Subject: Jeffrey A. Winters: Indonesia's Suharto

Also Hope for Indonesia by Damien Kingsbury

January 29, 2008

Indonesia's Suharto

by Jeffrey A. Winters, Northwestern University

As fallen dictators go, Indonesia's Suharto fared rather well at his death. President Yudhoyono, one of Suharto's top generals, announced his passing to the nation in dignified tones and attended his burial with full state honors.

Southeast Asia's other notorious dictator, Ferdinand Marcos, had a rougher time of it. He died in exile and disgrace in Honolulu, and was kept at home in a freezer until Hawaii's health department informed his wife Imelda that it was illegal to store a corpse in a private residence.

Marcos did finally get transported back to the Philippines. But 19 years after his death, he remains unburied as his family holds out for full presidential honors while haggling with officials over unpaid electric bills to run the freezer.

The contrasting fates of the two strongmen is telling. Although both were deposed in "people power" movements, Suharto was always safe in Jakarta and never set foot in a courtroom. From his fall in 1998 until his death a decade later, his lawyers maintained he was too ill to face corruption charges.

No subsequent leader really pressed the matter, even as Suharto continued to play golf and attend lavish family weddings.

The remarkable thing is that Suharto's crimes easily dwarfed those of Marcos. Marcos was an iron-fisted dictator for 14 years, Suharto for 32. Marcos stole an estimated $5 billion, while Suharto's ill-gotten wealth was easily three or four times that. And although Marcos was a brutal autocrat who tortured and killed many thousands of Filipinos, Suharto was responsible for the suffering and violent death of nearly a million Indonesians, Timorese, and Papuans.

A crucial difference between the two dictators lies in whom they killed and how they stole, while a crucial similarity is that neither left a legacy of development the nation could build upon.

Suharto oversaw unspeakable human carnage, front-loading most of the violence by massacring over 500,000 members of the then legal Indonesian Communist Party when he seized power at the end of 1965. Ten years later he caused the death of another 200,000 Timorese in a war of territorial conquest.

The horror of 1965 remains blurred by a fear even today of being labeled a Communist. Meanwhile, most Indonesians supported the invasion of East Timor and, if anything, were upset that the occupation ended in a successful referendum for independence in 1999.

Suharto never had to worry that he'd be treated like Milosovic, Saddam, or even Pinochet for his crimes against humanity. Western powers were delighted when Suharto annihilated the largest Communist party outside a Communist country in the world, just as the U.S. was getting mired in Vietnam.

He was also safe from prosecution for the deaths of a third of East Timor's population. Leaders of this tiny new nation decided it was wiser to adopt a "forward-looking" relationship with their huge neighbor than seek justice in international tribunals against Suharto and his generals.

Although Suharto's hands are among the bloodiest of the 20th century, he never committed anything like Marcos's 1983 blunder of killing a member of the nation's ruling elite. The assassination of Senator Aquino violated an unspoken rule among the powerful that harshly penalizes such extreme measures.

Suharto used a range of incentives and punishments with his fellow elites. But he was careful not to trigger their outrage by killing or torturing them -- tactics reserved for the middle and lower strata.

General Suharto also stole from the country in a way that differed from civilian Marcos. Partly because he was a military man and came to power by unleashing awe-inspiring violence, Suharto was able to establish a more solid dominance over his fellow oligarchs.

He positioned himself as a mafia don in a manner Marcos never quite managed to achieve. More secure in his role as "godfather," Suharto managed the distribution of spoils among his underbosses and capos while taming their potentially pathological behavior.

His regime emerged as more predictably corrupt than that of Marcos. Under Suharto, a deal was a deal, whereas under Marcos the system was more unwieldy as the ruling family made a frenzied grab of the spoils for their own clan or region.

Predictable corruption proved highly beneficial to investment and job creation as the domestic and foreign private sector adjusted to paying tribute to the godfather instead of taxes to the treasury. The result was an average 7% per annum growth rate during Suharto's reign, a record Marcos never came close to matching.

Suharto had himself labeled as the "father of development." But history has shown that the label is undeserved. It is true that Indonesians fared better under Suharto than did Filipinos, who were ripped off and had nothing to show for it.

But Suharto's developmental legacy proved highly debilitating. To maintain himself as mafia don, Suharto actively destroyed all independent institutions of government and civil society -- especially the legal infrastructure. He tamed the country's oligarchs personally not institutionally.

By the time Suharto's greedy children grew up and the game of spoils began to resemble the elite-aggravating pattern seen under Marcos, the damage to the country was deep.

The same elites Suharto nurtured had had enough by 1998, and the old general was nudged aside with no new godfather to replace him.

The only alternative was the country's gutted institutional infrastructure, which has proven to be no match for the powerful actors Suharto once tamed.

