Monday, January 28, 2008

SUHARTO: A legacy divided

32 YEARS OF RULE WITH AN IRON FIST: Allies and critics of former president Suharto, who died yesterday aged 86, agree that his legacy still looms large in Indonesia's political, economic and cultural life. Suharto's autocratic rule, over more than three decades, was marked by rampant corruption, cronyiam and widespread human abuses. But ethnic blood-letting, a ruined economy and weak government in the years after Suharto's fall led some Indonesians to yearn for a return to his tough style of leadership. That view faded as Indonesia embraced democracy and recovered, and many could never forgive the graft and human rights abuses of the Suharto era. Suharto's stamp on Indonesia was, however, so strong that a decade after his ouster, the country is still struggling to deal with his legacy...

MOHAMMED Suharto, the son of poor peasants, rose to lead the world's most populous Muslim nation for 32 years and turned the backward Asian nation into a tiger economy.

A man of few words, Suharto was complex and charismatic, and both reviled and loved by the people. He is remembered as the father of development by some and a butcher by others.

"I like Suharto very much," said Sumirah, a domestic helper from Tegal, central Java. "When he was president, life was easy. There was always enough to eat, basic commodities were cheap.

"Now life is very, very hard."
Even as he brought development to Indonesia, Suharto also presided over some of the worst atrocities in modern Indonesian history.

He ruled the vast archipelago of 17,000 islands with an iron fist. Dissent was brutally crushed by the military.

Unlike his predecessor, Indonesia's founding father Sukarno, who united the country through patriotism and oratory, Suharto held Indonesia's disparate religious, ethnic and social groups together by sheer force.

"The meanest and cruellest dictator is the one who can smile while his hands are covered in blood," said journalist Rudy Madanir.

Suharto seized power from Sukarno during the 1960s against the backdrop of the Cold War. Fate presented Suharto with the opportunity to change the course of Indonesian history on Sept 30, 1965, when six generals and a lieutenant were kidnapped and killed by a group of leftist officers.

Suharto, then a two-star general and head of the strategic army reserve Kostrad, was tasked with putting down the coup attempt and prosecuting the perpetrators.

When news came that army commander Ahmad Yani was among those killed, Suharto took control of the army. It blamed the Communist Party of Indonesia (PKI) for plotting and carrying out the coup.

Thus began a violent bloodbath to purge the country of communists.

The army, on Suharto's orders, embarked on a campaign to incite the people to attack communist party members, the country's tiny ethnic Chinese community and Sukarno loyalists.

Hundreds of thousands of PKI members and ethnic Chinese were hunted down and slaughtered. Real and suspected PKI members were taken away from their homes by local vigilantes and army units and killed by knife or bayonet.

Estimates of the death toll number from 100,000 to more than a million. It was one of the worst massacres of the 20th century.

Suharto moved swiftly to consolidate his hold over the armed forces, purging it of Sukarno loyalists and communist sympathisers.

In March 1967, Suharto was formally named acting president, and a year later, president.

Suharto's rise to power took many by surprise. He was an unknown army general who had displayed little interest in politics.

The force of Suharto's willpower can be traced back to his poverty-stricken and difficult childhood. He was born into a family of poor peasants on June 8, 1921 in Kemusuk village near the royal city of Yogyakarta, Central Java, during the Dutch colonial era.

His parents' marriage broke up before he turned 2. He was brought up by each of his remarried parents and relatives in different villages at various times, and knew no stability in his young life.

The hardship of his childhood and youth shaped his character.

As the leader of Southeast Asia's largest country, he set out to rebuild Indonesia's shattered economy by appointing a group of Western-trained economists.

Suharto reined in the country's inflation, stabilised the rupiah and attracted foreign direct investment, which created jobs and raised the standard of living for millions of poor people.

Throughout his rule, Suharto rarely spoke in public but smiled very often and earned himself the nickname "the Smiling General".

He left it to his generals and ministers to make public announcements. The distance added to his enigma and princely persona, which inspired fear, admiration and loyalty among the people.

It was only in the company of peasants, the people who toiled the land with their hands, that Suharto felt at home.

The agricultural community, numbering in the millions, held a special place in Suharto's heart. He paid close attention to their needs, which in turn earned him their loyalty.

But among many Indonesians, Suharto was reviled for his human rights abuses and the corruption, cronyism and nepotism involving his children, family and friends.

Indonesia's invasion of Timor Leste and annexation in 1975 resulted in the death of some 200,000 people at the hands of the armed forces. Military operations in the restive province of Aceh also claimed thousands of lives.

In 1998, when the Asian economic crisis hit Indonesia, the rupiah lost almost 80 per cent of its value. Overnight, millions were thrown out of work and languished below the poverty line.

Amid widespread civil unrest, Suharto resigned on May 21, 1998. He subsequently lived a quiet life in the leafy suburb of Menteng in central Jakarta, and was rarely seen in public.

Critics and anti-corruption campaigners accused Suharto's family of amassing US$45 billion (RM148.5 billion) in kickbacks or deals during his time in office. His family have denied such charges.

Last year, state prosecutors filed a civil suit claiming US$440 million in state funds and a further US$1 billion in damages for alleged misuse of money held by one of Suharto's charity foundations.

Right till the end, Suharto remained an ambiguous, controversial figure.

(articles taken from the New Straits Times)


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