Lessons from the rise and fall of Suharto

By Farish A. Noor

The verdict of history is still not out yet following the demise of General-turned-President Suharto. For all his achievements in putting his country on the map and leading Indonesia towards industrial development, Suharto’s human rights record remains one of the bloodiest in the post-colonial history of Southeast Asia, matched only by that of Ferdinand Marcos, who was likewise one of the great strongmen of Asia.

Suharto presided over one of the most spectacular socio-economic transformations in Asia of the 20th century: His nation of more than two hundred million souls was transformed over a period of three decades from a faltering post-colonial economy on the verge of bankruptcy to becoming one of the most attractive destinations for foreign capital investment. Yet the social and economic costs were high: Indonesia was sold as a source of cheap human labour and natural resources, to be exploited and plundered by foreign multinationals as never before. During this period normal political activity in the country came to a standstill; political parties were either disbanded or forced to merge; political dissidents were routinely harassed, silence and incarcerated, with hundreds more liquidated at will by the armed forces and security agencies of the state. The Indonesian press was stifled; students told not to enter the arena of politics; feudal structures were reinforced; while corruption was allowed to run rampant.

Even after he was deposed in May 1998 Suharto left office as one of the most corrupt leaders of the Third World, amassing wealth to the tune of billions of dollars that had been expatriated to foreign banks. Until today there is still no accounting of the exact extent and magnitude of his and his family’s corruption; and their collusion with the forces of capital and the army that kept this entire system of patronage and state violence intact for so long.

There are, however, some important lessons to be learned from this complex and often painful – and extended – episode of Indonesian history:

Suharto would never have been allowed to get away with his multiple abuses of power had he opted to keep Indonesia neutral during the Cold War, which was the preferred option of his predecessor Sukarno. It was Sukarno’s commitment to the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) and his support of progressive anti-imperialist causes worldwide that aligned him to other outstanding Third World leaders like India’s Nehru. But Sukarno was accused by many of the governments of the West – notably the United States of America – as being too ‘soft’ on Communism for his attempt to keep the Indonesian Communist Party (PKI) in the fold of national politics via the NASAKOM (Nasionalisme-Agama_Komunisme) alliance of the 1960s.

During the 1950s numerous Western governments regarded Sukarno in the same light as other anti-colonial Third World leaders such as Patrice Lumumba, and plans were made to remove him from the political stage altogether. When the young Indonesian republic was rocked by a series of internal civil conflicts, it was the USA that even supported some of the Islamist-fundamentalist successionist movements, mainly with the aim of toppling the Indonesian government.

Suharto performed a major u-turn by re-aligning Indonesia to the West and in particular the United States following the downfall of Sukarno in 1970. Since then it was the US that was Indonesia’s staunchest ally, supporting Suharto in his ‘battle against Communism’ when Southeast Asia was declared ‘the second front’ in the ‘war on Communism’. (Very much like how the ASEAN region today is described as ‘the second front’ in the ‘War on Terror’.

Suharto’s close relationship to the governments and corporations of the West guaranteed that he and his generals and cronies were able to command and rule the country at will, and it was this that allowed the Indonesian army to march into East Timor in 1974 to forcibly annex the country. Yet while the massacre of East Timorese civilians was taking place, Washington and its allies were more vocal in their condemnation of human rights abuses taking place in the Soviet bloc. Needless to say, had Suharto sided with the Russians then, he would have been put in the same category of ‘Communists dictators’ like Tito instead, and duly dealt with.

This is the first lesson that was learned by the dictators of ASEAN since the 1960s and the rise of American global power: That one can rule one’s country with an iron fist and pay scant regard to human rights as long as you are on the side of Uncle Sam and the good ‘ol USA. Marcos understood this, as did South Vietnam’s despot Bao Dai. Today the same lesson has been learned by a host of American crony-puppets all over the world.

