Obituary – Suharto

The ‘Father’of Indonesia
Former General and President Suharto
(b. 1921 – d. 2008)

by Farish Noor

A couple of years ago, during a visit to the Central Javanese city of Jogjakarta that had been devastated by a major earthquake which had laid waste to many parts of the special province, I overheard a conversation between two Indonesians who were lamenting the fate of their country with its ruined economy, enduring military control, civil strife and the rising spectre of religious militancy. One of them said to his sorrowful friend: “brother, you are suffering from SARS – Sindrom Aku Rindu Suharto (‘I Miss Suharto Syndrome’)”.

That some Indonesians can still look back to the Suharto era with fondness speaks volumes about the manifold achievements of the man, who lived in an age of great politics – as nothing could be greater than the two world wars and the Cold War of the 20th century – which in turn gave rise to the era of great leaders. Suharto, whose quiet death stood in bold contrast to the spectacular age he lived in and the life he led, was one such man; and like all great men his achievements as well as his mistakes, of which there were many, can only be measured in similarly hyperbolic and magnified terms.

To some (and in this case we are talking about millions of loyal followers and admirers who til today regard him as ‘Pak’ (Father) Harto) he was the man who rescued Indonesia from the teetering and ailing democracy of Sukarno, saved Indonesia from the menace of Communism, and finally brought the country into the modern age and the globalised world economy. 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. Mediocre dictators are seldom accused of the deaths of millions, and in this respect Suharto was far from ordinary and he ruled over a country that is as great as it is complex.

Suharto was born on 20th February 1921 in the humble village of Kemusu Argamulya in Central Java that was even then teeming with an overcrowded population suffering from illiteracy, poverty and lack of development. Indonesia was then a Dutch colony and Suharto later joined the Dutch colonial army just when the star of Dutch colonial rule was waning and the Japanese were about to occupy the country. Nothing singled him out for greatness during the early stages of his life, and fate could easily have chosen for him a destiny similar to millions of other Indonesian peasants then.

But like many a young proto-nationalist during that time, Suharto’s military career then took off under Japanese military rule where he learned fast enough how men in uniform could run a country and reduce civilian politicians to pen-pushers and redundant rubber stamps. He also earned his stripes by fighting against the Dutch in the independence war of the mid-1940s, and made his name as one of the young nationalist-patriots of his time, very much in the same mould as Aung San, father of the Burma ‘s Aung San Su Kyi, who was likewise a Japanese-trained military man and nationalist.

When Indonesia unilaterally declared independence in 1945, Suharto was a rising officer in the new Indonesian Republican army. It is undeniable that the Indonesian army (like the armies of Vietnam and Burma ) played the decisive role in securing the independence of the nation. Suharto’s first significant personal success came when he masterminded the capture of the city of Yogjakarta in March 1949 from the Dutch troops who had been sent to regain control of their former colony. In time, his reputation as an able commander grew, as well as the respect he earned from his fellow fighting men. A Javanese at heart, Suharto understood the nature of his countrymen and their love – and need – for heroes and leaders. By standing at the forefront to accept all responsibility for the operations he led, he was also in the position to claim credit for their successes.

Indonesia ‘s independence was fought and won in fits and starts: Despite declaring themselves independent in 1945, the Indonesians had to deal with the return of Dutch (as well as British) troops who were not prepared to give up their former colony that easily. The 1940s and 1950s were the decades of sporadic guerilla warfare, of deadly ambushes and massive campaigns that galvanised the Indonesian peasants and mobilised the Indonesian army. Soon after the departure of the Dutch the Indonesian archipelago was rocked by successive splinter movements and successionist struggles that nearly ripped the fragile new country apart. Many of these revolts like the PRRI – PEMESTA campaigns were led by Muslims who wanted to make the country an Islamic state, and it was later discovered that some of the rebel factions were even aided by none other than the United States of America , which was then wary of Sukarno who was suspected of having pro-Soviet leanings.

While President Sukarno tried to keep this weak and nebulous nation together by conceding to the different demands of the nationalists, Communists and Muslim conservatives, it was the army that had to do the dirty work and fighting in the outer island provinces of Sumatra, Kalimantan, Sulawesi and the Moluccas . It was also during this time that Suharto distinguished himself as a military man who understood the nature of both conventional as well as psychological warfare, til he was elevated to the post of commander of the army’s Strategic Reserve (KONSTRAD) force.

Suharto’s moment arrived when it became clear that Sukarno’s ailing government and his feeble attempts at introducing what was then termed ‘guided democracy’ had failed in Indonesia. Following the failure of the August 1965 coup, Sukarno unleashed the army and senior officers like Suharto (then commander of KONSTRAD) on the Indonesian Communist Party (PKI). The anti-communist purges that followed were the bloodiest massacres in Indonesian history, with anything between half a million to one million people killed in the name of anti-Communism. Suharto and Kostrad then took much of the credit for the massacres, as well as the blame when the true extent of the butchery became known to the world years later.

