Analysis by Andreas Harsono
JAKARTA (IPS) - Minutes after hearing of Suharto’s passing away on Sunday, Marco, a militia leader in the capital, donned battle fatigues and raced to the former president’s mansion on Cendana street to help with guard duties.
Suharto died at 1:10 pm. By 4 pm, his body was already laid down in his living room. Government officials, politicians, generals, businessmen and reporters with their cameras, boom mikes and satellite vans crowded the neighbourhood.
"It’s a huge loss. His death left me bereft. I immediately flew a half-mast flag in front of my house,’’ Marco told IPS. Fitullah, another militiaman, said: ‘’We came here because of our conscience. If we had waited for instructions, it would not have been fast enough.’’
More than 300 militiamen, in addition to soldiers of the Kopassus special command, lined Cendana street on Sunday to pay their last respects to their patriarch. ‘’He was the patron of our organisation,’’ said Marco.
The militiamen are members of the 'Pemuda Pancasila' (Pancasila Youth), a grassroots organisation whose members are mostly thugs. ‘’We have around 11 million members,’’ said Marco, proudly. (Like most Javanese, Suharto, Marco and Fitullah use only one name).
It is no coincidence that the militiamen were present in Suharto's house. Benedict Anderson, a Cornell University professor and an old hand on Indonesia, once wrote an essay, ‘Petrus Dadi Ratu,’ on Suharto’s thuggery and opportunism. Anderson called Suharto by his underground title, ‘Gali Pelarian Kemusuk’ or ‘The Thug from Kemusuk.’
Suharto was born on Jun. 8, 1921 in the village of Kemusuk in Jogjakarta, the heartland of Java Island. As a teenager, Suharto enlisted for a three-year contract with the Dutch colonial army, the Koninklijk Nederlandsch Indisch Leger. But a week after his training began, the Dutch surrendered to the invading Japanese army.
Suharto quickly switched sides and joined Japanese-trained collaborators. But Japan soon lost World War II and Indonesia’s freedom fighters, led by Sukarno and Mohammad Hatta, declared Indonesia¹s independence on Aug. 17, 1945. Suharto switched sides once again and joined the new Indonesian army.
In the 1950s, he was a low-profile but daring officer. In 1956-1957, he was found involved in smuggling activities. But it was a revolutionary period and hard to differentiate between thugs and soldiers, bandits and militias. Suharto argued that it was okay to conduct some ‘businesses’ to feed his troops.
Abdul Harris Nasution, Suharto’s superior, decided it was safer to take Suharto off his command and sent him for an officer-training programme in Bandung.
His political career took a turn on Sep. 30, 1965 when hundreds of army officers kidnapped and killed several generals. Nasution escaped being kidnapped.
Suharto knew of the plan because the kidnappers were mostly his colleagues. They reportedly planned to bring the generals, including Nasution, who were allegedly planning a coup, to face president Sukarno. Kidnapping was not unusual in the early days of modern Indonesia. Militiamen had also kidnapped Sukarno and Hatta, just one day prior to the declaration of independence.
The following morning, on Oct. 1, 1965 Suharto decided to move against his former colleagues. The Suharto-led military even began a slow purge against Sukarno. Suharto put the blame on the communists. It was a bloody period in Indonesia’s history. At least, 500,000 people were murdered between October 1965 and March 1966.
Hundreds of thousands of people were to spend years in prison, without clear charges against them. They suffered, on a routine basis, excruciating torture. They endured uncountable losses of property to theft and looting, everyday rapes and social ostracism that also targeted wives and widows, children and kinsfolk. There were stories about wives who slept with the soldiers who guarded their husbands. Militia mushroomed with Suharto’s rise to power and Pemuda Pancasila became his darling.
Dozens of intellectuals and activists were exiled to Buru Island. Journalists were not spared. Adam Schwarz, in his book A Nation in Waiting, wrote: "In 1965-1966, about a quarter of Indonesia’s 160 or so newspapers were shut down because of alleged communist links and hundreds of journalists were arrested." Suharto looked down on journalists, treating them like servants throughout his career.
Clad in jungle camouflage, Suharto led the burials of some generals kidnapped and killed by the Movement of 30th September on 1 October 1965. Photo by Associated Press.
But Suharto also wanted to build Indonesia’s tattered economy. He recruited U.S.-trained economists to build the economy. They worked closely with the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund and Western governments. They opened up Indonesia¹s vast natural resources to international investors, using the money to build highly needed infrastructure. They introduced family planning to slow down population growth. They introduced hybrid rice, but indirectly also created the rural dependency on fertilisers and pesticides.
In 1975, Suharto ordered his troops to invade East Timor, with support from Washington, London, Tokyo and Canberra. His troops killed 100,000 to 200,000 in East Timor, around 100,000 in West Papua, tens of thousands more in Aceh, Lampung, Tanjung Priok and elsewhere. East Timor Action Network, a New York-based human rights group, called Suharto ‘’one of the worst mass murderers of the 20th century’’.
Suharto also acquired an appalling legacy of corruption, estimated at 15 billion US dollars stolen by him, cronies, and his family. He discriminated against the Chinese minority. He banned Chinese names but had no qualms using the financial acumen of some Chinese tycoons to build his business empires.
In the 1980s, as his regime stabilised and won the support of the Western establishment, his doctrine got buried in Orwellian doublespeak. This was needed because of the contradiction between his concept of stability, orderliness, freedom, economic development and democracy and their actual principles.
When Suharto said that ‘’our Pancasila democracy’’ would prevail, he actually meant that his regime would prevail. When he talked about ‘’our responsibility,’’ he did not include his own responsibility.
The Asian economic crisis exposed the weaknesses of his corrupt and brutal regime. Poverty in rural areas was rampant. The outer islands were left far behind compared to Java, Indonesia’s main island.
In May 1998, Suharto stepped down from his 32-year rule after the Indonesian rupiah all but collapsed. He claimed that it was time for him to be a sage. But even in retirement, he blamed his ministers for the killings and corruptions of his time.
He avoided prosecution on grounds of failing health. He was hospitalised 14 times between 1999 and 2007, thus avoiding personal accountability for the genocide, destruction and corruption he inflicted upon those he ruled over.
He also managed to protect his generals, cronies and family members who carried out his orders via massacre, torture and theft. Today they live well in Jakarta, visiting his house in their black limousines and haute couture costumes. Many of today’s government leaders were his former assistants or cronies, including President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono and Vice-President Jusuf Kalla.
The last hospitalisation took place two weeks ago. As he neared his death, many people believed he was protected by his many amulets. Suharto was superstitious, consulting clairvoyants throughout his career.
Some days prior to his death, B.J. Habibie, the vice-president who replaced Suharto in May 1998, flew in from Germany to visit. Suharto, who never spoke with Habibie after the transfer of power, refused to see the man he wanted to see resign along with him. From his death bed, he ordered his children to ask Habibie go away.
Suharto might be dead but his thuggery will outlive him. Marco, Fitullah and many other thugs at his residence show that the gruesome legacy is alive and well.
Andreas Harsono is a Jakarta-based scholar, currently writing a book, From Sabang to Merauke: Debunking the Myth of Indonesian Nationalism