Tuesday, January 29, 2008

OPINION: Suharto no angel, but still mourned ...

During the late 1990s, I worked for a lawyer who spent his spare time making documentaries. A decade earlier, he produced a documentary about East Timor. He interviewed an Indonesian general who, as a young man, had taken part in the purge of presumed communists during the mid-1960s. When asked how he recognised complete strangers as communists, the general responded: "I can tell by the share of white in their eyes".

Hundreds of thousands of Indonesians, many having no communist links, were murdered during these purges. Many Western leaders knew but kept silent in much the same manner as they are silent today about atrocities and human rights abuses committed by dictatorships across the nominally Islamic world against anyone deemed extremist.

The man who orchestrated these massacres was another Indonesian general who is (to be fair, quite rightly) praised for leading his nation through a period of industrialisation and economic development.

The front page story of The Jakarta Post yesterday speaks of Suharto

"[v]enerated for much of his 32-year tenure as the liberator he appeared to be after more than two decades of authoritarian rule under his predecessor Sukarno, and vilified near its end for his authoritarian rule and for the corruption he appeared to condone in his later years in office."
It went on to describe Suharto's period of leadership as one which saw political and economic stability at the expense of freedom and human rights. Such words could never have been written in a major Indonesian newspaper before Suharto's 1998 resignation. At least this is what I was told by an Indonesian postgraduate student when I visited the country in 2006.

Within three months of my arrival in January, a popular Indonesian tabloid, Rakyat Merdeka, (perhaps the closest thing to an Islamist Daily Telegraph) published an article critical of Australia's involvement in West Papua. This wasn't unusual but what was new was a cartoon (which would have offended the paper's devout Muslim readers) showing one dingo with the head of former prime minister John Howard from behind another dingo with the head of former foreign minister Alexander Downer.

The cartoon was deemed too risque even for a certain former shadow foreign minister named Kevin Rudd, who described it as
... not passing any standard of taste anywhere in the world ...

and even hinting at the Indonesian Government using any
... powers it had over Indonesian newspapers in terms of decency standards.
Suharto will be given a state funeral in his home town of Surakarta. President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono has declared a week of mourning. Suharto's coffin was draped in the Indonesian flag when turned over by his family to the military. Tens of thousands lined the streets from the Suharto family's Jakarta residence to an air force base as the coffin was driven to be transported for the funeral.

The man whose New Order regime dominated Indonesian public life for over three decades ironically had humble beginnings. He was born in June 1921. At age 19, he entered a military school in Gambong. During the Japanese occupation, he spent some time in the Japanese-sponsored police force in Yogyakarta.

Following independence in 1945 and until his accession to the presidency in 1968, Suharto went through the ranks of the Indonesian armed forces. That period saw an ongoing struggle against the Indonesian Communist Party.

Suharto's presidency was characterised by strong economic development and he was proclaimed the Father of Development. At the same time, he brutally suppressed dissent. In January 1978, he ordered the closure of a number of influential newspapers and sent Indonesian troops on to university campuses.

Yet it was the 1975 invasion and subsequent occupation of East Timor, believed to be a hotbed of communist activism under Fretilin, for which many Australians will remember him. Today, independent East Timor is a tiny nation at war with itself. No doubt in his last days, Suharto and many Indonesians who supported his intervention would have been whispering under their breaths, "We told you so".

Islamic theology teaches that if God intended to make men perfect, he would have created them as angels. The man who ruled over the world's largest Islamic nation for over 30 years certainly was not perfect. But today Indonesians enjoy freedoms which their co-religionists in other parts of the nominally Islamic world yearn for. Had Suharto not led his nation to relative prosperity, one wonders if its present democracy could thrive as it does.

Irfan Yusuf is a Sydney lawyer and associate editor of AltMuslim.com. A version of this article was first published in the Canberra Times on 29 January 2008.

Words © 2008 Irfan Yusuf

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