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Javanese myths and recent reality

by Edith Koesoemawiria


Mourning ceremony for Suharto at the Indonesian embassy in Phnom Penh, Cambodia

Mourning ceremony for Suharto at the Indonesian embassy in Phnom Penh, Cambodia

Some Indonesians consider former president Suharto the “Father of Development”. However, he was a ruthlessly violent dictator. He and his family amassed billions of dollars. [ By Edith Koesoemawiria ]

The media paid much attention to Suharto’s last days. Some observers spoke of reporting overkill, and yet the coverage of Suharto’s demise on 27 January gives us a glimpse of how influential Indonesia’s second president really was. At the hospital, there was a long queue of visiting celebrities, reflecting more than the normal respect for the elderly.

In a country where appearances matter, their presence likened Suharto to mythical Javanese kings. One who was given power by higher forces and therefore can not be put on trial. Suharto was not overthrown by the people, but left office at a time of his choice.

Suharto stepped down ten years ago, on May 21, 1998. As documents recently made public by scholars from George Washington University indicate, Bill Clinton, US president at the time, told Suharto again and again on the phone to resign. Nonetheless, long-time Energy Minister Ginanjar Kartasasmita said in public, he had apologised to Suharto’s eldest daughter for his personal role in that historical decision. To what avail?
Kartasasmita’s stance was certainly not one of a democrat, telling Indonesia’s top decision maker to assume responsibility for the economic crises his country was facing. Rather, this politician’s tone was conciliatory, striving to forgive and forget past mistakes.

Suharto’s history was bloody. He led the West Papua take-over in 1962 and then became the head of the army’s strategic command (Kostrad). Three years later, after quelling a coup d’état blamed on communists, he oversaw a harrowing purge of more than 500,000 so-called reds. In 1967, he assumed the presidency.

Early in his reign, five-year plans were designed to promote development and growth as well as to secure a united Indonesia. Financed by oil revenues and foreign aid, development programmes called “Repelita” built health centres, schools, markets and prayer facilities. Jobs became available. Repelita won the hearts and minds of many Indonesians. Hence, Suharto’s informal title of “Father of Development”.

Even political opponents acknowledge Suharto’s achievements in the early years. According to reform-oriented politician Sri Bintang Pamungkas, for instance, Suharto showed Indonesians they were able to build their nation. Yet Pamungkas finds it unfortunate, that after fulfilling two terms, Suharto remained president.

Some Repelita programmes had dire effects. In 1985, a campaign to make the nation self-supplying in rice products made farming dependent on fertiliser and a special rice variety. As a result, there was the threat of extinction of other rice varieties, land was degraded, and the high cost of fertilisers pushed many farmers into poverty.

Moreover, the campaign forced people who traditionally depended on other staples to consume rice. They were taught that their traditional food was unworthy for human beings. When these people faced rice shortages recently, they refused to eat other food. Civil society is now busy with de-indoctrination. Worse perhaps, the transmigration programme, which contributed to the rice programme’s success, displaced indigenous people, creating social jealousy and local conflict.

Suharto gave the military an enormous role in implementing his programmes. In effect, he allowed the army command to control the people, the land and much of the economy. Behind the smiling image, Suharto’s ability to stay in power for 32 years portrays a calculating and ruthless character. Security got his full attention. Whether in Jakarta or far-away islands, Suharto did not tolerate dissent or political opposition. Those he considered disrespectful were punished severely. Suharto silenced the press, let activists disappear and abused human rights. He tried to stomp out separatism in Timor Leste, West Papua, Ambon and Aceh.

It matters very much that Indonesians not be blinded by the myth of a king, but see Suharto as the ruthless general he was. He was in command, fully responsible. There is no doubt that he and his family amassed a fortune. Once the nation really looks into the Suharto era, a giant web of corruption will become visible.