Editorial: Farewell to the King

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

HE was accorded seven days of mourning, flags at half-mast. Whether one approved or disapproved of the government’s action, Suharto died a ‘hero’ last week. From the time he was admitted to Pertamina Hospital until his burial in Solo three weeks later, Suharto proved he was a master manipulator.

A stream of senior officials came to visit him. The attention given to the fluctuating condition of his organs overshadowed other news-like the death of Slamet, a smalltime snack-seller, who lost all hope and killed himself over the soaring price of soybeans. All television stations-some of them owned by Suharto’s children-aimed their cameras at the hospital or repeatedly showed footage of the ailing former President. Of course, out of respect for a seriously ill man, they only showed the good parts.

At the hospital, the family applied a strict protocol: only people they approved of were allowed in. Not all of Suharto’s former inner circle passed the screening process. Harmoko, who never forgot to ask directions from his boss while he was Information Minister, failed to get in. Neither did B.J. Habibie, the former President who always used to refer to Suharto as his mentor. Amid the chorus of politicians calling for Suharto to be pardoned, the man himself was not prepared to forgive his two former associates.

When he finally breathed his last, broadcasters brimming with tears recalled his goodness and his achievements. The endless eulogies got better ratings than the soap operas. This meant increased advertising. It is fair to say that use of television to influence the feelings of the public was largely successful.

In an obvious about-face, television channels showed a man who deserved nothing less than prayers and expressions of sympathy. If there were people who spoke otherwise, or referred to his sins or wrongdoings, they were seen to be misled, ignorant, given to prattling or harboring grudges. Perhaps Asep Purnama Bahtiar is right. The Muhammadiyah Yogyakarta University lecturer claimed that media reports were no longer factual. They were, he argued, a reconstruction of a “world” envisaged by the media and the people involved.

Soon, Astana Giribangun, the Suharto family mausoleum, will cease to be in the news. We will be left with the pending civil case against Suharto’s foundations and the debate over the legal status of his heirs. The government should not waste time worrying about that. The rules are quite clear. Unless Suharto’s six children reject the terms of his will, they stand to inherit all his possessions. It would not make sense for any of them to reject their inheritance. The Attorney General’s Office could then deal with the children on the basis of the civil case.

The case against Suharto himself automatically lapses upon his death, but his cronies who survive him must be examined. All the government has to do is determine which of Suharto’s policies represented an abuse of power, were unlawful or were used to enrich himself and his associates. Anybody who benefited from these policies should immediately become the target of an investigation. No one should be allowed to evade this. They did nothing to refuse the fruits of the privileges they enjoyed so cheerfully.

There are many ways in which the government can do this if it has the will to do so. One is to audit the wealth of the cronies. Assets procured through privilege or are of uncertain origin can be examined in court. In principle, enjoying the benefits of illegal policies is a crime in itself. The evidence is clear. Secret documents from the US State Department and the White House can be used as additional evidence to prove corruption during the New Order years.

The public will wait and see if once in court the cronies deny responsibility by pinning the blame for all wrongdoings on Suharto, a man they now praise because he gave them so many “sweeteners.” Only a true coward would “stab” a boss who is already in the next world.

Above all, the cronies must be investigated if the government really wants to uphold economic justice and carry out its constitutional mandate to guarantee the right of all citizens to equal opportunity. If it does nothing, the special facilities and privileges thought to have been wrongfully obtained will never end. Only a puppet kingdom would allow this sorry state of
affairs to continue.

The government should prioritize these investigations, if only because the move has already been mandated by the People’s Consultative Assembly in 1999. Resolving these cases is more important than spending time thinking about declaring Suharto a national hero-as loudly proposed by Priyo Budi Santoso, a Golkar functionary who was once summoned by the Corruption Eradication