Shadow of the Past

Suharto had ruled Indonesia for 32 long years. Even now, the country is still bearing the weight of Suharto's legacy: a corrupt administration system and an overblown military. By Sybille Golte-Schröder

Indonesian dictator Suharto (photo: AP)
Always a politically contentious figure: Indonesia's former president Suharto died on 27 January 2008

​​The Suharto era ended ten years ago when the dictator gave in to mass protests against his regime: " I have decided to declare that I have ceased to be the president of the Republic of Indonesia as of the time I read this on this day, Thursday, May 21, 1998."

Ever since then, Indonesia has been on a rocky path back to democracy. However, all attempts to bring Suharto before a court for the violations of human rights committed under his reign failed to the very end.

No equality in the eyes of the law

The efforts either failed due to his still considerable influence in the country, or in view of Suharto's long and public battle with death. This is one reason why his democratic successors have also held their peace.

Human rights activists consider the proposal to shelve all legal investigations against Suharto, made by his own Golkar Party, absolutely unacceptable. For the lawyer Hendardi, the suggestion contravenes key legal principles:

"Every individual should be equal in the eyes of the law," comments Hendardi. "And the proposal is also an insult to all the victims of the Suharto regime. There is so much proof that implicates Suharto. If the Golkar Party suggests not taking him to court, then it has not changed at all and is only pretending to be in favour of reforms."

A smiling general fighting the red peril

Suhartos family gathers around his corpse (photo: AP)
Will Indonesia finally face up to its past after Suharto's death?

​​Even ten years since the end of Suharto's rule, important details of the three decades of military dictatorship remain under wraps. Yet the post-Suharto democracy is not alone in its silence.

Representatives of the USA and Germany turned a blind eye to the negative "side effects" of his reign, as the "smiling general" Suharto served as a perfect bulwark against the red peril in Southeast Asia. An image that fitted in perfectly with the picture of the escalating Cold War of the time.

Little is known about the background to the brutal putsch that elevated Suharto to power in the 1960s. He overturned the charismatic President Sukarno in 1966 – allegedly to protect him from a Communist takeover. But Indonesia was already drowning in blood in 1965. Hundreds of thousands of members of the Communist Party and people suspected of having links with them became the victims of military violence.

Hunt for communists and "separatists"

It has never been proved that it was Suharto who ordered the brutal witch-hunt. But it was he who led the military that carried it out. Eye witnesses have reported that many civilians joined in with the military violence: "Many people felt encouraged by the army to act the same way. They arrested alleged members of the Communist Party and the killing began."

In the years that followed, thousands of regime critics were abducted to the prison island of Buru, without charge or trial. Independent observers spoke of genocide in the provinces of Aceh and Papua, which were striving for independence. In East Timor, which Suharto illegally annexed, up to 200,000 more people died.

The consequences of the crisis in Asia

Student protesters in Jakarta (photo: picture-alliance)
A peaceful handover of power: nationwide protests forced Suharto out of office in 1998

​​It was only the economic recession in Asia in the late 1990s that forced Suharto to step down. Suharto's clan had prompted its own downfall. The family's mismanagement had a major effect on the country's economy, as they owned shares in almost every Indonesian company. Even today, the economy of this country rich in natural resources is still shattered by the crisis caused by Suharto and his disciples.

Indonesia is still bearing the weight of Suharto's legacy: a corrupt administration system, an overblown military and a past that has been swept under the carpet. With all these problems, it is bordering on a miracle that the multiethnic state has found its way back to democracy so quickly and convincingly.

Dealing with the past

Although it was not only the military but also his Western associates that kept Suharto in power, Indonesia has remained a reliable ally for the Western world.

Fundamentalist tendencies have no chance in the world's most highly populated Muslim country. This too is a wonder and a sign of democratic maturity. Yet it is no wonder that Indonesia, a country with no shortage of raw materials, has still not recovered from the economic crisis caused by Suharto and his cronies.

Perhaps now that the smiling general is dead, his country can begin dealing with its past. There is plenty to be done, even if he himself will no longer be put in the dock.

Sybille Golte-Schröder

© Deutsche Welle/ 2008

Translated from the German by Katy Derbyshire

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