FRONTLINE/World [home]

Search FRONTLINE/World

FRONTLINE/World Dispatches

Dispatches

reactions

categories

Dispatches

Editors' Notes

Pakistan Blog

iWitness

 

recent posts

Interview With Sharmeen Obaid-Chinnoy

Pakistan's Taliban Generation

Bangladesh: The Mystery of a Mutiny

Afghanistan: A Hard Fight

Cambodia: Confronting Its Past

Pakistan: An Unsettling Peace

Zimbabwe: A Harsh Reality

Virtual Gitmo: Human Rights in Second Life

At Siemens, Bribery Was Just a Line Item

Mumbai: Eyewitness to the Attack

 

archives

April 2009

March 2009

February 2009

January 2009

December 2008

November 2008

October 2008

September 2008

August 2008

July 2008

June 2008

May 2008

April 2008

March 2008

February 2008

January 2008

December 2007

November 2007

October 2007

September 2007

August 2007

July 2007

June 2007

May 2007

April 2007

March 2007

February 2007

January 2007

December 2006

November 2006

October 2006

September 2006

August 2006

July 2006

June 2006

May 2006

April 2006

March 2006

February 2006

January 2006

December 2005

November 2005

October 2005

September 2005

August 2005

July 2005

June 2005

May 2005

 

RSS Feeds

Suharto: Death of a Dictator

Suharto.

Suharto pictured in 1998, the year of his resignation following international pressure. [Image: Creative Commons]

Editor's Note: For those with long memories, the death this week of Indonesia's former strongman, Suharto, recalls one of the darkest chapters of the Cold War era, in which a million or more Indonesians were killed in 1965 and 1966 during Suharto's rise to power. Though dramatized in the 1983 movie, "The Year of Living Dangerously," these mass executions, mainly of alleged communists, are a subject Indonesia's military and politicians prefer to ignore.

In this commentary on Suharto's legacy, FRONTLINE/World reporter Orlando de Guzman -- who covered Indonesia's war in Aceh for us last year -- writes that Indonesia's failure to come to terms with its violent past has left intact a military establishment that has never fully accepted civilian rule.

Until now, Indonesia had never seen a state funeral that approached the grandeur and choreography of the burial offered to General Suharto, the country's second president who died Sunday at the age of 86. Two battalions of special forces troops in red berets were sent to the city of Solo to stand guard as his body was taken from the airport to a Javanese palace. School children were let out from classes to wave at the passing coffin of a leader their generation never knew. The local media provided live, 24-hour coverage, occasionally cutting away to sentimental documentaries reminiscent of the ex-dictator's old propaganda films.

Indonesia's current president, Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, announced that seven days of national mourning would be held across this sprawling archipelago of 235 million people. President Bush offered his condolences, and the U.S. ambassador to Jakarta, Cameron Hume, declared, "Although there may be some controversy over his legacy, President Suharto was an historic figure who left a lasting imprint on Indonesia and the region."

I wonder if Hume's diplomatic understatement -- perhaps in deference to Indonesia's role as an ally against communism, and now terrorism -- was meant to distance Washington's infamous support for one of the world's most brutal and corrupt tyrants.

I wonder if Hume's diplomatic understatement -- perhaps in deference to Indonesia's role as an ally against communism, and now terrorism -- was meant to distance Washington's infamous support for one of the world's most brutal and corrupt tyrants.

The mainstream reaction to Suharto's death -- both within Indonesia and its allies in the West -- illustrates how history is written by those who win it.

The last time Indonesia buried a former president was in 1970. But there were no grand honors then, no elaborate funeral rites. Sukarno, Indonesia's first president, was overthrown in a 1965 coup, after which General Suharto took power and condemned his predecessor to isolation. Sukarno died in 1970 in obscurity. No state official came to pay tribute to Indonesia's founding president -- a freedom fighter who led the country's independence movement against the Dutch.

Sukarno was denied burial at the cemetery for national heroes in Jakarta. Instead, he was laid to rest next to his mother in impoverished East Java. Back then, Sukarno's supporters were still cowering in fear.

FRONTLINE/World correspondent, Orlando de Guzman, reporting from Aceh for the June 2007 broadcast story, "After the Wave."

That's because one of the 20th century's worst blood-lettings -- the massacre in 1965-66 of an estimated 1 million suspected communist sympathizers -- was still fresh in the minds of many Indonesians.

Suharto took control of the country after six of its top generals were killed in September 30, 1965 and unleashed his armed forces against suspected enemies in Java, Bali, Sumatra and Kalimantan.

