Friday, April 13, 2012

Indonesia Needs to Exorcise the Ghosts Of Sukarno and Suharto to Move On

There has been a growing number of calls to rehabilitate the good names of Sukarno and Suharto. We’ve been told it’s all in the name of national reconciliation and a desire to move on. Yet at the same time, reconciliation is one of those political buzzwords that ironically has the ability to divide people. One wonders whether politicians know what they mean when they use it.

For all its positive overtones of forgiveness and moving on to a better future, reconciliation is to do with the memory of past history and a sober judgment on a nation. In essence, one cannot have reconciliation, or forgiveness of past errors, without a serious attempt to open up the nation’s history; trying as objectively as possible to evaluate the past without keeping dark events hidden or presenting a politicized version of the nation’s past in an attempt to legitimize contemporary political agendas.

Reading back into the past and forcing onto it the agendas of contemporary interest groups is a common pitfall across the ages. It is always an indication of a false familiarity that serves neither historical truth nor the contemporary desire to make sense of the past.

Only by recognizing that Sukarno and Suharto are no longer our contemporaries can we hope to see them more clearly, and in doing so, ourselves.

It is fair to say both Sukarno and Suharto had a disproportionate influence on the history of modern Indonesia, and remain larger-than-life characters.

In President Sukarno, many people found a great nationalist, someone who put Indonesia on the pedestal of international recognition, whose rhetoric was unmatched and who united a fractious Indonesia under the banner of nationalism, religion and, controversially, an Indonesian form of communism.

He led a collection of serfs — a former colony — into a great nation, making world leaders in London, The Hague, Moscow, Beijing and Washington look on in awe. He was a man not easily dismissed, neither here nor abroad.

However he did eventually bring the country to the brink of ruin. There was also gross economic mismanagement, leading to shortages of basic daily necessities and, eventually, the collapse of the national economy.

Sukarno presided over the dismantling of Indonesia’s fledgling democracy and imprisoned many of his political opponents, such as Sutan Sjahrir, Sjafruddin Prawiranegara and Mohammad Natsir. Under his reign, the formerly professional and independent civil service created by the Dutch was politicized. Under Sukarno, public servants had to support the government’s party or they were fired.

He also weakened the independence of the Indonesian judiciary and demoralized judges so much that the effects of that intimidation remain even to this day. In all this, he laid the foundations of the New Order authoritarianism under Suharto.

President Suharto’s regime, by comparison, was seen as subdued and sober, lacking the flashes, gongs and antics of Sukarno. Nevertheless, Suharto restored the economy, laid the foundations for today’s economic boom and Indonesia’s emergence as a country of determining influence for Southeast Asia and its neighbors further afield such as Australia, China and India.

At the same time, there are sufficient historical records to indicate he was a corrupt and ruthless autocrat, implicated, along with others, in the murder of possibly hundreds of thousands of his fellow Indonesians. He amassed a fortune, despoiling the public purse on a staggering scale. And the illicit funds still remain largely in the hands of his family and cronies, with only moderately successful and concentrated efforts taken to retrieve them.

When he resigned, on May 21, 1998, Suharto publicly apologized for his mistakes. His resignation came close on the heels of many deaths and disappearances during the student protests that led to his downfall. His coming to power was accompanied by bloodshed and his ignominious ending likewise. He seemed wedded to conflict and left behind a nation that continues to be embroiled in divisions and outbreaks of violence.

One wonders what was going through Suharto’s mind, if anything, when he referred to his “mistakes” — a mild enough word that implies not only the need for an apology, but also the necessity of backing up the apology with deeds that give the apology credence and value. It is one thing to say you are sorry; it is another to walk away after having plundered the country and keeping what you took.

Of course, Suharto denied ever having been corrupt. Before he died, referring to attempts to regain state funds from him, he said, “It’s all empty talk. Let them accuse me. The fact is that I have never committed corruption.”

At the same time, not everyone’s hands are clean. The communists, the early victims of Suharto’s authoritarian regime, had reason to be contrite.

For years they terrorized whoever they perceived to be political opponents, creating such a culture of fear that when the communists were blamed for the failed September 30 coup in 1965, their erstwhile “victims,” such as Nahdlatul Ulama’s youth movement, Ansor, saw the murders of the generals as the first move in apocalyptic warfare. They then launched pre-emptive attacks, massacring the communists and their alleged sympathizers in Central and Eastern Java and Bali, with the tacit blessing of the military.

Today, the sum of these events, their meaning and impact remain unresolved and Indonesians disagree how to recall, analyze, understand and learn from them. The dark past is simply too painful to recall, and too politically sensitive, and thus the recent calls for reconciliation and rehabilitation sound like a good step toward addressing this problem.

Still, it is doubtful that this kind of reconciliation is what the politicians have in mind. Rather, it seems that their goals tend more toward whitewashing history, forgetting the troubled and traumatic past by burying everything under buzzwords like rehabilitation, and hoping that everything will be swept away by the sands of time.

In the meantime, they can use the larger-than-life figures of both Sukarno and Suharto to attract voters during the upcoming elections.

All this sounds like a continuation of past attitudes. All this sounds like contemporary Indonesia has only learned how to commit the same mistakes of the past rather than renounce them. It hardly sounds like reconciliation, remorse or restitution — but business as usual.

And this would indicate that the reconciliation some are proposing is nothing more than an attempt to legitimize what was unacceptable then and is unacceptable now.

Therefore, maybe it is better to rephrase the question. What kind of truth and reconciliation process does Indonesia need?

By Yohanes Sulaiman lecturer at the Indonesian Defense University (Unhan). Phillip Turnbull is a theology teacher based in Jakarta. Jakarta Globe

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