Subject: Age on Suharto: In Praise Of A Dictator [+Protesters, Police Clashes At Hospital; Mausoleum]

also: Protests, police at Suharto's hospital; Today: A beautiful resting place; The Suharto family mausoleum is close to where royalty is buried

The Age (Melbourne, Australia) Sunday, January 20, 2008

In praise of a dictator

Tom Hyland

"Political language … is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind."George Orwell

IN late 1965 and early 1966, the rivers in Java and Bali ran red. Indonesian farmers and fishermen complained canals were clogged with corpses that had been shot, hacked by farm hoes, mutilated with machetes.

Since the victims were assumed to be communists, the killings were greeted as good news in Western capitals, Canberra in particular. The Cold War was at its height, and Australians feared a red tide of communism would topple the dominoes of South-East Asia, seeping relentlessly to our northern shores.

Estimates of the toll in what the CIA described as one of the worst mass murders of the 20th century range from 500,000 to 1 million. But the horror of what was happening was softened with language emasculated by euphemism.

The bloodshed was welcomed for ushering in an era of stability in Indonesia under a pro-Western government led by a firm anti-communist, Major-General Soeharto, who pushed aside the adventurist president Sukarno. (He had flirted with the Indonesian Communist Party and waged a quasi-war with Malaysia in which Australian troops fought and died.)

In July 1966, Australia's then prime minister Harold Holt tried to make murder respectable by declaring: "With 500,000 to 1 million communist sympathisers knocked off … I think it is safe to assume a reorientation has taken place."

Holt's comment became a template for weasel words from Australian prime ministers in the three decades that Soeharto ruled our largest neighbour.

From 1965 until he fell from power in 1998, powerful figures in Australian politics, and in diplomacy, academia and the media, defended Soeharto with language and arguments they claimed were based on realism, but which ignored, denied or white-washed the ugly truth.

Their language said little about Indonesian reality. Even while they claimed to be pro-Indonesian, they expressed little sympathy for ordinary Indonesians. Instead, their words revealed much about Australian fear, pessimism, wishful-thinking and opportunism.

Holt's endorsement echoed in the words of a succession of prime ministers, who went beyond the bounds of diplomatic nicety to praise a dictator. The word "fawning" comes to mind.

In 1996, John Howard reminded an official banquet in Jakarta that it was a coalition government that had first "welcomed the stability" brought by Soeharto, a "very skilled and sensitive national leader" who had held his country together.

Two years later, when the facade of Soeharto's solidity collapsed and he was forced to resign by the winds of economic crisis and mass protests, Howard again praised Soeharto for bringing "enormous stability" to Indonesia. As for his methods and the wisdom of some of his policies, well, "as with any person", that was for history to judge.

Obsequious double-speak was not unique to Howard's side of politics. Bob Hawke's speech at a presidential banquet in Jakarta in 1983 was particularly cringe-worthy.

He praised Soeharto as one of the "most respected heads of state … in the world", who had guided Indonesia's progress since being "called to the leadership".

The man who waded to power through rivers of blood and cemented his control with a complex system of repression, co-option and persuasion had set his hand "to the tremendous task of national reconciliation", winning "an imperishable place" in Indonesian history. Hawke capped his speech, which years later was remembered with embarrassment even by Australian diplomats and loyal Indonesian officials, with a toast to Soeharto and the declaration: "Your people love you, Mr President."

Paul Keating took the relationship with Soeharto to new levels of intimacy, built on the courtship of his predecessors. Visiting Jakarta in 1992, he lauded Soeharto's success in maintaining the unity and stability of Indonesia as "one of the most significant and beneficial events" in Australia's strategic history.

By 1994, Keating had elevated the Soeharto regime's importance to "the single most beneficial strategic development to have affected Australia and its region in the past 30 years".

Ignored in all this was Soeharto's appalling record and the insatiable greed of his family, which, according to the anti-corruption group Transparency International, embezzled up to $US35 billion ($A39.7 billion).

