the giant of modern Indonesia who left a legacy of violence and corruption
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Soeharto was the giant of modern Indonesia.
For many Indonesians, his resignation in 1998 after 32 years in power is still a turning point. Much of what has happened since has been a backlash against his reign, or an attempt to recreate it.
Despite his death in 2008 at the age of 86, the legacy of the authoritarian “New Order” regime of Soeharto continues to deeply shape his country, for better and, often, for worse.
The beginnings of the bamboo hut
Soeharto’s rise to become the billionaire autocrat of the world’s fourth most populous country would have seemed highly unlikely as a child.
Born in 1921 in a bamboo hut in the Dutch East Indies, he had 11 half-siblings. He joined the Dutch Colonial Army in 1940 because he ripped his only set of clothes and had to quit his office job.
The Japanese invasion in 1942 drove out the Dutch and Indonesia declared its independence at the end of World War II. But the Dutch returned to reclaim their colonial empire at the end of 1945 and Soeharto joined Indonesian forces fighting for independence. He got up quickly and ended the war as a senior officer, but allegations of corruption saw Soeharto being beaten aside in the 1950s.
Take control of the army
The Dutch transferred sovereignty to Indonesia in 1949 and a liberal democratic system was put in place. But this was quickly crippled by internal political struggles and regional rebellions.
In 1959, it had been replaced – with the blessing of the army – by the dictatorship of “guided democracy” of the first Indonesian president Soekarno, the charismatic “proclaimer of independence”.
However, the military now felt threatened by the three million members of the Indonesian Communist Party (PKI), the largest in the world outside of China and Russia. Fearing the growing mass support of the PKI, the military began to to prepare for a confrontation.
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Tensions rose and on the evening of September 30, 1965, a group of leftist officers killed the army chief and five other senior commanders, announcing a seizure of power to prevent a right-wing coup.
Historians have long wondered why Soeharto (then a major general and commander of key strategic reserve forces in Jakarta) remained unscathed from the violence, and some believe he was involved in the plot. Admittedly, he seems to have been in contact with plotters before the killings. Either way, he exploited events with great cunning, rushing to take control of the military and crush the attempted coup.
Presenting it to the public as a larger PKI plot to seize power, he launched the systematic “”root and branch”Extermination of the Communist Party.
A bloodbath ensued, as the army, with the help of militias, slaughtered at least 500,000 suspected leftists and detained around a million more. The left was wiped out in Indonesia and never recovered.
Take control of the country
These horrific events have been glorified as the founding myth of the New Order, and the killers – many of whom have become the new ruling elite – still enjoy complete impunity.
Within six months, Soeharto had overthrown Soekarno. When troops surrounded his palace in March 1966, Soekarno fled to the hills outside of Jakarta. Soeharto sent three generals after him, who obtained a transfer of presidential powers, possibly at gunpoint.
Under its new president, Indonesia quickly made a dramatic left-to-right Cold War U-turn – away from the “Beijing-Pyonyang-Hanoi-Phnom Phen-Jakarta” axis of Soekarno, to the United States. .
Despite initial promises of a return to the rule of law, the new regime turned out to be a repressive military-bureaucratic autocracy, with soldiers penetrating all levels of society, from politics and business to villages. Their role was mainly surveillance and intimidation, but the Soeharto regime was always ready to use brute force if it felt really threatened.
Soeharto maintained his position by institutionalizing corruption and ultimately stacking the legislature. It tightly controlled the three authorized political parties and imposed strict controls on the media. He was notoriously able to predict his inevitable electoral victories to within a few percentage points.
“The Jakarta Method”
Soeharto has been enthusiastically received in the west.
The United States, which colluded in the extermination of the PKI, provided aid and military support to the new Indonesia. For them, Indonesia has shown a better way to ‘stop the dominoes’ (based on the now low-key theory that a communist government in a nation sees communist takeovers in neighboring states).
Instead of risking American boots on the ground – as in Korea and Vietnam – local communist movements could be stopped by helping local military and right-wingers seize power. As the journalist Vincent Bevins showed in his recent book, Soeharto’s example became known as the “Jakarta Method”, motivating US covert operations across Latin America in the years that followed.