The second lesson is that the atrocities that take place in any ASEAN country can be carried out as long as there is no dissent from your neighbors who can be persuaded to look the other way. The great tragedy of Indonesia during the 1970s-1990s was that while the country was being robbed and pillaged by its own leaders, the leaders and governments of ASEAN stood still and said nothing. If Indonesia today is plagued by a host of problems ranging from religious militancy to chronic economic failure and massive unemployment (which in turn leads to other pan-regional problems like the illegal migration of Indonesians to neighboring countries) then it is partly because the other countries of ASEAN did not see fit (or had the moral courage) to say anything. ASEAN is as much at fault for Indonesia’s crisis now as Suharto was, and we – the citizens of ASEAN – have to bear the blame and responsibility too.

Now that Suharto is gone, our focus turns to the military junta in Burma and their brutal suppression of their own people. Once again, ASEAN governments are turning a blind eye to what can only be a major diplomatic and regional crisis in the near future. Yet will we take the lessons of Suharto’s mistakes (and ours) to heart? Or will we once again do nothing, and by doing so pay the price and commit the sin of passive neglect and negative responsibility?


  1. #1 by ahkok1982 on Wednesday, 30 January 2008 - 7:52 am

    usually such cases are really very difficult to judge… you would definitely have to look at the end product to see if the action was worth it.
    if suharto did not act as he did. if he did not quell other opposing parties, the indonesia that we know today may still be in constant strife with people fighting over small bits of worthless property.
    similarly, if LKY did not rule with an iron fist in sg, it may still be a backwater island and not a city state island that it is today.
    on the flip side, if ruling with an iron fist without any vision of progress or advancement, we will be left with what is Myanmar today.
    Suharto may have been a corrupt official which we all know that he siphoned $$ out of the country’s coffers for his own benefit but the people actually prospered. I am not saying that his actions were justified but people still appreciated what he did FOR the country.
    Compare it with our country. Everyone knows that TDM was a corrupt and iron fisted PM during his time but he worked hard for the country and brought progress (with some blunders towards the end). Compare him with the current sleeping B, people are actually missing the times when TDM was still PM. I for one will say that minus the corruption & self interest, TDM would have been a great PM.

  2. #2 by Bigjoe on Wednesday, 30 January 2008 - 8:00 am

    What the hell is Dr. Noor talking about? Is he splitting hairs here?

    On one hand, he is saying it was wrong of US to intervene in Indonesia and Suharto to align himself with the West. But his second point is that ASEAN should intervene in Burma? Sounds like nonsense to me.

    The basic problem with Burma is the hesitancy of ASEAN to engage, btw its Myanmar. If ASEAN had been more aggressive in engaging Myanmar i.e., trade, build relationship, show the junta what was possible, Myanmar would have been a democracy by now with a bunch of junta rich beyond their wildest dreams. Instead ASEAN particularly Malaysia was more concern about not looking like the US but also not being able to find better ways to engage Myanmar other than US-guide to diplomacy – they go in talk a lot and when things get tough, they cut and run.

    If ASEAN want to do anything, its to encourage the children of the junta to attend US liberal arts colleges and business schools something they should have done years ago. Its the only real hope of Burma ever turning into a democracy in the long run.

  3. #3 by burn on Wednesday, 30 January 2008 - 8:04 am

    “… TDM would have been a great PM…”

    provided he’s color blind!

  4. #4 by kanthanboy on Wednesday, 30 January 2008 - 9:30 am

    “I for one will say that minus the corruption & self interest, TDM would have been a great PM.” Ahkok 19

    Such statement should be reserved as an eulogy at his funeral.

    You have to call a spade a spade for the benefit of the younger generation. You cannot turn a corrupt and self interest dictator into a great PM by changing his identity. TDM’s identity is a corrupt and self interest dictator.

  5. #5 by Jeffrey on Wednesday, 30 January 2008 - 9:38 am

    “…//…On one hand, he is saying it was wrong of US to intervene in Indonesia and Suharto to align himself with the West. But his second point is that ASEAN should intervene in Burma? Sounds like nonsense to me…//” – Big Joe.

