The smiling general


Despite a few bad calls, Suharto did save Indonesia from the abyss AS FORMER Indonesian president Suharto hovered near death in the hushed confines of Jakarta’s Pertamina hospital recently, a clutch of noisy demonstrators lingered outside.

They brandished colourful placards demanding that he be put on trial for the wrongs he did while in power. At the same time, they brought him a big bunch of flowers – to wish him well.

The odd mix of grievance and affection essentially captured the man that Mr Suharto was and the feelings of his fellow Indonesians when asked about the leader who ruled them for 32 years.

For some, he was a dictator who ruled over one of the most corrupt regimes in the world. But he was also the Father of Development who brought economic prosperity to millions after the devastation and chaos of the Sukarno years.

The “smiling general” found time enough to care about rural women’s health and talk to farmers about rice planting, but he could not see how corruption and nepotism was impoverishing the same farmers.

Ten years after his dramatic fall from power in 1998, his legacy lives on in more ways than meets the eye and even in the very rejection of his centralising tendencies.

Mr Suharto lived by the Javanese adage “alon alon asal kelakon” (slowly but surely), and that was how he began his rise to power.

Born in June 1921 in the central Javanese village of Kemusuk, he joined the Royal Netherlands Indies Army at 20. After the Dutch surrendered to the Japanese in 1942, he enlisted in the local militia organised by the Japanese.

When the Japanese left, he joined the fight against the Dutch and moved up quickly through the ranks of the newly formed Indonesian army.

The pace quickened when he was an obscure major-general in 1965. The opportunity came when six officers of the army’s high command were killed by leftist elements in the military on the night of Sept 30.

Mr Suharto, then head of the elite army strategic reserve command, swiftly seized the moment.

He assumed control of the army after learning that its commander, Achmad Yani, was one of those officers murdered.

Next came the crushing of the Indonesian Communist Party (PKI). In the months that followed, hundreds of thousands of its members died at the hands of local vigilantes and army units.

By early 1966, only one hurdle remained in his rise to the top: President Sukarno, nationalist hero and founding father of the country.

An accurate rendering of what happened during that particularly turbulent episode in Indonesia’s history remains to be written.

But according to Mr Suharto, in the convulsion of growing protests and a collapsing economy, a beleaguered President Sukarno signed off on what has come to be known as the “Letter of March 11”, otherwise known as Supersemar.

In the letter, he was supposed to have empowered Mr Suharto “to take all measures considered necessary to guarantee security, calm and stability of the government and the revolution, and to guarantee the personal safety and authority of Sukarno”.

Controversy remains over the document. But March 1966 marked the end of Sukarno’s rule and paved the way for Mr Suharto’s formal appointment as president two years later.

Over the next three decades, he systematically tightened his grip on power. His New Order regime strengthened even as it left state institutions weakened and beholden to him.

In his book, Nation In Waiting, author Adam Schwarz points to several factors for Mr Suharto’s longevity as president.

One was the use of the army to repel any direct challenge to his rule.

Another was the clever use of state ideology. “Pancasila” was Indonesia’s founding creed. In theory, it was innocuous, calling for a belief in God and religious tolerance. But the ideology became an instrument for keeping opponents in check. “Pancasila” had no place for atheistic communists. Attempts to impose syariah or Islamic law would run into the trouble too.

Mr Suharto also oiled the wheels of the system with money from close business associates to keep his opponents in check.

By the mid-1990s, he had control over the military, parliament and the ruling Golkar party. The press was cowed and the judiciary rendered impotent.

But the very system he sowed contained the seeds of his eventual downfall.

That came in May 21, 1998, when Mr Suharto relinquished power to vice-president B.J. Habibie after increasingly violent riots and demonstrations in the streets of Jakarta.

The trigger had come from abroad. The 1997 Asian financial crash had been sparked off by a crisis over the Thai baht.

It soon spread to Indonesia and grew into a conflagration fuelled by anger over corruption, nepotism and other ills associated with his dictatorship.

Mr Suharto’s presidency went down in flames; the economic benefits that came from the years of stability under his rule were forgotten in the fury of the moment.

When his presidency tottered and finally collapsed, so did the artificial lid he kept on tensions in the sprawling archipelago.

Sometimes the consequences were bloody as seen in the violence in restive regions like Aceh and Papua

All four Indonesian leaders since Mr Suharto have found the job hard-going without his ready use of the military and other iron-fisted measures.

Democracy in the post-Suharto era was intoxicating, but with it came the danger of regional autonomy run wild and legislative gridlock.