The killings of 1965-1966 may have been the worst of his crimes, but they weren't the only ones.

Tens of thousands of alleged communist sympathisers and intellectuals were held for years without trial on remote Buru Island, Soeharto's own gulag.

Massacres recurred throughout his rule. In 1984, soldiers shot dead hundreds of protesters in Tanjung Priok, the port of Jakarta. In the mid-1980s, soldiers shot and garotted thousands of suspected criminals, leaving their bodies on the streets in what Soeharto later admitted was an act of "shock therapy".

To maintain national unity, thousands were killed in Aceh and West Papua. Then there was East Timor, where up to 180,000 died as a result of the invasion and subjugation ordered by Soeharto.

To maintain a dubious stability, universities were silenced, the press muzzled, the parliament neutered. The courts were a joke. Trade unionists and human rights activists were abducted, tortured, raped and murdered.

Implicit in the language of Australia's leaders was the assumption that Indonesians were culturally unsuited to democracy, inherently violent, and needed a firm hand, without which their country would disintegrate, a fracturing that would threaten Australia.

This official obsequiousness betrayed deep national insecurity, fear and suspicion, even as our leaders claimed to be building good relations with an important neighbour. Are we any closer to Indonesia, and less suspicious of Indonesians, as a result?

Indonesians will judge Soeharto's place in history. But we can judge the record of our leaders in their relationship with him.

Soeharto was a mass murderer and a kleptomaniac. Just don't expect Kevin Rudd to say it.

Tom Hyland is The Sunday Age's international editor.


Protests, police at Suharto's hospital

By Telly Nathalia

JAKARTA, Jan 19 (Reuters) - Indonesian anti-riot police briefly clashed with about 100 demonstrators on Saturday as they called for former Indonesian president Suharto to be brought to justice.

Students and human rights activists gathered outside the Jakarta hospital where the 86-year-old Suharto is being treated, but police barred them from entering, and were later joined by anti-riot police wearing shields and helmets.

A Reuters reporter saw police briefly hitting demonstrators. One student was arrested.

The former strongman, who is critically ill in hospital, ruled Indonesia with an iron fist for 32 years and has never been brought to trial for human rights abuses that occurred while he was in power.

Attempts by the state to recover money from Suharto and his family are taking years to wend their way through the court system.

The protesters carried banners with the slogans "Stop Exploiting Suharto's Condition", "Treat Suharto as a regular citizen", "Bring Suharto and his cronies to court" and "Confiscate the wealth of Suharto and his cronies".

With the former general so ill, a debate has emerged over whether to push ahead with legal action against him for graft.

After Suharto quit office in 1998 amid mass protests, he was charged with embezzling hundreds of millions of dollars of state funds. Authorities later dropped the criminal case due to his poor health, although he faces a civil case related to the use of state funds by his charities.

Suharto and his family deny any wrongdoing.


Earlier in the day, doctors said that Suharto's health had improved and he could eventually recover enough to go home.

The former general has been in hospital for more than two weeks and was put on a ventilator after he suffered multiple organ failure.

The medical team treating Suharto at Jakarta's Pertamina hospital said in a statement he was still on a ventilator, but his heart and lung functions had improved and there were fewer signs of systemic infection.

"Yes, we are optimistic," Mardjo Soebiandono, the head of the medical team, told reporters after being asked about Suharto's progress.

Asked whether Suharto might recover enough to be treated at home, Soebiandono told a news conference: "God willing, we hope so."

He said doctors aimed to remove the ventilator, something that was initially tried earlier in the week.

"We are still putting maximum effort to end the use of instruments step by step, because we are dealing with an old man who has been using the devices for quite some time."

Soebiandono said Suharto remained sedated and doctors would conduct a test to examine the strength of his lung muscles later.

Another doctor, Harryanto Reksodiputro, said only a small amount of fluid remained in the lungs and signs of blood poisoning had fallen.

