Life less ordinary

A COUPLE of years ago, during a visit to the Central Javanese city of Jogjakarta that had been devastated by a major earthquake which had laid waste to many parts of the special province, I overheard a conversation between two Indonesians who were lamenting the fate of their country with its ruined economy, enduring military control, civil strife and the rising spectre of religious militancy. One of them said to his sorrowful friend, "Brother, you are suffering from SARS — Sindrom Aku Rindu Suharto ('I Miss Suharto Syndrome')".

By Dr Farish A. Noor

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Published: Tue 29 Jan 2008, 8:48 AM

Last updated: Sun 5 Apr 2015, 11:12 AM

To some (and in this case we are talking about millions of loyal followers and admirers who till today regard him as 'Pak' (Father) Harto) he was the man who rescued Indonesia from the teetering and ailing democracy of Sukarno, saved Indonesia from the menace of Communism, and finally brought the country into the modern age and the globalised world economy. To as many detractors, he was the American puppet-crony who sold the Indonesian economy to foreign interests, destroyed what little remained of Indonesia's protective barriers that insulated its fledgling local industry, persecuted the country's intellectuals, students, workers and dissidents and was primarily responsible for the deaths, torture and disappearances of half a million alleged Communists in 1965 and a quarter of a million of Timorese after the violent annexation of East Timor in 1974. Mediocre dictators are seldom accused of the deaths of millions, and in this respect Suharto was far from ordinary and he ruled over a country that is as great as it is complex.

Suharto was born on February 20, 1921 in the humble village of Kemusu Argamulya in Central Java. Indonesia was then a Dutch colony and Suharto later joined the Dutch colonial army just when the star of Dutch colonial rule was waning and the Japanese were about to occupy the country. Nothing singled him out for greatness during the early stages of his life.

When Indonesia unilaterally declared independence in 1945, Suharto was a rising officer in the new Indonesian Republican army. It is undeniable that the Indonesian army (like the armies of Vietnam and Burma) played the decisive role in securing the independence of the nation. Suharto's first significant personal success came when he masterminded the capture of the city of Yogjakarta in March 1949 from the Dutch troops who had been sent to regain control of their former colony. In time, his reputation as an able commander grew, as well as the respect he earned from his fellow fighting men. A Javanese at heart, Suharto understood the nature of his countrymen and their love — and need — for heroes and leaders.

Indonesia's independence was fought and won in fits and starts: Despite declaring themselves independent in 1945, the Indonesians had to deal with the return of Dutch (as well as British) troops who were not prepared to give up their former colony that easily. The 1940s and 1950s were the decades of sporadic guerilla warfare, of deadly ambushes and massive campaigns that galvanised the Indonesian peasants and mobilised the Indonesian army. Soon after the departure of the Dutch the Indonesian archipelago was rocked by successive splinter movements and successionist struggles that nearly ripped the fragile new country apart. Many of these revolts like the PRRI ˆ PEMESTA campaigns were led by Muslims who wanted to make the country an Islamic state.

While President Sukarno tried to keep this weak and nebulous nation together by conceding to the different demands of the nationalists, Communists and Muslim conservatives, it was the army that had to do the dirty work and fighting in the outer island provinces of Sumatra, Kalimantan, Sulawesi and the Moluccas. It was also during this time that Suharto distinguished himself as a military man who understood the nature of both conventional as well as psychological warfare, till he was elevated to the post of commander of the army's Strategic Reserve (KONSTRAD) force.

Suharto's moment arrived when it became clear that Sukarno's ailing government and his feeble attempts at introducing what was then termed 'guided democracy' had failed in Indonesia. Following the failure of the August 1965 coup, Sukarno unleashed the army and senior officers like Suharto (then commander of KONSTRAD) on the Indonesian Communist Party (PKI). The anti-communist purges that followed were the bloodiest massacres in Indonesian history, with anything between half a million to one million people killed in the name of anti-Communism.

With Sukarno weakened and discredited politically, it was a matter of time before the army took over. Almost overnight the tone and tenor of Indonesian politics began to change.

What was also clear from the time that Suharto really took over power in 1970, however, was that the 'New Order' he instituted after Sukarno's pitiful downfall was supported by Indonesia's new strategic ally, the United States of America. Suharto and the other generals of the Indonesian army had, by then, realised that the United States was destined to be a major player in their country's history, and the US's support of rebel groups in the 1950s demonstrated that it could be a worrisome enemy if its wishes were thwarted. Indonesia’s great ideological U-turn, from being one of the leading states of the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) to a pro-American developing country, took place during Suharto's tenure.

From the 1970s to the 1980s Suharto re-engineered the Indonesian economy by aligning the country closer and closer to Western (read American) interests. The economic turnaround came with the introduction of the so-called 'Berkeley mafia', a group of American-trained and European-trained technocrats and businessmen who spearheaded the economic liberalisation of Indonesia, opening it to global capital and also offering the country as a source of cheap labour and resources. By the late 1980s, Indonesia was boasting of double-digit GDP growth but at a high social cost: mass migration to Java led to overpopulation on the island; which resources like gas and oil were expatriated from other lesser-developed provinces.

Politically Indonesia also bade farewell to the last traces of democracy and civil society: All forms of social protest were banned on the grounds of national security and pro-democracy activists were rounded up and detained as alleged Communists.

While all this was happening, the international community turned a blind eye as Indonesia was seen as a progressive developing economy that was mercifully spared the fate of Communist Vietnam and beloved by Western tourists who were taken to Bali to show what a paradise it was.

The last decade of his life saw Suharto withering away quietly, cocooned and protected by the very same military elite he had helped to create and develop. Numerous cases and accusations were made against him and military leaders like Generals Wiranto, Benny Moerdani, Hendrypriono, et al., but to no avail. Between 2002 and 2005 Indonesia experienced a succession of disasters that included the Jogjakarta earthquake, the Tsunami that destroyed Aceh, the rise of religious fundamentalism and inter-religious violence in the Moluccas and ethnic violence in Kalimantan. Many of the instances of civil strife and conflict were, analysts argued, the result of decades of political repression and the normalisation of violence in the Indonesian society thanks to prolonged military rule. Yet, despite the condemnation of the man there were as many Indonesians who benefited from Suharto's rule and did not want to see the man in court. Revered by millions and equally despised by others, Suharto's legacy is a mixed and ambivalent one that will no doubt occupy the interests and enquiries of scores of historians in the years to come.

Suharto was also seen by many as the 'smiling general' whose apparently benevolent demeanour belied a capacity for brutal violence like none other, and the smile of Suharto was once described to me as 'poisonous' and 'eerie'. However, no matter how one looks at the man, it cannot be denied that for both his achievements and his bloody mistakes, Suharto will go down as one of the greatest leaders of Asia of the 20th century.

Dr Farish A. Noor is Senior Fellow and Research Director at the Rajaratnam School of International Studies of Nanyang Technical University, Singapore. He is also one of the founders of the research site.

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