    It is indeed contradictory nonsense.

    Individuals talk of high moral values and human rights but it is more for application in public sphere to others than their own private lives where own self-interest is primary concern. So do nations, including immensely powerful nations like the USA that are made up of individuals, which, though speak in morally high-faluting terms of human rights in their foreign policies, are ultimately concerned with their narrow national interests; and so do regional blocs made up of an aggregate of sovereign nation states, whether ASEAN, G8 or EEC….

    Hypocrisy defined as a disconnect between the beliefs, feelings principles of one’s professed belief and actual practice is a necessary general Human Condition (applicable to individuals, nations and regional blocs), which I am sure TDM would agree with me! (I say general because there were/are exceptional but far and in between).

    Pychologists/psychiatrist will testify that when life is conceived at embryonic stage, there is already developed “the id” or ego or superego which operates on a self centered principle (demanding self gratification) necessary for survival.

    How far self interest is pursued or checked/balanced against collision with immediate society’s members and their “ids” is the reason why the minimum boundaries of morality and laws need to be set up to ensure peaceful co-existence by people living together in groups of society or nation. That notwithstanding, self interest and centredness is always there, checked only against backlash of others against one’s unbridled selfishness!

    Indeed more than ever as civilisation advances, self-interest is generally pursued at all levels and forms in an unprecedented scale with alacrity checked only sometimes by sense of guilt and shame rather than exuberant pursuit for virtue for its won sake as an end in itself.

    So we can always expect hypocrisies around almost as a twin corollary for social existence, whether in a society, nation or a region (especially if the system is capitalistic, market and profit driven)!

    Even in private lives, we’re hypocrites – and it is not just confined to moral judgment of others like the way we condemn our ex health minister’s indiscretions.

    Even when we profess love and choose to marry our spouse and life partners, we (except for the most romantic attributable to exuberant idealism of callow and inexperienced youth) are sublimally guided by unaknowledged considerations of self interest and benefits weighed against costs to self!

    So what is there to say?

  6. #6 by sotong on Wednesday, 30 January 2008 - 10:53 am

    No dictator is a good dictator.

    Under a dictatorship/authoritarian environment, potentially capable people are marginalised to maintain total control at all costs.

  7. #7 by cheng on soo on Wednesday, 30 January 2008 - 11:30 am

    burn Says:

    Today at 08: 04.05 (3 hours ago)
    “… TDM would have been a great PM…”
    provided he’s color blind!
    MUST add also NOT gila kuasa, gila wang, gila korupsi, gila politik wang!

  8. #8 by Jeffrey on Wednesday, 30 January 2008 - 12:54 pm

    Farish’s first lesson, be on Uncle Sam’s side and one can rule with “an iron fist and pay scant regard to human rights’’ is generally true. American foreign policy is characterized by support of tin pot dictators where they serve America’s geopolitical interest, and its not just General Suharto but also Shah of Iran, Jean Claude Duvalier, Ngo Dihn Diem, King Fahd and Ferdinand Marcos….

    Farish’s second lesson about ASEAN looking the other way Suharto’s atrocities in the 1970s-1990s has to be viewed in this context, that is, ASEAN’s constitutional/Legal text on objectives since time of inception were to promote regional economic cooperation rather than human rights of which ASEAN member countries themselves have a poor record and there’s also a policy of non interference in domestic affairs of member countries in place. If they were to look at human rights record as criteria for membership of ASEAN, there would be no ASEAN.

  9. #9 by izrafeil on Wednesday, 30 January 2008 - 1:10 pm

    While some papers in some neighbouring Indonesia still glorifying Soeharto, free press in Indonesia are now debating on Soeharto dark reign…. only if we have free press like in Indonesia

    here is an extract…..