With Sukarno weakened and discredited politically, it was a matter of time before the army took over. Almost overnight the tone and tenor of Indonesian politics began to change. During his time in office Sukarno was affectionately known as ‘Bung Karno’ (Brother Karno), indicative of the man’s desire to be close to his people and seen as one of them. Suharto, however, was referred to as Pak or Bapak (Father), a semantic shift that was loaded with meaning and which signaled the new authoritarianism that had set in.

What was also clear from the time that Suharto really took over power in 1970, however, was that the ‘New Order’ he instituted after Sukarno’s pitiful downfall was supported, financed, trained and protected by none other than Indonesia’s new strategic ally, the United States of America. Suharto and the other generals of the Indonesian army had, by then, realized that the United States was destined to be a major player in their country’s history, and the USA ’s support of rebel groups in the 1950s demonstrated that it could be a worrisome enemy if its wishes were thwarted. Indonesia ’s great ideological U-turn, from being one of the leading states of the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) to a pro-American developing country, took place during Suharto’s tenure.

From the 1970s to the 1980s Suharto re-engineered the Indonesian economy by aligning the country closer and closer to Western (re. American) interests. The economic turn-around came with the introduction of the so-called ‘Berkeley mafia’, a group of American-trained and European-trained technocrats and businessmen who spearheaded the economic liberalization of Indonesia, opening it to global capital and also offering the country as a source of cheap labour and resources. By the late 1980s, Indonesia was boasting of double-digit GDP growth but at a high social cost: Mass migration to Java led to overpopulation on the island; which resources like gas and oil were expatriated from other lesser-developed provinces.

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. Campus life came to a standstill as new rules and regulations were introduced to de-politicise the universities and the political parties of the countries were forced to merge together into three large unwieldly grand alliances that appeared ideologically similar.

While all this was happening, the international community turned a blind eye as Indonesia was billed as a success: The country was seen as a progressive developing economy that was mercifully spared the fate of Communist Vietnam and beloved by Western tourists who were taken to Bali to show what a paradise it was. Successive American Presidents like Lyndon Johnson, Kennedy, Nixon and Jimmy Carter spoke about human rights and democracy in their struggle to discredit the Soviet Union then, but the same standards were not applied in many an American allied state such as Indonesia, Philippines and South Vietnam. This was the era of Asia’s strongmen: Indonesia’s Suharto, the Philippines’ Ferdinand Marcos and even Vietnam’s Bao Dai were propped up by their friends and allies in Washington and while the struggle against Communism was being fought in the jungles of Southeast Asia, scant regard was paid to the plight of those who were the victims of these military regimes.

The peak of these 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. Indonesian officers like General Wiranto were given a free hand to ‘solve’ the East Timorese ‘problem’ and it was nearly a decade later before East Timor really became an international concern.

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 where such great and powerful men were made all the greater (and consequently dangerous) thanks to the weapons and military training given to them and their counterparts at army bases in the USA.

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. Numerous cases and accusations were made against him and military leaders like Generals Wiranto, Benny Moerdani, Hendrypriono, et al., but to no avail. Between 2002-2005 Indonesia experienced a succession of disasters that included the Jogjakarta earthquake, the Tsunami the destroyed Aceh, the rise of religious fundamentalism and inter-religious violence in the Moluccas and ethnic violence in Kalimantan . Many of the instances of civil strife and conflict were, analysts argued, the result of decades of political repression and the normalization of violence in Indonesia society thanks to prolonged military rule. Yet, despite the condemnation of the man there were as many Indonesians who benefited from Suharto’s rule and did not want to see the man in court. Revered by millions and equally despised by others, Suharto’s legacy is a mixed and ambivalent one that will no doubt occupy the interests and enquiries of scores of historians in the years to come.

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, and the smile of Suharto was once described to me as ‘poisonous’ and ‘eerie’. However no matter how one looks at the man, it cannot be denied that for both his achievements and his bloody mistakes, Suharto will go down as one of the greatest leaders of Asia of the 20th century.


Dr. Farish A. Noor is Senior Fellow and Research Director at the Rajaratnam School of International Studies of Nanyang Technical University, Singapore . He is also one of the founders of the research site.

  1. #1 by BlackEye on Monday, 28 January 2008 - 10:04 pm

    Similarities between Mahathir and the late Suharto.

    Both are corrupt. Both acted like they are feudal chiefs – Suharto like a feudal Javanese King and Mahathir a feudal Malay ruler.

  2. #2 by U32 on Monday, 28 January 2008 - 10:37 pm

    Whether it was their colonial masters, Sukarno, Suharto, Habibie, Wahid, Megawati and now Susilo Bambang, did / do they try to ensure that their own people are happy, employed, have decent salaries, no corruption, no Islamic extremism and protection from natural disasters ? They should be grateful that their own people are so nice and still be able to say such good words about them.

  3. #3 by k1980 on Tuesday, 29 January 2008 - 7:26 pm

    Suharto– the Idi Amin of Indonesia

  4. #4 by alaneth on Tuesday, 29 January 2008 - 11:48 pm

    I personally do not respect Suharto in any manner due to his unjust/cruel actions on the ethnic minorities in Indonesia. He is the father of corruption…

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