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
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Cabinet audit: what does the appointment of Andrea Leadsom as Environment Secretary mean for policy?

The political and policy-based implications of the new Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs.

A little over a week into Andrea Leadsom’s new role as Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra), and senior industry figures are already questioning her credentials. A growing list of campaigners have called for her resignation, and even the Cabinet Office implied that her department's responsibilities will be downgraded.

So far, so bad.

The appointment would appear to be something of a consolation prize, coming just days after Leadsom pulled out of the Conservative leadership race and allowed Theresa May to enter No 10 unopposed.

Yet while Leadsom may have been able to twist the truth on her CV in the City, no amount of tampering will improve the agriculture-related side to her record: one barely exists. In fact, recent statements made on the subject have only added to her reputation for vacuous opinion: “It would make so much more sense if those with the big fields do the sheep, and those with the hill farms do the butterflies,” she told an audience assembled for a referendum debate. No matter the livelihoods of thousands of the UK’s hilltop sheep farmers, then? No need for butterflies outside of national parks?

Normally such a lack of experience is unsurprising. The department has gained a reputation as something of a ministerial backwater; a useful place to send problematic colleagues for some sobering time-out.

But these are not normal times.

As Brexit negotiations unfold, Defra will be central to establishing new, domestic policies for UK food and farming; sectors worth around £108bn to the economy and responsible for employing one in eight of the population.

In this context, Leadsom’s appointment seems, at best, a misguided attempt to make the architects of Brexit either live up to their promises or be seen to fail in the attempt.

At worst, May might actually think she is a good fit for the job. Leadsom’s one, water-tight credential – her commitment to opposing restraints on industry – certainly has its upsides for a Prime Minister in need of an alternative to the EU’s Common Agricultural Policy (CAP); a policy responsible for around 40 per cent the entire EU budget.

Why not leave such a daunting task in the hands of someone with an instinct for “abolishing” subsidies  thus freeing up money to spend elsewhere?

As with most things to do with the EU, CAP has some major cons and some equally compelling pros. Take the fact that 80 per cent of CAP aid is paid out to the richest 25 per cent of farmers (most of whom are either landed gentry or vast, industrialised, mega-farmers). But then offset this against the provision of vital lifelines for some of the UK’s most conscientious, local and insecure of food producers.

The NFU told the New Statesman that there are many issues in need of urgent attention; from an improved Basic Payment Scheme, to guarantees for agri-environment funding, and a commitment to the 25-year TB eradication strategy. But that they also hope, above all, “that Mrs Leadsom will champion British food and farming. Our industry has a great story to tell”.

The construction of a new domestic agricultural policy is a once-in-a-generation opportunity for Britain to truly decide where its priorities for food and environment lie, as well as to which kind of farmers (as well as which countries) it wants to delegate their delivery.

In the context of so much uncertainty and such great opportunity, Leadsom has a tough job ahead of her. And no amount of “speaking as a mother” will change that.

India Bourke is the New Statesman's editorial assistant.