Another legacy of the Suharto years that continues to reverberate today has to do with his policy towards Islam.

For most of the New Order period, Islam was labelled the “extreme right” by the government, even though Indonesia has the world’s largest Muslim population. It was treated as Public Enemy No. 1, ranking just below the communists, the “extreme left”.

Muslim political activists were persecuted. The likes of Jemaah Islamiyah’s Abu Bakar Bashir went underground or escaped to Malaysia, Afghanistan and Pakistan.

When the way opened for them to return to Indonesia in the late-90s, many came back fired up with thoughts of violent jihad.

During the mid-80s, there was a volte-face in Mr Suharto’s policy towards Islam. He saw it as a countervailing force to the military. The government abandoned a decades-long policy forbidding the wearing of jilbab, or Islamic head covering, by female students in state schools.

Mr Suharto and his family made a widely publicised pilgrimage to Mecca in 1990.

All this encouraged growing confidence and assertiveness among Muslims as they forged ahead on political and economic fronts – and ultimately and ironically played a leading role in toppling him.

It is this group that has come increasingly to shape religious discourse in Indonesia today.

Certainly the cronyism and asset-grabbing by his children had a damaging effect on the rest of the government, with ministers and officials replicating it on a smaller scale. It undermined his political legitimacy and left a legacy that continues to afflict Indonesia.

“The fall of Suharto ushered in a democratic era easily dominated by his fattened oligarchs,” prominent Indonesia scholar Jeffrey Winters of Northwestern University in Chicago told The Straits Times.

“The predictable result has been an endless stream of capos and under-bosses all freelancing with neither a strongman nor effective institutions of law and government in place to tame them.”

His successors have stressed the importance of clean government and a determination to root out corruption. The results, however, have not been stellar.

But what of the bouquet that came with the protest banners as Mr Suharto lay dying?

It is often forgotten that he took over an economy in dire straits. In 1966, export revenues were stagnant. There was little foreign investment, relations with foreign donors were in tatters and infrastructure was crumbling. Inflation had topped 1,000 per cent a year and foreign debt had reached US$2 billion.

Instead of shutting the doors to the world or attempting to manage economic policy himself, Mr Suharto entrusted it to a handful of mostly UStrained economists – the so-called “Berkeley mafia”.

His government turned to the outside world for help, mending ties with multilateral and country donors.

Within a few years, the technocrats had stabilised the economy and set it on course for rapid growth. Inflation fell rapidly. Jobs were created. He lifted millions out of poverty.

From this foundation, a middle class grew, setting the stage for further growth. Indonesia’s economic growth rates averaged a sprightly 6 to 7 per cent from the 1980s to the mid-1990s.

Another of Mr Suharto’s biggest accomplishments was on the international stage.

He ended years of turbulence in the region by initiating secret negotiations to end Konfrontasi in 1966. And his support of Asean brought economic progress to the region.

Associate Professor Leonard Sebastian of the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies noted: “Asean is Suharto’s baby. He mooted the idea, he nurtured the organisation and he sustained it with his leadership. It lost its coherence when he fell from power.”

The East Timor invasion in 1975 – which saw close to 200,000 being killed – blackened Indonesia’s image abroad. But it did little to stunt Mr Suharto’s international stature.

He sought a larger role on the world stage. In the 1990s, Indonesian troops participated in US peacekeeping efforts in Bosnia and Cambodia. Indonesia also served a term on the United Nations Security Council.

During this period, he assumed the chairmanship of the Non-Aligned Movement. And in 1994, he hosted the Apec summit, which agreed to create a tariff-free trading regime in the region by 2020.

In the traditional Javanese worldview, power has an essence of its own, known as “wahyu”, and is conferred like a mantle on certain chosen people.

For Mr Suharto, that loss of “heavenly mandate” was captured most dramatically in January 1998 after the economy had taken a severe beating from the regional financial crisis.

Under the media spotlight, he seemed a broken man as he bent over to sign a multi-billion dollar aid package while IMF chief Michel Camdessus stood by with arms crossed.

The body language said it all, and for a Javanese ruler it was the ultimate humiliation.

His rule ended just months later and ironically in the same way as his predecessor – amid political chaos with a divided military and an economy in free fall. If the Cold War and the challenge of communism precipitated his rise, its end saw little reason for the US and the West to support him. In the ensuing 10 years, his health faded and he retreated from public view.

There will always be the clamour for redress of the bad calls he made, the failure to rein in graft and the heavy-handed response to opponents of his New Order government.

But then he will also be remembered for being the leader who had saved Indonesia from the abyss.

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