Subject: Death Won’t End Suharto’s Malign Influence

Excerpt: The military’s tactical retreat from politics to higher ground hasn’t brought the TNI under civilian control. Instead, the divorce has further insulated the military from public oversight and let its business empire carry on undisturbed. The one aspect worth debating, though strictly of academic interest, is whether the military remains unaccountable despite or because retired general Yudhoyono is president.

Also: Battle Over Suharto's Legacy a Test for Modern Indonesia;
Suharto Fully Conscious But Still Unstable: Doctors

Death won’t End Suharto’s Malign Influence

Our Correspondent

16 January 2008

Three decades of kleptocratic rule are not going to be eradicated easily

It seem almost quaint now, but Indonesia’s longtime president Suharto, who now lies dying, was once praised by the Washington for his strong anti-Communism, backed by a muscular, US-supplied military. That praise translated into billions in aid from allies and international institutions before it all ended badly in the Asian economic crisis of 1997.

Since Suharto’s resignation his former authoritarian regime has morphed imperfectly into the world’s third largest democracy. To widespread acclaim, the military forfeited the parliamentary seats reserved for it under Suharto, taking its apolitical status so seriously that it prohibits soldiers from voting in presidential elections. Tentara Nasional Indonesia, the armed forces, have also given up the occupation of East Timor, albeit in a destructive fury, and the futile but profitable war against a handful of separatists in Aceh.

Indonesia’s economy is humming along at a respectable 6 percent growth rate. There is another election due next year, the nation’s second in which the president will be directly elected. In addition, decentralization is moving power from Jakarta to the grass roots. In these exciting times, Indonesians have more to think about than an aged leader who dropped out of sight nearly a decade ago.

That is what we are supposed to think and this view of Indonesia has powerful promoters. The Bush administration advertises Indonesia ­ a secular state with the world’s largest Muslim population ­ as a beacon of democratization in the Islamic world. Although the US was Suharto’s key benefactor, it has had no problem backing his successors. Since the September 11, 2001 attacks and Indonesia’s run of Islamist violence beginning with the Bali bombings of 2002, the US has made Indonesia the East Asian focus of the war on terror, and the Bush people sure can use a success amid their many failures. As the primary beneficiary of the American largesse, Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, the democratically elected president, and his administration are also anxious to underline how different their Indonesia is from Suharto’s.

It’s a satisfying narrative of national development, freedom and democracy. There’s just one problem with the story: it’s largely untrue.

Rather than a historic relic, Suharto, the bland general who emerged from the shadows to dominate his country, remains the most influential figure in Indonesian politics even after a decade of seclusion. The cries of “reformasi” that accompanied his downfall went largely unheeded. Suharto’s influence will survive his burial and haunt Indonesia for years. In truth, Indonesia now is not so different from Indonesia under Suharto.

Yudhoyono and company promote the view that Indonesia is long past Suharto because, like most members of the ruling class, they have a long Suharto past. That’s principally because Suharto didn’t tolerate opposition or develop heirs. His last vice president, BJ Habibie, was chosen mainly for his wildly unconventional views and was intended to function as an insurance policy against his boss’s ouster. Nearly all of the politicians available as Suharto’s successors have been his collaborators.

Despite the sweeping changes in political language and banquet seating, Indonesia’s mentality of governing hasn’t changed. Political office is seen as an opportunity to benefit yourself, your family and your friends ­ as Suharto reportedly did to the tune of billions of US dollars ­ rather than serve the public.

At least under Suharto there was order in the corruption: if you paid the right people, things got done. Today, with decentralization and no strongman at the top, corruption is more chaotic and widespread and payoffs less effective.

That attitude of government as a path to personal enrichment goes far beyond simple graft. There’s also no concept of conflict of interest. The family firm of the Coordinating Minister for People’s Welfare, Aburizal Bakrie, is a leading conglomerate whose drilling in East Java two years ago triggered a spectacular mud volcano that has inundated a huge area with stinking mud. Bakrie has not only escaped any blame for the incident, but the government wound up footing a substantial portion of the compensation package for local residents who lost their homes and cropland in the disaster.

The military’s tactical retreat from politics to higher ground hasn’t brought the TNI under civilian control. Instead, the divorce has further insulated the military from public oversight and let its business empire carry on undisturbed. The one aspect worth debating, though strictly of academic interest, is whether the military remains unaccountable despite or because retired general Yudhoyono is president.

While the military has abandoned its formal role in politics, seemingly content to leave the extraordinary difficult task of running the country to others, that doesn’t mean the security forces have lost interest. The implicit agreement that emerged under President Megawati Sukarnoputri is mutual noninterference in vital interests. The government needn’t fear military coups, and the top military brass has escaped accountability for its human rights and financial abuses during and after Suharto’s reign.