The result is that the Suharto years did not launch Indonesia on a path of sustainable growth, but rather has left a lasting legacy of crippled institutions of law that are chronically bribed or intimidated by the country's dominant elites.

The damage of the Suharto regime will far outlast the temporary benefits it produced.


The Age (Melbourne, Australia) January 29, 2008

Hope for Indonesia

Damien Kingsbury

The death of Soeharto means the country can shake off his lingering influence.

THE death of former president Soeharto has sparked debate about whether his more than three decades of ruling Indonesia produced more positive than negative outcomes. Despite many claims in support of his 32 years of authoritarian rule, Soeharto's legacy is overwhelmingly bleak.

He took power after the murder of six senior generals on September 30, 1965, in what has been incorrectly described as an abortive communist coup. Soeharto had been spared by the conspirators because he was seen as sympathetic to their cause.

Yet in the aftermath, Soeharto rallied "loyal" troops, crushed the pro-Soekarno officers and blamed the killing of the generals on the Indonesian Communist Party (PKI).

The claim of a "communist coup" allowed Soeharto to purge the Indonesian Communist Party, unleashing what the CIA has described as one of the worst massacres of the 20th century. Between a half and 2 million people were killed in an orgy of violence over the following months.

Soeharto then set about consolidating his control of government, taking effective power in March 1966, appointed as acting president in 1967, and formally as president in 1968. Following the economic chaos of the Soekarno years, Soeharto set about attracting foreign investment, systematically emasculating political parties and the judiciary, and crushing all signs of dissent.

From this time, not only were leftists in fear of their lives, trade unions were curtailed and journalists and human rights workers lived under censorship and fear. A simple telephone call was usually enough to guarantee control, but critics often disappeared, sometimes later found dead.

Having overseen the campaign to wrest West Papua from the Dutch, in 1968 Soeharto engineered the territory's formal incorporation into Indonesia through a sham vote by a little over a thousand hand-picked village leaders. Soeharto then set about systematically exploiting the territory, giving carte blanche to the military to suppress protest.

No one knows how many have since died in West Papua, although the number is thought to be in the tens of thousands.

In 1975, Soeharto gave his approval for the invasion and annexation of East Timor, leading to the deaths of at least 180,000 more.

And in 1976, he gave his military free rein to crush dissent in Aceh, sparking a three decades-long war in which many further thousands were killed.

Throughout Soeharto's 32-year reign, Indonesia was a country at war with itself. Where Indonesia might have developed a positive sense of plural national identity, the tendency was instead to compel compliance with a narrow interpretation of that identity. During this time, domestic spying was pervasive. Indonesia did not become a totalitarian state only due to a lack of organisational capacity.

Throughout Soeharto's tenure until 1997, the Indonesian economy grew at an average of about 7% a year, leading some observers to claim this justified his harsh rule.

At one level, even a modest economic manager could have overseen some economic growth off the very low base of the 1960s.

The oil price boom of the 1970s ensured massive capital inflows, as well as corruption. Political stability ensured by an iron fist also promoted a favourable foreign investment climate, with a percentage of that investment going to Soeharto and his family.

Economic growth under Soeharto was commonly measured in per capita GDP terms. But this crude method of measurement failed to account for the massive accumulation of wealth among a few, and continuing poverty among the many. Indonesia did reduce the proportion that lived in poverty under Soeharto, but the poverty benchmark was set well below internationally accepted levels.

If wealth in Indonesia was accumulated by the few, it was Soeharto and his family who benefited most of all. Soeharto has since been anointed as the most corrupt political leader ever, having accumulated a personal fortune of up to $US32 billion ($A36 billion). This was more than three times more corrupt than the Philippines' Ferdinand Marcos, leaving African despots as distant also-rans.

As Soeharto sidelined those of his inner circle who did not bow completely to his will, he increasingly took on the autocratic style of a Javanese sultan. However, growing alienation among senior army officers and the crushing of renewed political opposition in 1996 spelled the beginning of the end of Soeharto's reign.

Sensing the inevitable, cronies and investors moved their money offshore. When in 1997 the international money markets worked out that the Indonesian economy had been hollowed out from inside, the value of Indonesia's currency collapsed.

Unable to control Indonesia's economic meltdown, Soeharto was forced to resign. It was only then that Indonesia could begin its slow process of democratisation and other political reforms.

Even in retirement, Soeharto extended influence, notably in a massive libel suit against Time magazine. But now Soeharto is completely gone, as is his lingering influence. Indonesia will be the better for his passing, and can move on.

Associate Professor Damien Kingsbury is associate head (research) of the School of International and Political Studies at Deakin University, and is author of The Politics of Indonesia (Oxford, 3rd edition 2005).

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