Suharto seemed to be on his deathbed, it dropped criminal proceedings against him. It then instigated a civil prosecution. But neither Mr Suharto nor any of his family has faced trial for corruption (though his son, Tommy, was jailed on a murder charge). Nor has there been a determined attempt to bring to justice those army officers who oversaw atrocities in East Timor and Irian Jaya (now known as Papua) after Mr Suharto fell, let alone those who committed them while he was still in power.
A different country
Yet, if the bad that Suharto did seems to have been buried with him, this week has also shown how far Indonesia has moved on. It is not in thrall to the former dictator’s memory. A dozen years ago the death of his greedy wife, Tien (known, inevitably as “Madame Tien per cent”), provoked an outpouring of real or synthetic national grief. This week even Suharto-family television channels were soon back to normal programming. Newspapers vigorously debated his legacy. Some may hanker for the old certainties of his rule, but not at the expense of their new freedoms. To make sure those freedoms endure, Indonesia needs to face up to the past, and to make a proper accounting for the murky atrocities and untold thievery of Mr Suharto’s reign. The rosy nostalgic glow bathing his obsequies is no substitute for true reconciliation. As elsewhere, that needs to be built on historical truth, in which no one in power seemed much interested this week.