By: Wimar Witoelar

Suharto Escapes Trial, But Indonesia Does Not

This is the original version of the article that appears on the back page of TIME magazine (Asia edition Vol. 171, No. 6, February 11,2008). The edited version is published under the title “The Soeharto Effect”. Different emphasis, related message. Suharto did a lot of good, but his corruption and atrocities did permanent damage to Indonesia. TIME omitted references to the implications for today’s public.

That is fine for readers around the world. But for Indonesians, it is more important to recognize that there is a serious threat of not recognizing the current danger, which is, the current government and political elite in Indonesia are idolizing Soeharto’s to the extent that it discredits the reforms attempted since 1998.

With nineteen aircraft escorting the remains of former Indonesian president Soeharto to his luxurious final resting place in Central Java, he was laid to rest with full military honors. Does this end a major chapter in the history of Indonesia, a nation of 240 million people?

I remember the day President Sukarno died on June 21, 1971. I was coming in from the airport from my first international flight. It was very quiet on a hot Jakarta afternoon and there was a feeling of passage. Definitely a low-key event, nobody talked about it as Sukarno had disappeared from sight ever since Suharto took over power in 1966. Nobody knew where he was. Suharto never visited him and the media never ran stories on him. Sukarno, founder of the nation, President for life, revolutionary leader of the new emerging forces, just disappeared.

And I remember the day President Suharto died on January 27, 2008. It was like a rebirth, a happening. The last days of Soeharto had a circus atmosphere, with people milling around the hospital and television crews jostling for camera space while on-camera talent played up the melodrama. I saw it as opera, where tragedy and comedy are served in equal parts. The tragedy is the man’s passing away, because death is irrevocable and always sad. The comedy is in watching dignitaries past and present, movie stars and celebrities, all eager to show something to someone. It may be a show of loyalty to a man once responsible for their comfortable lives, a hope to share in the distribution of his assets, or just to share fifteen seconds of fame with a world class news magnet.

Without doubt, the story of Suharto is grand opera. Rising village boy to absolute power intuitively in the wake of a mysterious communist coup and military counter-coup, they say 500,000 murders escorted the military and Soeharto to power. We ordinary students did not know it at that time. If we heard something we refused to believe it. And if we believed it, we thought it was justified. It was kill or be killed when it came to Communists. You were either for them or against them. We were defending freedom. We, student activists of that day, chose freedom against communism. And we saw complete regime change.

There is no feeling of regime change with Suharto’s death. The smiling general was sent off by tearful sympathizers. The former first family was in tears. The immaculately groomed President Yudoyono looked every bit the political heir of the smiling general.

Ten years of attempted reform seem like a daydream. Attempts started in President Wahid’s term in 2000 to bring Suharto to trial were thwarted. Efforts to find justice for students killed during the uprising in 1998 – which forced Suharto to resign – seem to be forever hidden under the rug as Wahid fell from power. His unsuccessful forays to bring New Order corruptors to trial failed as the very same people returned to the circles of power.

The Suharto funeral had an eerie similarity to that of JFK in 1963, grand, solemn, historical, and impressive. The difference was, this first family is much bigger than John Kennedy’s, and LBJ looked more detached from JFK than SBY is from Suharto.

As media orchestrated the grieving, President Yudoyono said in an emotional television address that Suharto had “some shortcomings, but nobody is perfect. As a big nation I invite us all to express sincere thanks and give our highest respect for all of his service to the nation and the country.” Soeharto’s high-profile daughter – a cabinet minister in Soeharto’s last government – Siti Hardiyanti Rukmana played her part to attract sympathy. “If he committed mistakes we hope all are willing to forgive him.”

But can anybody respond to her plea? Does anybody have the right to forgive Suharto except his victims and God? The victims include hundreds of thousands lives destroyed and taken by Soeharto’s regime, as well as gallant Indonesian military people who died in the execution of their duty. Less bloody but equally tragic are the millions of people living in poverty while billions of dollars were allegedly diverted to Soeharto’s family and cronies and funds managers.

President Soeharto ruled with authority and presided over an amazing record of economic development measured in aggregate terms, bringing Indonesia to the threshold of becoming an Asian tiger. But his authority turned to dictatorship, as New Order became a byword for corruption and human rights abuse. Outside Indonesia, people ponder the same question that has plagued the nation in the ten years since Soeharto stepped down. Will he ever be tried for his atrocities and corruption? Will the Indonesian nation be able to bring the Soeharto case to closure? The longer the public vacillates over putting Soeharto’s crimes on trial, the more the public shows its lack of resolution. President Yudoyono showed uncharacteristic resolve when he decided to resurrect the image of Suharto as a national hero.

For most Indonesians the corruption aspect of Soeharto’s rule is the most clearly felt. But still there are excuses. In a television interview with Aljazeera, Professor Emil Salim who was a five-term cabinet minister under Soeharto said the amounts of money allegedly stolen by Soeharto “is nothing compared to the economic development he brought”. Salim and his fellow economists of the Soeharto era do not recognize that Soeharto’s economic development favored the Indonesian elite and foreign investors, while bringing only marginal benefits to the working people of Indonesia, not to mention the poor.

He was called the Father of Development by the sycophants of the New Order. True, economic development did great things in the mid 80s. But as he developed economically, he also developed his crony capitalism. This gave him confidence to turn against his loyal intellectuals as he left them for opportunists in his inner circle. Many good people turned against him then. But more remained apologists for the regime.

Bringing Suharto to trial is not just a case of criminal and civil justice. It is important to give people a sense of what is right and what is wrong. Ethical clarity has been clouded by people straddling fence for so many years. People forget the atrocities because they were kept well hidden. But the damage to the nation’s confidence and self-respect is evident, and may well be the remaining legacy of Suharto’s rule.

Original article can be found at

Digitally re-published at with explicit permission from and courtesy of the author.

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    Michael is a professional leader in the fields of energy investments, complex commercial deals, and sustainability with extensive international experience. His personal interests span from socio-political issues, history, and culture.

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