The news that former Indonesian President Soeharto is now deemed â€˜unfitâ€™ to stand trial for abuse of power in Indonesia has hardly come as a surprise to those who know the country well. Few really believed that the strong man who had ruled Indonesia for three decades from 1966 to 1998 could have been brought to court and sent to jail in any case. The issue however is not that the man â€˜got away with itâ€™, but rather what this bodes for the future of Indonesia instead.
Despite the initial wave of euphoria that greeted the fall of the Soeharto regime and the hope that the country would finally make the transition to a working democracy of sorts, problems remain to deny the country and its people the dignity they deserve. Indonesia remains a country on the verge of collapse, the great giant of Southeast Asia which increasingly looks like the sick man of the region; whose frail condition is matched only by the frailty of its other decrepit neighbours, Thailand and the Philippines.
That former President Soeharto has been given the chance to slip away is understandable considering the extent to which the old military elite of the Soeharto era have managed to preserve themselves. The countryâ€™s current President Bambang Susilo Yudhoyono is likewise a former general turned President, trained by the Americans and very much in the good books of Washington thanks to his willing role as an accomplice in the US-led â€˜global war on terrorâ€™. Yudhoyono was very much part and parcel of the Soeharto regime and served his president very well till close to the end, when he tactically allowed himself to be sidelined just before the pro-democracy movement took to the streets in mid-1998 following the East Asian economic crisis. Well placed, deeply embedded yet marginal enough to be saved the wrath of the public, he has managed to carve a place for himself in the convoluted and messy political terrain of post-Soeharto Indonesia.
Likewise other former military elites and aides to Soeharto have also managed to inch their way back into the countryâ€™s byzantine corridors of power. Notable among the old stalwards was General Hedropryono, once dubbed the â€˜butcher of Lampungâ€™ for his part in the bloody suppression of the Islamist movement in Lampung, South Sumatra. Just when other Indonesian officers like Generals Wiranto and Moerdani were being dragged to court for their part in the actrocities carried out in East Timor, Hendropryono found himself saved by the events following 11 September 2001 and was dubiously put in charge of anti-terrorism operations by none other than former President Megawati Sukarnoputri. Indonesian human rights groups were aghast by Megawatiâ€™s decision that betrayed a total neglect of local sensibilities and an all too evident desire to cozy up to Washington then.
Now that most of the old military and business elite are back in power, it would seem that the time is right to absolve Soeharto for the ills and mistakes that took place during his period in power. His defenders and supporters claim that he was in many ways a visionary, a man who took Indonesia from a dependent import-substitution economy to the status of an emerging â€˜Asian Tigerâ€™ economy in a space of two decades.
The defenders of Soeharto are certainly not wrong here: It remains a fact that Indonesia is a model of successful nation-building against impossible odds. In a archipelago made up of 14,000 islands it is a country where literacy is almost universal and where even in the most remote island or village there are post offices, clinics, schools, roads, communication facilities and the outreach of the state controlled media. Indonesiaâ€™s painful birth amidst an anti-colonial struggle and several subsequent civil wars persuaded many that it would be a failed state and go down the same path of failed states in Africa, yet that never happened.
But along with the laying down of the infrastructure of nation-building has come the centralizing logic of a maximalist state at the hands of a military elite whose understanding of democracy, civic and civil participation and popular representation remained rudimentary: Indonesia became a thoroughly depoliticised state by the time of the political reforms of the 1970s, and its economy grew thanks largely to the influx of foreign capital (much of it Japanese and American) thanks to the structural adjustment policies taken by the hand-picked â€˜Berkeley mafiaâ€™ of Soeharto, led by men like the German and American-trained B. J. Habiebie. Indonesiaâ€™s economic take off was thus not without its own costs, most notably in the form of the loss of political rights, press freedom and fundamental liberties.
It should not be forgotten that Soeharto was also one of the most vocal exponents of what was then known as the â€˜Asian valuesâ€™ school of thought, led by Lee Kuan Yew of Singapore, which argued that in Asia economic rights should come before political ones.
It was in the midst of this depoliticization process that Indonesia found her weath but lost her soul. The violent annexation of East Timor in 1974 showed that this former colony could herself become a colonizing power, and to impose the same colonial logic on other societies and states. The suppression of the peoplesâ€™ movement in East Timor remained and shall remain a blight on the record of Indonesia which has yet to be addressed and accounted for till now. Central to this crisis was Soeharto and his generals, who masterminded the annexation and the policies of pacification and resettlement that followed. In this respect Soeharto was not merely a dictator in his own country but also a coloniser of others.
Linked to the shameful conduct of Soeharto and his cronies is the equally shameful conduct of the more powerful Western statesâ€”notably the USA, Australia and Britainâ€”who aided and abbetted the Soeharto regime during the worst years of military rule and violent authoritarian government.
Americaâ€™s role in propping up Soeharto and promoting Indonesia as the â€˜bulwarkâ€™ against Communism in Asia ended only with the culmination of the Cold War in the West, which reduced Southeast Asia to a mere side-show of little import. Yet in this eastern corner of the world millions of lives were lost thanks to the realpolitik condiretations of technocrats and ideologues in Washington, all of whom were prepared to turn a blind eye to Soehartoâ€™s excesses as long as he stayed â€˜neutral on the side of the Westâ€™, like another crony of the region, Ferdinand Marcos.