One result is that the murder of leading human rights activist Munir, who died of arsenic poisoning on a flight to Amsterdam in 2004, remains unsolved. Evidence links the in-flight murder to the national intelligence agency, but that is a no-go zone for prosecutors.

The judiciary is largely unreformed a decade after Suharto fell. Judges still look first to politicians rather than evidence to reach their verdicts. In the absence of political diktat, courts sell decisions to the highest bidder. Even without political influence and bribery, courts are arbitrary and unprofessional. The continuing absence of the rule of law is a major barrier to attracting the foreign investment Indonesia badly needs to relieve the devastating poverty that afflicts nearly a quarter of its 230 million people.

l failure of justice involves Suharto and family, and it bodes ill for Indonesia’s future. Suharto himself escaped trial due to health issues. His son Tommy is free after serving a fraction of his 15 year sentence for ordering the murder of a Supreme Court judge who handed down a corruption verdict against him that was later overturned. The Suharto clan continues to control a business empire and wealth estimated at upwards of US$10 billion. The only conviction by Indonesian courts handed down on corruption allegations related to Suharto was a defamation verdict last year against Time magazine for its estimate of the family’s stolen wealth.

Failure to punish Suharto and his family encourages his successors to behave just as he did, stealing all they can while they can, confident there won’t be consequences. It also encourages the culture of impunity that led to the murder of Munir and threatens a similar fate to any who dare cross the line. That’s hardly the way to build a tolerant, pluralist democracy.

But the biggest failure is the Indonesians’ own refusal to confront the Suharto era and their roles in those three decades of misrule. Culturally, it is more comfortable to ignore unpleasant issues than to examine them in order to avoid a repeat. Yet the tale of how the nation allowed this by all accounts unremarkable military man to successfully create and run an authoritarian state bears inspection.

There is no shortage of people who want to be autocrats. The difficulty is finding a nation ready to play along. Until it proves otherwise by decisively repudiating and purging the Suharto legacy, Indonesia remains easy prey for the next aspirant, be it a populist neo-Sukarno, another brass hat or a charismatic mullah.

Indonesia hasn’t faced up to Suharto during this lifetime. Perhaps it will prove more willing to finally exorcise his ghost.

The author is an Indonesia resident who prefers to remain unnamed 


Battle Over Suharto's Legacy a Test for Modern Indonesia

Fabio Scarpello | Bio | 15 Jan 2008 World Politics Review Exclusive

DENPASAR, Indonesia --- Some want him pardoned and remembered as the "Father of Development." Others say his name should forever be linked to the crimes he committed. Almost 10 years since he was deposed by a student-led movement, former dictator Suharto still divides Indonesia.

As he teeters on the edge of death in a hospital in Jakarta, the battle over his legacy has begun. The result of the battle will be a strong indicator of the current state of democracy and the rule of law in Indonesia.

Suharto reigned over a brutal and corrupt military regime that kept Indonesia under a veil of fear for 32 years, until 1998. His reign coincided with strong economic development.

The former dictator was admitted to the hospital on Jan. 4 with heart, kidney and lung problems. He suffered multiple organ failure a week later, sliding into "very critical" condition by Sunday. On Monday, doctors said they were "amazed" that he was still alive. He has been sick for years.

Post-Suharto Indonesia has made enormous democratic strides, but many of the country's political players, entrenched economic interests, and problems plaguing the archipelago can still be traced back to the New Order, as Suharto's regime was called.

With this legacy intact, it is not surprising that a large portion of the political elite seems inclined to put a positive spin on the ailing former president's legacy.

Should this elite win the battle over the name of Suharto, critics says, Indonesia will have lost an opportunity to further progress.

In one characteristic example of affection for Suharto, Golkar -- the political party used by the dictator to rubber-stamp his stay in power -- recently held a prayer for the former leader at the home of current Vice President Jusuf Kalla.

Golkar is still Indonesia's largest political party and wields significant influence in parliament, as well as in the economy and within the military.

Golkar's leader, Kalla, a successful businessman, has advocated the cessation of legal proceedings against Suharto and added, "Regarding [Suharto's sins], those are up to God, not us."

Suharto, who had corruption charges against him dropped in 2006 on medical grounds, is currently fighting a civil suit over his alleged misappropriation of funds. At stake in the case is a fraction of the money he is thought to have stolen from the state.

According to Transparency International, the worldwide watchdog on corruption, the Suharto family stole $15-35 billion in state assets during his time in power. The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime puts the total at $35 billion.

Despite the importance of the civil case, state minister and representative of the United Development Party Suryadharma Ali has also advocated ending it "as a sign of respect."

Ruhut Sitompoel, a representative of current President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono's Democratic Party, said that "Suharto's reputation will recover on its own accord," regardless of the decision in the corruption case.

Yudhoyono, who has not taken a position in the legal fight, said, "Despite some shortcomings, we still need to show him the respect and gratitude he deserves."