The Indonesian Communist Party was officially blamed for the death of the generals during the attempted coup. For years to come, much of the legitimacy of Suharto's New Order regime rested on this interpretation. But few academics now believe this version. Historian Benedict Anderson at Cornell University has provided convincing evidence that the coup had more to do with an internal power struggle within the army. Whoever was behind it, the coup of 1965 quickly polarized the country, and offered a chance for Gen. Suharto to assume power.

Suharto established his regime by launching a war against Indonesia's past, obliterating Sukarno's Indonesia, which, in the eyes of some Western diplomats, was leaning precipitously toward communism.

Suharto established his regime by launching a war against Indonesia's past, obliterating Sukarno's Indonesia, which had stood up to the West, and in the eyes of some Western diplomats, was leaning precipitously toward communism. It was a war that many perpetrators of the massacres likened to the Bharatayudha, the ultimate battle of good versus evil in the Indian epic Mahabharata. Military-backed militias rampaged through the countryside, bludgeoning, raping, torturing and executing anyone suspected of being a communist.

Geoffrey Robinson, in his book "The Dark Side of Paradise," describes the killings as a "civil-military operation" where military officers instructed villagers to arrest, torture, and kill suspected communists. Suharto's military provided the logistics for the mass killings, Robinson contends.

The massacres of 1965 and 1966, and Suharto's role in the mass killings, are issues that no Indonesian political leader has dared to reopen. A three-and-a-half-hour Suharto-era propaganda film called "The Mutiny of the Communist Movement of September the 30th" claims to be the final say on the matter. It shows gory scenes of communists mutilating army officers. My Indonesian friends say it was required viewing for every school-age child.

The massacres of 1965 and 1966, and Suharto's role in the mass killings, are issues that no Indonesian political leader has dared to reopen.

Before Suharto's death, despite the reluctance of the political elite, the National Human Rights Commission was preparing to reopen criminal investigations into Suharto's role in the 1965 massacres. But the Indonesian military, whose officers Suharto groomed as instruments of his power, has long blocked any attempts at investigating the past.

At his office at the Human Rights Commission in Jakarta, I met Yoseph Adi Prasetyo, a spectacled former student activist and respected journalist. He opened a file with reams of dusty intelligence manuals, each page codified in Indonesian-language bureaucratese that classified who was a "state enemy" and needed to be eliminated, and who were merely "agitators" and needed to be imprisoned. Every directive was signed off by Suharto.

On his desk, a 900-page human rights report detailed the killings of students during Suharto's rule from 1966 until 1998 when he was forced to step down by mass protests.

"That's just the first volume," says Prasetyo. "The second volume is over a thousand pages."

No one of any significance has been prosecuted for these crimes.

Suharto has left behind a culture of impunity that has settled deep within the tissue of the military and police. The military bureaucracy that Suharto built has long resisted internal reforms meant to weaken their role in politics.

"The military have not yet fully accepted civilian rule," Indonesia's leading human rights activist, Munir Said Thalib, told me in an interview weeks before he was poisoned to death on a flight from Jakarta to Amsterdam aboard Indonesia state airline, Garuda, in 2004.

Munir was one of the loudest critics of the Indonesian military. Just two days before Suharto's death, Munir's killer, a Garuda pilot, was sentenced to 20 years in prison. Munir's wife, Suciwati, says the real masterminds of the killings are still sitting in their offices at BIN, Indonesia's National Intelligence Agency.

"We are not ready for democracy," the Chief of the Indonesian Armed Forces Djoko Santoso exclaimed last week, after recent election disputes turned violent in southern Sulawesi and Maluku provinces. He said the conflicts could endanger national unity -- and that it was the military's job to restore peace.

Many who study the Indonesian military have pointed out that its Suharto-era core structure has not been dismantled. Known as the "territorial command," it allows the military to maintain a parallel, quasi-government structure that shadows civilian rule. Suharto debauched every democratic institution he touched, and put in place a military that still believes and acts as if it is superior to civilians.

"The implication for Indonesian politics are worth considering," warns Geoffrey Robinson, in his book "because to the extent that Indonesia's military-bureaucratic state has been successful in undermining local state structures, in Bali as in elsewhere, turmoil or collapse at the center may well imply widespread political violence in the hinterland." Robinson was talking about the wholesale killings in Bali in 1965, but this pattern of violence has become painfully obvious in the post-Suharto conflicts in Sulawesi, Moluku, Aceh and Papua.

Many will remember Suharto for his economic achievements, and they were significant. With its substantial natural resources -- oil, timber, gold -- Indonesia has a thriving economy. But he has left behind an Indonesia that seems permanently unable to reconcile with its violent past, and is perhaps doomed to repeat it.

Orlando de Guzman is a FRONTLINE/World reporter, based until recently in Indonesia. His June 2007 broadcast story, "After the Wave," reported about the aftermath of the tsunami and decades of fighting in Indonesia's Aceh region.