However, Western support is undeniable, and Soeharto’s decisions to open Indonesia to foreign investment and to follow the advice of US-trained technocrats (known as the “Berkeley Mafia”) have also paid spectacular dividends. for Indonesia.
Under Soeharto, poverty fell from 45% in 1970 to 11% in 1996, life expectancy fell from 47 in 1966 to 67 in 1997, and infant mortality was reduced by 60%. Its family planning program, although often repressive, has been hailed as a success. Likewise, in 1983, the primary school enrollment rate was 90% and the education gap between boys and girls almost closed.
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No other Indonesian president has presided over such a dramatic improvement in economic conditions. In 1983, the legislature gave Soeharto the title of “Father of Development,” and in 1985, the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations awarded him a gold medal for helping Indonesia to achieve self-sufficiency in rice.
A few years later, the banking sector is deregulated. The number of banks increased by half between 1989 and 1991 alone, and more foreign funds poured in.
Great wealth … and corruption
Certainly, some of this vast new wealth has seeped into the poor. GDP per capita grew up from US $ 806 (A $ 1,119) to US $ 4,114 (A $ 5,712) between 1966 and 1997, and a new middle class began to emerge.
However, much of the money has remained firmly in the hands of the ruling elite, thanks to corruption. Bribes, large sums from official budgets, and huge bribe revenues were paid to “charitable” foundations controlled by Soeharto, who then paid to ensure the support of the community. elite regime.
This system, describe by Indonesian academic Ross McLeod as a sophisticated franchise system, has been key to keeping Soeharto in power for so long, regardless of calls for change.
Soeharto came from a broken family, and it is often claimed that his great weakness was his inability to say “no” to his six children. Certainly, the “Cendana family” (named after the street where the Soeharto precinct was located) has become synonymous with rapacious greed. Granted strategic monopolies, including in cloves, toll roads and the national car project, the family had a stranglehold on the booming economy.
In 1998, Transparency International claimed that the family had accumulated over US $ 30 billion.
Collapse and ‘Reformasi’
Despite its immense power, the seemingly unassailable Soeharto regime collapsed with surprising speed when the Asian financial crisis hit in 1997. The currency fell rapidly from Rp. 2,600, eventually reaching around Rp 20,000 per US dollar. . Indonesian borrowers could not repay foreign currency loans and around 80% of listed companies and banks were soon insolvent. The IMF intervened by raising interest rates to 70%.
Soeharto again won a rigged election in March 1998, but to no avail. Students occupied the legislative building, demanding “reformasi,” and growing political tension was accompanied by riots, often targeting ethnic Chinese. In May 1998, as smoke from burning shopping malls enveloped his stranded capital, he resigned on a live television broadcast.
Over the next decade, leaders of the “Reformasi” movement gradually demolished every pillar of the New Order in an attempt to build Indonesia’s second liberal democratic system. In response, Soeharto’s pals tightened ranks around the elderly recluse, protecting him from trial until his death in 2008.
The ghost remains
The ghost of Soeharto was shown to be restless. Most of the New Order’s elite survived its downfall with their power and wealth largely intact. His children are still extremely wealthy businessmen, and no one has ever been tried for the 1965 massacres.
In fact, many major political figures were powerful today under the New Order. To name just two, former President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, was a New Order general, while Soeharto’s former son-in-law, Prabowo Subianto, who is said to have kidnapped and tortured anti-regime activists in 1998, is now Minister of Defense.
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It also remains to be seen whether Soeharto’s authoritarianism is really gone for good. Many observers agree that Indonesia’s fragile democracy now seems increasingly threatened under current President Joko Widodo.
There have been repeated calls for “Pak Harto” to be officially recognized as a national hero. For many young Indonesians who have never known the repression of the New Order, the reign of Soeharto now seems a nostalgic period of stability, security and prosperity.
Many suspect that the ruling elite might be very happy with a return to a system like the one Soeharto perfected. Some even fear working there now.