    Para Korban Orde Baru Masih Simpan Data Kejahatan Soeharto
    Rabu, 30 Januari 2008 | 09:21 WIB

    TEMPO Interaktif, Jakarta:
    Para korban yang merasa dirugikan atas kebijakan mendiang mantan Presiden Soeharto saat ini masih menyimpan daftar data-data kejahatan yang diduga dilakukan mantan penguasa itu. Para korban ini tergabung dalam Lembaga Perjuangan Rehabilitasi Korban Rezim Orde Baru (LPR-KROB)

  10. #10 by TheWrathOfGrapes on Wednesday, 30 January 2008 - 1:35 pm

    /// sotong Says:
    Today at 10: 53.25 (2 hours ago)
    No dictator is a good dictator. ///

    The corollary is – the only good dictator is a dead dictator…

  11. #11 by Jeffrey on Wednesday, 30 January 2008 - 5:10 pm

    …”the only good dictator is a dead dictator”….can there be a benevolent dictator (like LKY) who is no good dead? :)

  12. #12 by Jeffrey on Wednesday, 30 January 2008 - 6:08 pm

    “Dictator” is an automatically a word with negative connotations – autocratic and arbitrary in wielding of powers – and a benevolent dictator sounds an oxymoron. Closest definition of benevolent dictator would be rulers who “dictated” absolute powers, brooking no dissent, and even if at certain points of time during the reign the people might not even agree with his policies, but who nevertheless dictated objectively (with hindsight of history) policies and programs in the best interest of his people or country – they are the so called “benevolent” dictators. The line between dictator and elected autocratic leader also admittedly quite thin, crossing one to the other….Were/are there no such benevolent dictators?

    Though it is a matter of opinion, what would you say of (say):-

    · Historical French leader like Napoleon Bonaparte, Roman Juliius Ceasar or Marcus Aurelius (of Hollywood Gladiator” fame) or Alexander the Great?

    Modern times –
    · Muslim leaders like Kemal Atatürk (secular Turkey) Anwar Sadat;
    · LKY of Singapore or DeGualle of France (does he qualify as an ‘elected’ dictator assuming one equates dictator loosely with an autocrat?)
    · China’s supreme leader Deng Xiao Ping????
    · Chile’s Allende (overthrown by CIA) or present Venezuela’s Chavez?

    Admittedly corollary to “benevolent dictator being good” means in context of the social demographic cultural and economic realities of that particular country (esp under developed African or Middle East states or a country under external danger) a well meaning strong man rule may bring better results and is preferred over full and absolute expression of ” democracy” leading to chaos or other comparatively not so good results based on objective judgment.

    Also there must fewer benevolent dictators than bad ones since power corrupts and absolute power, absolutely…. – Lord Acton, 1887.

  13. #13 by BlackEye on Wednesday, 30 January 2008 - 7:48 pm

    Soldiers in mufti are a breed of politicians that could bring political stability to a nation fast disintegrating.

    If UMNO were to lose the general elections, soldiers in mufti could well emerge to bring stability. A worrying prospect to some but a sigh of relief to others.

  14. #14 by kaybeegee on Sunday, 3 February 2008 - 2:28 am

    Mahathir and Najib say that Suharto was true friend of Malaysia.
    Yes he helped to increase the Muslim population in Malaysia.
    How? Suharto started this transmigration programme that sent millions of javanese out of their overpopulated Java island to other parts of the Nusantara. Unfortunately the Indons were using maps drawn up by Sukarno during his Ganyang Malaysia, which showed all of Malaysia as part of greater Indonesia.
    So their Police, Navy and other law enforcement agencies did not stop the Indons from leaving their shores illegally(from Malaysian point of view) to Malaysia.
    Now Susilo comes here and tells AAB to do something for his/their countrymen. But Susilo does not do anything to stop the transmigration into Malaysia as well. Well their forefathers the Bugis and all others, came here before just like the other Malaysian from elsewhere.Ask Najib.

You must be logged in to post a comment.