INDONESIA: by Jeffry Babb News Weekly
More good than bad: Suharto (1921-2008)
, February 16, 2008
Jeffry Babb assesses the legacy of Indonesia's president.An assessment of the life and legacy of Suharto, one of Asia's towering figures of the last century, cannot be expressed simply in terms of black and white. One must bear in mind the situation in Indonesia when Suharto came to power in 1967.
Indonesia was effectively bankrupt. Massive spending on arms had blown out Indonesia's foreign debt to US$2.4 billion.
Suharto's predecessor, Sukarno (Indonesia's president since independence from the Netherlands after World War II), revelled in mass rallies and spectacles, designed to push Indonesia's claim to be the leader of the non-aligned movement.
Inflation was spiralling out of control, and the nation had barely recovered from its occupation by the Japanese in World War II and its war of independence against the Dutch. Society was chaotic as the secular nationalists, the religious parties and the Indonesian Communist Party (PKI) vied for power. Sukarno relied increasingly on the PKI, because it was - apart from the army - the only organisation which could get things done.
Indonesia pursued adventurism, such as its 1963 confrontation with the British-supported Federation of Malaysia in Borneo, where Malaysian, British and Australian troops were engaged in a shadowy guerrilla war. In 1965, Australia's Menzies Government ordered F111 supersonic bombers from the US, capable of striking Jakarta.
Then, in the early hours of October 1, 1965, in a left-inspired coup attempt, six-high ranking Indonesian anti-communist generals were assassinated and their bodies dumped down a notorious well known as Crocodile Hole. Troops seized the radio station and telephone exchange. The then Lieutenant-General Suharto alone was left to rally the army and oppose the plotters.
An orgy of bloodletting followed as religious groups, nationalists and others opposed to the communist PKI sought revenge. The army for the most part did not order the killings, which in many cases were localised with neighbour against neighbour. With the exception of Bali, where the killing was particularly fierce, the army did little to intervene. Indonesia's ethnic Chinese were especially targeted, as communist China was widely presumed to be an ally of the PKI.
In 1967, Sukarno, old and sick, was deposed, and Suharto took control - reluctantly, it is said.
Thus Suharto's New Order began. Suharto, often referred to as the "puppet-master", ruled until felled by the 1997-98 Asian currency crisis.
What can we say of Suharto's legacy? I first travelled to Indonesia in 1977, living in the Central Java town of Salatiga, away from the bright lights of Jakarta. The town was peaceful and rice was plentiful; but, even then, some rice-land was still uncultivated - a legacy of events of 1965. Travel to country villages was restricted, but people talked freely.
When I returned to Java in 1990, the material prosperity was obvious. The Javanese were better dressed and more prosperous, television sets were everywhere and, instead of pedicabs and pony-carts, almost everyone used the fast and cheap minibuses.
Jakarta had bloomed into a metropolis. The New Order had created a middle class with a stake in the future of their nation, later allowing a new democracy to take root. That's what 25 years of stable - if authoritarian - government achieved.
Indonesians benefited; so did Australia. Exports boomed and, at one stage, 20,000 Australians were said to be in Indonesia permanently.
What if Suharto had not taken control? A hostile force would have likely dominated vital sea-lanes to our north, through which Australia's trade flows, and through which our navy must sail.
But Suharto's lasting legacy is the stability he brought to the whole South-East Asian region. Building what the Indonesians call "national resilience", while the US and its allies, including Australia, were occupied in Vietnam, avoided a possibly disastrous conflagration in the Asian region. The whole of South East Asia had breathing space to strengthen national institutions.
Above all, Indonesia helped turn the Association of South-East Asian Nations (ASEAN) into a viable mechanism for dispute-resolution in the region, shouldering a role as "first amongst equals". From this came APEC, which has encouraged the US to reaffirm its status as a Pacific power. Australia, moreover, benefits from a stable and prosperous Indonesia.Downside
The downside? Suharto encouraged a culture of theft and blatant economic exploitation. His children and cronies were often out of control - his wife was known as "Madame 10 Per Cent" because of the cut she usually made from government contracts. Timor is a blot on Suharto's legacy.
Over 30 years ago, I saw Suharto's extravagant mausoleum outside of Solo in Central Java. He had obviously been thinking about his legacy for many years. What will we think in 30 years' time?- Jeffry Babb studied Indonesian language, culture and religions at the Curtin University of Technology in Perth, WA, and at the University of Satya Wacana, Salatiga, Central Java.