The Rehabilitation of Suharto
November 1, 2010 8:42 AM   Subscribe

The current Indonesian government has proposed that former dictator Suharto be added to the country's official pantheon of heroes. This proposal has been endorsed by the Prosperous Justice Party (PKS), a party that is explicitly Islamic, despite the fact that Suharto's government by and large suppressed religiosity in the political sphere. Aubrey Belford writes in the NYT about the controversy over this proposal; although Suharto is widely credited with Indonesia's increased prosperity in the decades prior to the Asian economic crisis, he was famously corrupt, violent in his suppression of political components and he led Indonesia during its bloody occupation of East Timor, which some have called a genocide.
posted by Dim Siawns (22 comments total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
Not to mention completely gutting anything resembling democratic or popular institutions outside of the military's control when he came to power on the back of a US supported coup which involved the massacre of nearly a million people.

I thought that Suharto's relationship with Islam was more complex than suggested here. What were called "muslim fascists" at the time were instrumental in carrying out the '65 massacres and similar forces have seem to be tolerated or supported at times to terrorize political opponents. And also, pretty much the only institutions which were allowed to flourish besides the military were religious. The first tenet of pancasila is the belief in one god, which in a predominantly Islamic country is going to give pretty fundamental ideological support for Islam. Maybe he wanted to keep explicit theocrats out, but he was also responsible (in the accepted mythology) of "saving" Indonesia from communism and anti-Islam forces. I've read a number of things which said Indonesian troops in East Timor were told they were saving East Timor from communists who wanted to slaughter muslims.

Also, previously, and previously, among others.

NYT writing on Indonesia has always been appalling. The article manages to not mention Timor, par for the course.
posted by williampratt at 9:16 AM on November 1, 2010 [2 favorites]

"... which some have called a genocide."

Way to softball that pitch, Dim Siawns.
posted by IAmBroom at 9:18 AM on November 1, 2010 [1 favorite]

What a perversion of the meaning of the word "hero," which in its earlier senses meant being a defender, and now suggests moral excellence or self sacrifice for the good of humanity.
posted by bearwife at 9:21 AM on November 1, 2010

Yeah, so....give it 10 years we will be putting Nixon's face on Mt. Rushmore.
posted by spicynuts at 9:27 AM on November 1, 2010

Marvellously, the first two comments take me to task for how I wrote about the two things I thought about including more extensively in the post but decided to omit for fear of excessive padding. Folk can ay be relied on to keep you on the straight and narrow at MeFi.

The religious aspect is something I tried and failed to find a link for (at least a link I was happy with); the intersection of religion and politics in Indonesia is really really complicated, and something I'm not terribly expert in. Suharto himself was a Muslim, and one of the five pillars of pancasila was indeed a belief in one god, but as far as I understand the government was kept fairly secular in the sense that there was no official endorsement of religion.

As for the slaughter in East Timor, this paper (which I thought quite good), claims it is not a genocide by the standards of international law, but seems to pin this on niggling legal interpretation of genocide rather than as an attempt to whitewash the Suharto regime; see section V for a precis of the conclusions. Call it a genocide or not, it was deeply appalling and is all too frequently forgotten.
posted by Dim Siawns at 9:33 AM on November 1, 2010

And Suharto was helped by our own special hero, Milton Friedman.
posted by Legomancer at 9:45 AM on November 1, 2010

Yeah, so....give it 10 years we will be putting Nixon's face on Mt. Rushmore.

Nixon ended American involvement in Vietnam, worked hard to set the groundwork for SALT II, and preserved and enhanced a variety of entitlement programs that have been under attack ever since his presidency. With the exception of Carter, Nixon is probably the most progressive president since Johnson.
posted by KokuRyu at 10:36 AM on November 1, 2010

Suharto was also good buddies with the thugs at Freeport-McMoran, one of the many reasons I will never call the Molecular Biology building at UT by its "proper" name.
posted by kmz at 11:09 AM on November 1, 2010

Dim Siawns - I didn't "take you to task." I just added a couple things, expressed a mild disagreement that there were concrete reasons why an Islamist party would find Suharto to be a hero, and took a shot at the NYT. It's called engaging in a discussion and you don't have to get defensive.

