Suharto the “hero”?

Can this monster be about to be rehabilitated so quickly?

When Transparency International produced its list of the most corrupt world leaders of all time in 2004, those rotten laurels went to General Suharto, who TI estimated had looted between $15bn and $35bn from Indonesia during his 31-year rule as president.

That would be ignominy enough for most. But Suharto also stood accused of numerous other crimes and acts of tyranny: of ordering the massacre of 500,000 suspected communists after an attempted coup in 1965, which itself was widely thought to have been engineered so that Suharto could intervene to "restore" peace. Of illegally invading East Timor, causing at least 100,000 deaths over the time his New Order regime occupied the former Portuguese colony. Of systematic human rights violations, suppressing democracy and freedom of speech . . . the gruesome list goes on.

No wonder that when he died in January 2008, a New Statesman leader concluded: "We regret that, on this occasion, we must speak harshly of the dead. Very harshly."

So it may seem astonishing that not three years later, and just over 12 years since his rule was finally brought down and democracy introduced to Indonesia for the first time since 1955, the government is proposing that the former dictator be declared a "national hero".

Suharto's is one of 18 names put forward by the social services ministry that will have to be vetted by President Susilo Bangbang Yudhoyono, whittled down by a committee, and then formally awarded by SBY, as the president is known, on National Heroes Day – 10 November.

Already there are suggestions that SBY could sit on the fence, by not rejecting Suharto's nomination outright, but instead putting it off for a couple of years until he stands down from the presidency. For support for Suharto's candidacy is not in short supply. It might be expected that Golkar, the party set up as a vehicle for Suharto supporters so that they could claim they "won" elections under his regime, would come out in favour of the move.

But so have the leaders of the Prosperous Justice Party, PKS, self-proclaimed Islamists who would never have been allowed to take part in government (as they do now) under Suharto, who imposed secularism and kept the religious parties quiescent and in their place.

How could this monster be rehabilitated so quickly? Earlier this year in Jakarta, I interviewed Fadli Zon, secretary general of Gerindra, the Great Indonesian Movement Party. "In the west you remember everything," he told me. "Here, we forget very easily."

Suharto, he said, "had good intentions". The former dictator tried to bring "stability, growth and redistribution of wealth". Fadli compared him to other successful regional strongmen, "like Lee Kuan Yew, Dr Mahathir, Hu Jintao, Deng Xiaoping". Even the corruption, he suggested, was not so bad.

"Then it was centralised," he said. "Only Golkar, the Suharto family and the military benefited. Now it's been decentralised – it's everyone. If Suharto was corrupt, who's not corrupt in Indonesia today?"

Amnesia has its uses. There is no doubt that Muslim groups, long vying for power pre-1965, were happy to take revenge for earlier communist-wrought massacres when hundreds of thousands died at the beginning of Suharto's takeover.

Many now at the top of politics served under the New Order regime – Gerindra's nominee for the presidency was Prabowo Subianto, a former general married to Suharto's daughter, while Golkar's vice-presidential candidate in last year's elections was General Wiranto, who also served under Suharto and has, like Prabowo, been accused of human rights violations while in uniform.

And compared to dictatorship, democracy can be messy and disorganised. Certainly, it can appear that way to the many millions of Indonesia's poor, for whom the freedom of the ballot may seem scant compensation for the disruption of their previous lives under Suharto. A ridiculously rosy rewriting of the past? Perhaps. But it is true that, for much of Suharto's rule, Indonesia, by contrast, appeared to be on an upward trajectory. As the novelist and poet Laksmi Pamuntjak puts it:

Suharto's role in creating rapid economic growth in Indonesia is indisputable. For most of his 30-year rule, our country experienced a significant growth and industrialisation, and there was remarkable progress in people's welfare. Infant mortality declined, public infrastructure was overhauled. Education, health care and living standards improved greatly. Despite the systemic corruption, economic inefficiencies and the hubris of Suharto's children and cronies, poverty was reduced dramatically.

Laksmi, whose novel The Blue Widow concerns the prison island of Buru where thousands of communists and suspected sympathisers were held without trial or charge for over a decade under Suharto, is being admirably fair in conceding this. She is no fan of the former dictator. She adds:

On the other side of the equation, those who were evicted to make way for big infrastructure projects or whose lands were forcefully seized or acquired at unfair prices in the name of development suffered many losses. During Suharto's reign, dissent was violently crushed, human rights routinely abused, press freedom severely curtailed. There is a formidable list of extrajudicial killings, illegal detentions, kidnappings and tortures, suppression of legitimate protest, gender violence and other injustices Indonesians expect to see addressed or redressed. Not to mention accounts of systems of political imprisonment, banning, civic disenfranchisement, stigmatisation and official harassment that nurtured fear, silence and self-censorship in our country for decades.

Given that President Obama is expected to arrive in Indonesia on his Asia tour around 9 or 10 November, one imagines that SBY will wish to avoid honouring such a reviled figure as Suharto at the same time. It seems likely that the US president would be among the many who share Laksmi's view on the old tyrant: "I see no redeeming feature in him whatsoever."

