The Unshakeable Legacy

Tempo Magazine
No. 23/VIII
February 05-11, 2008

Cover Story

Suharto’s leadership was marked by a strong level of personal subjectivity. He created an Indonesia which was ‘prosperous,’ centralistic, and respected, without paying attention to matters of democracy or human rights. Things began to fall apart for him when his children became aggressive in business.

JAKARTA 1966. Sukarno, who had led the country for six years under the confusion known as “Guided Democracy,” had been replaced by a handsome and taciturn military man. He held a powerful mandate known as the Supersemar letter.

Since that point, for decades to come, and even after his body was buried at Astana Giribangun, Solo, on Monday last week, this soft-spoken major-general continues to stir up the nation. Yes, Suharto (1921-2008) is not finished just yet.

There is a nostalgia which makes people yearn for the stability which he brought in the past. Here in the present democracy has led to waves of uncertainty: the emergence of small kings in the provinces, the cackle of freedom of expression, and opportunists who dominate the halls of power. His unwavering doctrine of the Unitary State of the Republic of Indonesia (NKRI) and intolerance of regional aspirations suddenly seemed like a viable alternative when separatism began to appear in Sumatra, Maluku, Papua, and other parts of the country.

How was he able to permeate the very being of this country?

Of course, during his 32 years in power, Suharto had plenty of opportunities to do good and bad-which he did, alternately. However, there was a process which seemed to go on forever under his administration, the length of which could only be outdone by Cuba’s Fidel Castro. This process was centralization, and even personalization, with figurehead Suharto as the nucleus of the entire nation.

It is not unusual that cultural observers have often compared his so-called New Order rule with the Javanese kingdom of Mataram-a political system which places the king as the center, one which draws its power from the cosmos. The king is a supernatural figure. In Javanese tradition, as Benedict Anderson wrote in his classic book The Idea of Power in Javanese Culture, legitimacy does not come from man. With her supernatural powers, a queen can subdue the people around her. Suharto, whether he realized it or not, appeared to be convinced that he was that central point.

This centralization process might have been detected early on, when he reduced the number of political parties-those pockets of power outside the government which were a remnant of the liberal democracy which had been paralyzed by Sukarno’s Guided Democracy. As Herbert Feith wrote in The Decline of Constitutional Democracy in Indonesia, in the 1971 General Election, the scores of political parties were reduced to just 10. All of the election regulations were made to serve one goal: a victory for the Golkar Party. At that time, his democratic supporters, including the university students from the Class of ’66 who had taken Sukarno out of office, did not suspect a thing. “We knew he was a military man who did not like politics,” said Arief Budiman, an activist.

These lovers of democracy were intrigued, and placed many of their hopes on his shoulders. Suharto released political prisoners and allowed newspapers banned by Sukarno to start publishing again. The New Order quickly “transformed” into a correction of the Old Order; and Suharto himself became a correction of Sukarno. He broke from the government model which was fond of chanting slogans, one which busied itself with shouts of “Crush Malaysia!” while allowing inflation to rise 600 percent. A program of development was spelt out and inflation brought under control, and Indonesia began an impressive period of economic growth. Foreign capital flowed into the country.

However, the elimination of power outside of the nucleus of the New Order did not come to a halt. An incident in the mid-1970s led to the following consolidation: 10 political parties were
reduced to two parties and one group. The Malari incident (1974) was a protest against the government, which was planning to implement the idea of Tien Suharto, namely the Beautiful Indonesia in Miniature Theme Park (TMII), which began to show signs of corruption. This time, opposition from students met with an iron fist. The government, which had been tolerant and open, turned violent and repressive. Several years later, from 1978-1979, frontal opposition from university students was answered with the NKK/BKK-a ban on political activity for students on campus.

In the 1980s, this centralization of power, which went on during that entire period, had reached a rather frightening stage: the nucleus had widened. The children of President Suharto, who had started to grow up, became an integral part of the central body, going into business armed with “special privileges” from their father. One edition of Forbes magazine reported that, after the monetary crisis in 1997, the wealth of Suharto and his family had reached US$16 billion.

In his lengthy memoir entitled, From Third World to First, former Prime Minister of Singapore Lee Kuan Yew wrote how he did not understand why his children needed to become so wealthy. In the same book, Lee regretted that Suharto had ignored the advice of former Commander in Chief of the Armed Forces, General Benny Moerdani, at the end of the 1980s, namely that he curb the zeal of his children to obtain various business privileges.

According to Kuntowijoyo, as quoted by Eriyanto in the book Kekuasaan Otoriter (Authoritative Power), Suharto was the type of person who based himself on acts of faith and not on acts of reason. Because of this, many of Suharto’s statements and actions were sur rising, yet he never doubted himself in making decisions. He did not need any rational considerations when disbanding the Indonesian Communist Party (PKI). He just relied on his personal convictions. A biography compiled by O. G. Roeder shows how confident Suharto felt when he filled the vacuum in army leadership. “I acted upon my own convictions.”

It seems that it was this self-confidence which led him to launch the “Petrus” operation, the mysterious shootings to exterminate thugs. This staunch attitude may also have been the basis of his decision to take drastic action which claimed many victims in Aceh, Tanjung Priok, Lampung, Papua, and other places. This dark record of human rights violations cannot
easily be effaced.

The height of this centralization rife with nepotism was most transparent in 1997: he was elected for the seventh time, which means that he had spent almost half of his life as Indonesia’s President. In the 7th Development Cabinet, Siti Hardijanti Rukmana,  his eldest daughter, was appointed as Minister of Social Affairs. And when it was seen that the scope of the authority given to this minister was quite extensive, people began imagining that the handover of power would be a family event: the eldest daughter taking her father’s role.

Indeed, Suharto’s style was centralistic, prone to nepotism, and often repressive. However, this was also the way in which programs of national prosperity were able to succeed-and in the end this created a populist image. Indonesia in the Soeharto Years: Issues, Incidents and Images, is a book containing a collection of writings discussing this period, citing the success of Family Planning, a program which began in 1970 and was based solely on economic considerations. Suharto believed that each child needed food, clothing, and education; these needs could not be met if the country experienced a population boom.

The implementation of the Family Planning program was top-down and did not originate from public aspirations. With Tien Suharto at the top of the organizational chart, and the support of the wives of the highest leaders in the provinces, the bureaucratic machine mobilized the Family Planning program down to the most remote villages. Some of the program’s repressive measures led
to some bitter experiences, even though the world saw it as a noteworthy achievement.

After such an extended stay in power, Suharto and a small circle of close friends and family grew to become the group primarily responsible for the various social and economic indicators in the country: repression, the success of the model of prosperity, horrifying levels of corruption, and the destruction of the economy due to the monetary crisis of 1997-1998.

On Sunday last week, his long life finally ended, but his exploits-whether those from long ago or those yet to be revealed-constitute a legacy which continues to haunt Indonesia.