"As for the slaughter in East Timor, this paper"

I've done a quick read of the paper and found it to be pretty problematic in its arguments and assumptions. Its use of history and assorted facts is quite selective, and quite a few bits are just irrelevant or flat out wrong (e.g. "most acts of violence against pro-independence East Timorese were physically carried out by militia members of most of whom were East Timorese.").

"it was deeply appalling and is all too frequently forgotten"

Indeed. In looking for the "previously," it was quite depressing to see that the post on East Timor's independence got all of 8 comments, the most extensive of which was some wanker complaining about all the attention East Timor gets.
posted by williampratt at 11:25 AM on November 1, 2010

Something doesn't feel right about all this. Growing up in Malaysia from 1971 to 86 meant exposure to the regional news and events. In my senior year (83) I did a mash up project for Computers II and Modern South East Asian History (compulsory for graduation) by creating a full report on the "Konfrontasi" on Scripsit. Wiki from one point of view and the main page requesting too many edits and citations.

Googling now for Sukarno (who really shaped the region's history and yes Suharto was seen as a hero for deposing him) and Nusantara and other details finds me surprised at the lack of information on Google in response to specific terms and events. However, here's an old report from the Jakarta Post on Indonesia history of that era

I'm curious what's up but I'd hesitate to paint Suharto in as black a light as this thread seems to be doing.

Here's something interesting though that turned up:

> Many academics and activists have searched into the histories of
>other nationas and peoples to find models to solve the East Timor
>'problem'. In this conference, for instance, we have seen how the
>peacemaking initiatives in South Africa, Western Sahara, and in Palestine
>have been used as models. What is still missing is to look into Indonesia's
>own history of dealing with the international community, to search for ways
>to terminate Indonesia's occupation of East Timor.
Hence, as an Indonesian
>citizen I want to fill in that gap by searching into Indonesia's own
>history of confrontation with the international community. In this brief
>paper I want to present some lessons which can ve learned from a turbulent
>period in Indonesia's history, which even led to the nation's withdrawal
>from the UN, namely the 'konfrontasi' period of the early 1960s.

posted by The Lady is a designer at 11:25 AM on November 1, 2010

I'd hesitate to paint Suharto in as black a light as this thread seems to be doing.

As in the FPP demonstrates a clear bias rather than an objective reporting of the facts, as per the guidelines.
posted by The Lady is a designer at 11:28 AM on November 1, 2010

Speaking of forgotten: Suharto's (ongoing) legacy in West Papua is pretty appalling too, and is even less well known than East Timor. Unfortunately, my knowledge is both limited and dated – perhaps someone else can suggest a good link or two to bring others up to speed.

Mt. Rushmore

In the US, we carved the busts of slave-owners onto Sioux sacred land. In Indonesia, Suharto's son headed a car company to produce Indonesia's "national car:" it was going to be called the "Timor."
posted by williampratt at 11:38 AM on November 1, 2010

As in the FPP demonstrates a clear bias rather than an objective reporting of the facts, as per the guidelines.

Where exactly is the bias in the FPP?
posted by williampratt at 11:55 AM on November 1, 2010

Where exactly is the bias in the FPP?

The Rehabilitation of Suharto

When did he fall from grace and among whom?
posted by The Lady is a designer at 12:01 PM on November 1, 2010

Read this obituary, I'd hesitate to put the key paragraphs here.
posted by The Lady is a designer at 12:08 PM on November 1, 2010

williampratt: The regime is still moving non-Papuans from all over Indonesia to colonize Papua, and the local government is staffed almost entirely by non-Papuans. The Free Papua Movement is virtually non-existent as a guerrilla army by this point, but even as recently as last year Papuans were beaten and arrested for raising their flag.
posted by 1adam12 at 12:55 PM on November 1, 2010 [1 favorite]

When did he fall from grace and among whom?

Here are some quotes from the obituary to which you linked:

To as many detractors, he was the American puppet-crony who sold the Indonesian economy to foreign interests, destroyed what little remained of Indonesia’s protective barriers that insulated its fledgling local industry, persecuted the country’s intellectuals, students, workers and dissidents and was primarily responsible for the deaths, torture and disappearances of half a million alleged Communists in 1965 and a quarter of a million of Timorese after the violent annexation of East Timor in 1974.
. . .