The vast country of 226 million people has been gripped by the swings in Suharto's health in recent weeks, and he remains a polarising figure.

He came to power after crushing what was official described as a communist coup in 1965. His long rule was marked by rapid economic growth and political stability, as well as by massacres, human rights abuses and endemic corruption.

Suharto was hospitalised on Jan. 4 suffering from anaemia and low blood pressure due to heart, lung and kidney problems.

The head of his medical team said last weekend he had only a 50:50 chance of survival.

But doctors say they have been having success fending off potentially fatal pneumonia and blood poisoning. (Additional reporting by Adhityani Arga and Andreas Ismar; Writing by Ed Davies and Sara Webb; Editing by Bill Tarrant)


TODAY (Singapore) January 19, 2008

A beautiful resting place

The Suharto family mausoleum is close to where royalty is buried

JESSINTA TAN in Solo, Indonesia

Astana Giribangun, a solemn and beautiful graveyard on the slope of Mount Lawu on the outskirts of Solo city, has been temporarily closed for what is said to be "routine cleaning".

But in all likelihood, the mausoleum, which is guarded by soldiers and military police, is being spruced up to receive the body of former Indonesian President Suharto should he pass away.

"It is just routine cleaning of the mausoleum. However, a landslide down the road has diverted some workers away to clean up that area instead," said Mr Sukirno, 55, who has been a caretaker of Astana Giribangun for 32 years.

He is in charge of 21 workers who are busy working within and around the cemetery. Mr Suharto's mother-in-law was the first person to be buried when it was built in 1976. Since then, Mr Suharto's father-in-law, elder sister-in-law and wife have also been laid to rest in the three-tiered building with wooden pillars and a stupa-like roof.

It is meant to be the final resting ground of Mr Suharto, who will be laid next to the body of his wife Siti Hartinah - also known as Madam Tien - who died in 1996. She was a minor member of the Solo royal family.

Not far away from Astana Giribangun is another mausoleum on higher ground - Astana Mangadeg, which houses three main chambers of past Javanese kings and about 150 other graves of members of royal families and their households.

The charitable foundation controlled by Mr Suharto's children to manage Astana Giribangun has built a road linking the family mausoleum to the royal mausoleum.

This has become a talking point, with some observers viewing the move as reflecting the Suharto clan's desire to align with royalty. Mr Suharto was born in the hamlet of Kemusuk in Central Java - escaping a troubled childhood to become a five-star general and later, the President of Indonesia from 1967 to 1998.

"Yayasan Tien (the charitable foundation) has built the 100m-road across a valley between two mountains to connect the mausoleums," said Mr Sukirno.

Mr Suharto last visited Astana Giribangun in 2005, according to Mr Sukirno.

"He was accompanied by a large entourage of family members and relatives. He would spend quiet time praying by his wife's grave," he said.

While the family mausoleum is closed to the public for now, nearby Astana Mangadeg is welcoming a stream of visitors who have to hike up a steep trail to reach the royal mausoleum. They came bearing trays of flower petals to be offered to the deceased kings, as well as generous donations for the maintenance of the mausoleum.

"Many have come to offer prayers for Pak Harto. While some prayed for his speedy recovery, others prayed for his quick death," said a cemetery keeper, referring to supporters and critics of Mr Suharto.

In Jakarta, doctors said a dangerous infection attacking the critically ill former President had subsided. But they warned that his condition could deteriorate at any time, even as he amazed many with his strong will to live since suffering multiple-organ failures a week ago.

The 86-year-old former strongman, who ruled the world's most populous Muslim nation for more than three decades, stepped down in 1998 amid bloody nationwide riots and mass pro-democracy protests triggered by the 1997 Asian economic crisis.

One of Asia's political giants, Mr Suharto retreated to his family home in a Jakarta suburb - rarely venturing outside and managing to avoid a criminal trial for corruption allegations by citing poor health.

Back to January  menu

December 2007
World Leaders Contact List
Main Postings Menu