Monday, May 22, 2006

Political: Soeharto gets away with it — Farish A Noor

Saturday, May 20, 2006

VIEW: Soeharto gets away with it — Farish A Noor

Dr Farish A Noor is a Malaysian political scientist and human rights activist, based at the Zentrum Moderner Orient (ZMO), Berlin

Guided by the best of naïve intentions yet blinded by Soeharto’s own militarist and authoritarian values, he will probably pass his life as yet another casualty and mistake of the 20th century: the failed Asian dictator whose dreams of glory for his country were nonetheless paid for by the blood of his countrymenThe news that former Indonesian president Soeharto is now deemed “unfit” to stand trial for abuse of power in Indonesia has hardly come as a surprise to those who know the country well.

Few really believed that the man who had ruled Indonesia for three decades (from 1966 to 1998) could be brought to trial and sent to jail. The issue, however, is not that the man “got away with it”, but rather what this bodes for the future of Indonesia.Despite the euphoria that greeted the fall of the Soeharto regime and the hope that the country would finally make the transition to a working democracy of sorts, there remain problems that still deny the country and its people the dignity they deserve.

Indonesia remains a country on the verge of collapse, the great giant of Southeast Asia which increasingly looks like the sick man of the region; whose frail condition is matched only by the frailty of decrepit neighbours, Thailand and the Philippines.That the former president has been allowed to slip away is understandable considering how the military elite of the Soeharto era have managed to preserve themselves.

The country’s current president, Bambang Susilo Yudhoyono, is likewise a former general, trained by the Americans. He too is in the good books of Washington for his willing complicity in the US-led “global war on terror”. Yudhoyono was also part of the Soeharto regime. Indeed he served his president very well till almost the end, when he tactically allowed himself to be sidelined just before the pro-democracy movement took to the streets in mid-1998 following the East Asian economic crisis.

Well placed, deeply embedded yet marginal enough to be spared the wrath of the public, he has managed to carve a place for himself in the convoluted and messy political terrain of post-Soeharto Indonesia.Other generals and aides to Soeharto have also managed to inch their way back into the country’s Byzantine corridors of power. Notable among the old stalwarts was General Hendropriyono, once dubbed the “butcher of Lampung” for his part in the bloody suppression of the Islamist movement in Lampung, South Sumatra. Just when other Indonesian officers — like Generals Wiranto and Moerdani — were being dragged to court for their part in the atrocities in East Timor, Hendropriyono found himself saved by the events following September 11, 2001.

He was put in charge of anti-terrorism operations by none other than Megawati Sukarnoputri, the former president. Indonesian human rights groups were aghast at Megawati’s decision that betrayed a total neglect of local sensibilities and an all too evident desire to cosy up to Washington.Now that most of the old military and business elite are back in power, it would seem that the time is right to absolve Soeharto for the ills and mistakes of his period in power. His defenders and supporters claim that he was in many ways a visionary, a man who took Indonesia from a dependent import-substitution economy to the status of an emerging “Asian Tiger” economy in the space of two decades.

Soeharto’s defenders are certainly not wrong here: Indonesia is a model of successful nation-building against impossible odds. In an archipelago made up of 14,000 islands it is a country where literacy is almost universal and where even in the most remote island or village there are post offices, clinics, schools, roads and communication facilities. The state-controlled media reaches out to every citizen. Indonesia’s painful birth amid an anti-colonial struggle and several subsequent civil wars persuaded many that like some former colonies in Africa it would be a failed state.

Yet that did not happen.But along with the laying down of the infrastructure for nation-building came the centralising logic of a maximalist state at the hands of a military elite whose understanding of democracy, civic and civil participation and popular representation remained rudimentary. By the time of political reforms of the 1970s Indonesia had become a thoroughly depoliticised state.

Its economy grew thanks to the influx of foreign capital (much of it Japanese and American) and thanks to the structural adjustment policies formed by Soeharto’s handpicked “Berkeley mafia” led by men like the German- and American-trained BJ Habiebie. Thus Indonesia’s economic takeoff was not without its own costs — most notably in the loss of political rights, press freedom and fundamental liberties.Soeharto was also one of the most vocal exponents of what was then known as the “Asian values” school, led by Lee Kuan Yew of Singapore that argued that in Asia economic rights should come before political ones.

It was in this depoliticisation process that Indonesia found wealth but lost its soul. The violent annexation of East Timor in 1974 showed that this former colony could itself become a colonising power and impose the same colonial logic on other societies and states. The suppression of the people’s movement in East Timor remained and shall remain a blight on Indonesia’s record. Central to this crisis were Soeharto and his generals, who masterminded the annexation and the policies of pacification and resettlement that followed.

In this respect Soeharto was not merely a dictator in his own country but also a coloniser of others.Linked to the shameful conduct of Soeharto and his cronies is the equally shameful conduct of the more powerful Western states — notably the USA, Australia and Britain — who aided and abetted the Soeharto regime during the worst years of military rule and violent authoritarian government. America’s role in propping up Soeharto and promoting Indonesia as the “bulwark” against Communism in Asia ended only with the culmination of the Cold War in the West.

This reduced Southeast Asia to a mere sideshow of little import. Yet in this eastern corner of the world millions of lives were lost thanks to the realpolitik considerations of technocrats and ideologues in Washington who were prepared to turn a blind eye to Soeharto’s excesses as long as he stayed “neutral on the side of the West” — like Ferdinand Marcos.One can only wonder what Soeharto’s final fate will be. Marcos and the Shah of Iran were spirited away as their tattered empires fell about their feet, only to die lonely deaths in exile and shame.

Soeharto, the fervent nationalist and patriot till the end, will probably die in his own country surrounded by his countrymen whom he led and oppressed. Guided by the best of naive intentions yet blinded by his own militarist and authoritarian values, he will probably pass his life as yet another casualty and mistake of the 20th century: the failed Asian dictator whose dreams of glory for his country were nonetheless paid for by the blood of his countrymen.

Dr Farish A Noor is a Malaysian political scientist and human rights activist, based at the Zentrum Moderner Orient (ZMO), Berlin


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