From the 1970s to the 1980s Suharto re-engineered the Indonesian economy by aligning the country closer and closer to Western (re. American) interests. . . . By the late 1980s, Indonesia was boasting of double-digit GDP growth but at a high social cost . . . .Politically Indonesia also bade farewell to the last traces of democracy and civil society: All forms of social protest were banned on the grounds of national security and pro-democracy activists were rounded up and detained as alleged Communists. Racial and religious conflict was kept on the boil and the army became a key player in the domestic politics of the outer island provinces. Thousands of intellectuals, students and activists were routinely harassed and the Indonesian press lost what little independence it had. . . . .

The peak of . . . outrages came in 1974 with the forced annexation of East Timor , a former Portuguese colony that was then feared to become the next ‘Cuba of Asia’. With tacit Western support, Indonesian troops landed on the island and annexed it at gunpoint. Among the units responsible for the worst killings and tortures was the Konstrad, that was formerly led by Suharto himself. . . . .

The end of the Cold War marked the end of these strongmen, for the game was up and as Eastern Europe was brought into the fold of the Free Market it became less and less palatable for Western heads of states to dine and chat with Asian and African mass-murderers and tyrants. Suharto’s fall in 1998 during the East Asian economic crisis marked the final chapter of a long and painful history . . .

The last decade of his life saw Suharto withering away quietly, cocooned and protected by the very same military elite he had helped to create and develop. . . .

For millions of ordinary Indonesians Suharto will be remembered as ‘Bapak’ who brought the country to the modern age of rapid economic development and prosperity. But for millions he will also be remembered as the man who stole from his own people not only their wealth but also their rights; as the General-turned-President who understood the character of his people whom he saved and oppressed in equal measure. Suharto was seen by many as the ‘smiling general’ whose apparently benevolent demeanour belied a capacity for brutal violence like none other

posted by bearwife at 1:41 PM on November 1, 2010

Hey, this looks like an excellent thread to hijack in order to ask for recommendations on books on the history of Southeast Asia, particularly the maritime part, particularly Indonesia. Anyone know any good ones?
posted by No-sword at 1:47 PM on November 1, 2010

I'd hesitate to paint Suharto in as black a light as this thread seems to be doing.

Suharto was an utter and heartless bastard responsible for the deaths of hundreds of thousands - probably more - people. His legacy of corruption and brutality is one that Indonesia still struggles with today, especially the former, and it is unequivocally holding the country back compared to other nations in the region and helping the precious Indonesian rainforests fall even faster, while the countries people still struggle, and ethnic minorities even more so.

That shitheel will rot in hell with his buddy Kissinger, and arguing that he wasn't all bad is like pointing out how Pol Pot was nice to his mother.
posted by smoke at 4:25 PM on November 1, 2010 [2 favorites]

The short answer is that Suharto used to play one faction against another so he could stay on top. Pro or anti? Depends on what year you're talking about. Mid-1990s, Muslims good. Early 1980s, not so much.
posted by gimonca at 8:08 PM on November 1, 2010

gimonca - that makes sense. my exposure and experience was in the seventies
posted by The Lady is a designer at 12:09 AM on November 2, 2010

"Suppressed religiosity" could be elaborated on a bit. Large, mainstream organizations like the NU and Muhammadiyah certainly continued to exist. As organizations with large memberships, community programs and credibility, they could have become potential power bases for an opposition, but they were large, old and popular enough that they couldn't be ignored or just swept away. Suharto's forced reorganization of political parties put the moderate, mainstream Islamic currents into the PPP party, which was kept in the minority.

The wiki article mentions an exchange:

Gus Dur [head of NU] also incurred the disapproval of the regime by holding a mass rally at a Jakarta stadium three months before the 1992 legislative elections, ostensibly to express support for Pancasila [Indonesian patriotic values]. This resulted in Gus Dur being invited to meet Lt. Col. Prabowo Subianto, Suharto's son-in-law at Jakarta Military Headquarters. At the meeting, Gus Dur was warned to avoid unacceptable political conduct, and told that if he insisted in involving himself in politics, rather than confining himself to religious matters, he should express support for a further presidential term for Suharto. In response, Gus Dur threatened to leave the NU. This resulted in the regime backing down, as it could not risk bringing Gus Dur down.

I'd expect it was an "interesting" meeting.

It should be mentioned that extremist Islam was (and is) a fairly small minority. It was seen as being a danger to the government and the integrity of the country and both Sukarno and Suharto suppressed it.
posted by gimonca at 5:40 AM on November 2, 2010

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