Baffling and incomprehensible though it may be to us in the UK, however, there are many in Indonesia who do.

The rehabilitation of this monster has officially begun.

Sholto Byrnes is a Contributing Editor to the New Statesman
Photo: Getty
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Tory right-wingers are furious about Big Ben – but it’s their time that’s running out

They could take both Corbyn and the present moment seriously. Instead, they are arguing about a clock.

Jeremy Corbyn, it is often said, wants to take Britain back to the 1970s.

The insult is halfway to an insight. It’s true that the Labour leader and his inner circle regard British economic policy since the late 1970s as an extended disaster that led to the election of Donald Trump and the vote to leave the European Union: a “failed experiment”, as Andrew Fisher, Corbyn’s influential policy chief, puts it in his 2014 book of the same name.

The Labour leader views the 1970s not as a blighted decade waiting for a saviour, but as a time when trade unions still had teeth, privatisation was not treated as a panacea and inequality was lower.

Theresa May doesn’t see the past four decades in quite the same light, but she does believe that the Brexit vote was, in part, the destabilising consequence of an economic settlement that has left too many people in Britain without a stake in society. This means, for now at least, an ideology that was until recently a consensus has no defenders at the top of either party.

May’s successor might conceivably be an unrepentant cheerleader for free markets and the Anglo-Saxon model of capitalism, but as things stand, whoever replaces May faces an uphill battle to be anything other than a brief pause before Corbyn takes over. Because of the sputtering British economy and the prospect of a severe downturn after Brexit – coupled with the Labour leader’s rising personal ratings – it is the opposition that has momentum on its side, in both senses of the word.

All of which might, you would expect, trigger panic among members of the Conservative right. Neoliberalism is their experiment, after all, the great legacy of their beloved Margaret Thatcher. Yet while there are a few ministers and backbenchers, particularly from the 2010 intake, who grasp the scale of the threat that Corbynism poses to their favoured form of capitalism, they are outnumbered by the unaware.

For the most part, the average Tory believes, in essence, that the 2017 election was a blip and that the same approach with a more persuasive centre-forward will restore the Conservative majority and put Corbyn back in his box next time round. There are some MPs who are angry that Nick Timothy, May’s former aide, has waltzed straight from the 2017 disaster to a column in the Daily Telegraph. That the column is titled “Ideas to Win” only adds to the rage. But most generally agree with his diagnosis that the party will do better at the next election than at the last, almost by default.

And it’s not that the Conservative right isn’t panicked by anything, as a result of some state of advanced Zen calm: many are exercised by the silence of Big Ben during its scheduled four years of repairs.

Yet you don’t even have to go as far back as 1970 for a period of silence from Elizabeth Tower. The bongs stopped ringing for planned maintenance in 2007 and for two years from 1983 to 1985, and the Great Clock stopped unexpectedly in 1976. What distinguishes this period of renovation from its predecessors is not its length but the hysteria it has generated, among both the right-wing press and the Conservative right. The Brexit Secretary, David Davis, described letting the bells go quiet as “mad”, while James Gray, a Conservative backbencher, went further, dubbing the repairs “bonkers”.

The reason why the bongs must be stilled is that they risk deafening and endangering the workers repairing the bell. Working around them would further extend the maintenance period, potentially silencing the clock for ever. The real divide isn’t between people who are happy for the bell to fall silent and those who want to keep it ringing, but between politicians who want to repair and preserve the bell and those who risk its future by squabbling over a four-year silence. There may well be “mad” behaviour on display, but it certainly isn’t coming from the repairmen.

The row is a microcosm of the wider battle over parliament’s renovation. The estate badly needs urgent repairs to make it fire-safe and vermin-free – in the past year, the authorities have had to spend in excess of £100,000 on pest control, with bed bugs the latest pest to make a home at Westminster. If it isn’t made safe, it could burn down.

The cheapest and most secure option for MPs is to decamp down the road to the Queen Elizabeth II Conference Centre, just a few minutes’ walk from parliament. But the current delay, facilitated by Theresa May, increases the cost of repairs. The Prime Minister has also weighed in on the row over Big Ben, telling reporters that it “cannot be right” for the bell to go quiet. Westminster’s traditionalists, largely drawn from the Conservative right, talk up the importance of preserving the institution but their foot-dragging endangers the institution they want to protect. As for May, her interventions in both cases speak to one of her biggest flaws: while she is not an idiot, she is altogether too willing to say idiotic things in order to pander to her party’s rightmost flank. That same deference to the Tory right caused her to shred or water down her attempts to rejig the British economic model, ceding that ground to Corbyn.

A Labour victory at the next election isn’t written in stone. The winds blowing in the opposition’s favour are all very much in the control of the government. The Conservatives could embark on a programme of extensive housebuilding, or step in to get wages growing again or to turn around Britain’s low productivity. Philip Hammond could use his next Budget to ease the cuts to public spending. They could, in short, either declare that the experiment hasn’t failed and vigorously defend it, or write off their old project and create another one. They could take both Corbyn and the present moment seriously. Instead, they are arguing about a clock, oblivious to the reality that their time is running out. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.

This article first appeared in the 24 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Sunni vs Shia