Friday, October 22, 2010

Effort to Rehabilitate Suharto’s Reputation Grows in Indonesia

JAKARTA — For millions, Suharto, the military strongman who ruled Indonesia for 32 years, was a tyrant, a thief and a murderer.

But more than 12 years after his fall from power in a popular uprising, and two years after his death, unpunished, at age 86, an effort is under way to redefine his legacy: as a national hero.

The Indonesian media have been filled with heated debate since it emerged earlier this month that Mr. Suharto’s name had made it onto a Social Affairs Ministry annual shortlist of candidates to be added to Indonesia’s official pantheon of 138 national heroes.

The move, initially proposed by the leader of the Central Java district that houses Mr. Suharto’s mausoleum, has angered political reformists and many ordinary Indonesians, who see his rule as a time of unrestrained corruption and repression.

For many others, however, including the thousands of Indonesians who showed up at Muslim prayers that culminated on Friday — marking 1,000 days since Mr. Suharto’s death — the move taps into nostalgia for a time of order and stability that contrasts with today’s messy democracy.

All this leaves a political time bomb for the country’s first directly elected president, Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, who will have to vet the shortlist, before it goes to an expert committee, and then award the honor on Heroes’ Day, on Nov. 10.

“This is an insult to common sense and humanity,” said Fadjroel Rachman, a prominent activist who was jailed for three years by Mr. Suharto’s government. “The objective of reformasi was the overthrow, the stepping down of Mr. Suharto as a dictator, as a corrupter and a human rights violator,” he said, referring to the 1998 student-led protests, triggered by the Asian economic crisis, that forced Mr. Suharto’s resignation and the subsequent program of democratic reforms.

“We’re urging Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono not to make Suharto a national hero,” he said, “or we’ll have to call him a traitor to reformasi.”

Mr. Yudhoyono, a former general who rose up the ranks during Mr. Suharto’s New Order regime, has, true to his reticent public style, so far not indicated which way he is leaning.

The president has seen his popularity, while still high, steadily slide since he was re-elected for a second term last year. Rowdy protests across the country this week marking the first year of that term criticized, in part, a lack of progress on promised reforms on such fronts as corruption in government institutions. Honoring Mr. Suharto, who is believed to have pilfered billions from the state and jailed and killed large numbers of opponents, would hardly bolster the president’s reformist credentials.

The proposal to proclaim Mr. Suharto a hero has powerful backers, however. This week, the national conference of the Golkar party, the former political vehicle of Mr. Suharto and now a key coalition member in Mr. Yudhoyono’s cabinet, threw its support behind the move. Across Indonesia’s political party system, business elite and state institutions, a generation of former Suharto loyalists still holds sway.

The committee that will make the final decision on the national hero honor is dominated by former Suharto-era functionaries.

According to Akbar Tandjung, a senior Golkar politician, Mr. Suharto deserves to be honored for “saving Indonesia as a nation from destruction, conflict and crisis” by seizing power in the wake of an alleged Communist coup attempt in 1965. At least half a million people suspected of being Communists were massacred in the aftermath of that attempt.

As for the widespread rights abuses that marked by Mr. Suharto’s rule, including the jailing, killing and exile of opponents, Mr. Tandjung said in an interview that they were necessary evils for national stability and development. “A leader has to make decisions in any situation,” he said, “and they won’t make everyone in the community happy.”

Although it is a debate over symbolism, the proposal to make Mr. Suharto an official hero could have real consequences as a repudiation of Indonesian democracy, said Wimar Witoelar, a political analyst who was a spokesman for the late Abdurrahman Wahid, a liberal Islamic figure who was elected president by Parliament after Mr. Suharto’s fall and is also on this year’s shortlist of heroes.

As the heir to the Suharto brand, Golkar would gain from a rehabilitation of his name, Mr. Witoelar said. Rebuking democracy as it has developed under Mr. Yudhoyono would also help potential 2014 presidential hopefuls such as Aburizal Bakrie, the billionaire tycoon who is chairman of Golkar, Mr. Witoelar said.

“I think it would just devaluate the title of national hero, would make it a very cynical label for political convenience,” he said. “Because there’s nothing really more unhealthy for the nation’s self perception than to name the biggest corruptor, despot, human rights abuser of recent times as the nation’s hero.”

Public opinion on the proposal is divided. Many Indonesians hold a deep ambivalence about Mr. Suharto’s record.

A common refrain here is that the man also dubbed “the father of development” was a stabilizing force who, particularly in his later years, was nevertheless capable of destructive excess.
New York Times

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