Under Suharto, Indonesia enjoyed average annual gross domestic product growth of 7 percent, the portion of Indonesians living below the poverty line shrunk from 60 percent to 11 percent, and life expectancy increased by 20 years.

Today, with Indonesia struggling to escape poverty, some of its 49 million people living on less than $2 a day look nostalgically back to Suharto's presidency as a time of prosperity and political stability. Supporters outside his hospital Jan. 11 held a banner reading, "Father of Development, Indonesia will never forget you."

However, neither his supporters among the political elite or common man mention the human rights abuses perpetrated under his reign. Keeping this aspect of his legacy alive are numerous human rights organizations and activists, intent on pressing for justice.

Should this group win the legacy battle, analysts say, it could lead to a change in the culture of impunity that still pervades Indonesia.

Among the activists is Nursyahbani Katjasundkana, who is unhesitating in pointing to Suharto's crimes. "Suharto is responsible for massive human rights violations and for the systemic corruption that occurred during his administration," she says. "I think his totalitarian administration is unforgivable."

A similar argument is made by a group known as "Petition 50," which consists of victims of Suharto-era crackdowns and purges. The group is calling on prosecutors to continue corruption proceedings against Suharto, and is pushing for new investigations into the abuse perpetrated under the former dictator.

Suharto rose to power countering an alleged attempted coup by the Indonesian Communist Party in 1965.

A lieutenant general in the Army back then, he orchestrated a reign of terror against communists that left between 300,000 and 1 million people dead. Under him, the military committed widespread abuses. Aceh, Papua and East Timor -- three areas with strong secessionist movements -- particularly suffered.

His regime was supported by the United States and several other Western powers who, in the midst of the Cold War, feared Indonesia would slide into the Soviet orbit.

Suharto will be buried in the family mausoleum, just outside the Javanese city of Solo, where his wife rests. Three military airplanes are already on standby.

Fabio Scarpello is a Denpasar, Indonesia-based correspondent for the Italian news agency AdnKronos International and a regular WPR contributor.

Photo: Former Indonesian leader Suharto 


Suharto Fully Conscious But Still Unstable: Doctors

JAKARTA, Jan. 16 (AFP) - Indonesia's former dictator Suharto is fully conscious and has indicated he feels well but he remains weak and his condition is unstable, doctors treating him in hospital said Wednesday.

Suharto, 86, who ruled the world's fourth most populous nation with an iron grip for more than three decades, has been clinging to life since he suffered multiple organ failure last week, and is hooked up to a ventilator.

"This morning I saw he was fully conscious despite being weak," said Mardjo Soebiandono, who heads the large team of specialist doctors assembled to treat Suharto.

He told reporters that he had asked Suharto "'Are you feeling well?' And he responded, 'Yes'."

However, in a statement he read out at a press conference, he warned that the 86-year-old's general condition remained unstable.

"The functions of the heart and lungs are not yet stable, there is still an accumulation of fluid in the lungs and there are signs of systemic infection," he said, adding that Suharto was continuing to receive blood transfusions.

The threat of sepsis -- a potentially fatal poisoning that can result from infection -- remained critical, said another doctor, Haryanto Reksodipuro, who added though that "there have clearly been improvements."

A third doctor, Christian Johannes, said they hoped to try weaning him off the ventilator as he was now able to breathe to an extent on his own.

Doctors cranked up Suharto's drug dosage to maximum level on Tuesday as his condition took another turn for the worse earlier in the day and he struggled to fight off infection.

Suharto has been on dialysis and is being kept sedated as doctors fight to keep his lungs clear of fluid.

The authoritarian ruler, one of Asia's great political giants, stepped down in 1998 amid bloody nationwide riots and burgeoning student protests triggered initially by the 1997 Asian economic crisis.

He retreated to his family home in an upmarket Jakarta suburb, rarely venturing outside and managing to avoid criminal trial for massive corruption allegations by citing poor health.

Attempts to bring Suharto to justice for alleged human rights atrocities, particularly in East Timor, which he invaded in 1975, and far-flung Aceh and Papua, have also been stymied.

Suharto's immediate successor as president, B.J. Habibie, flew from Germany to see Suharto late Tuesday but was not allowed in as the former strongman was being treated by doctors, he told reporters at the hospital.

"I have come directly from Germany with my wife to visit Pak Harto but when I came up he was still under intensive care so I could only pray in the next room... for him to get well soon," he said.

Relations between the two soured after Habibie took the nation's helm.

Doctors said on Wednesday that visitors were not allowed to see Suharto for the time being. A flurry of well-wishers have rushed to his side since he was first admitted to hospital on January 4, including Singapore's founding father Lee Kuan Yew and Malaysia's former premier Mahathir Mohamad.

Opinion on Suharto's legacy remains divided in Indonesia, where he is widely seen as bringing stability and boosting economic growth.

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