Death won’t End Suharto’s Malign Influence

It seems 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.

But the real 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