To progress, Indonesia must handle its past

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 23 May, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 23 May, 2007, 12:00am

Indonesia's former dictator Suharto symbolises the nation's ills. Nine years after his regime fell, he has not been prosecuted and is protected by corrupt elements of President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono's administration despite human rights abuses and enriching his family with billions of dollars of public money.

New attorney-general Hendarman Supandji is trying to change the ways of his predecessors, announcing on Monday the reopening of corruption investigations into Suharto's son, Tommy. While this is a gallant attempt to start the process of saving the country's rule of law from collapse, it will be meaningless as long as offences committed by those in high office and positions of privilege go unpunished.

Time and again, judicial corruption has meant the freedom Indonesians fought so hard for and won with Suharto's resignation has been denied. Military officers accused of atrocities have escaped justice; the murder in 2004 of the nation's foremost human rights advocate, Munir Said Thalib, remains unresolved; and the case of Tommy Suharto, found guilty in 2002 of ordering the killing of a Supreme Court judge who determined he had committed corruption, speaks volumes: he was jailed for 15 years, but inexplicably released after serving just one-third of the term.

Mr Hendarman has vowed to make amends and recover the hundreds of millions of dollars Tommy Suharto is accused of stealing. It must be remembered that the previous attorney-general, appointed after Mr Susilo won office in the country's first democratic presidential election in 2004 on a platform of solving corruption cases, also promised genuine action against graft.

This is not to imply that the new incumbent will follow suit; merely to point out that words and actions mean little in Indonesia as long as Mr Susilo fails to allow his attorney-general to have the powers to prosecute that the job entails. The judiciary has to similarly back his efforts with fairness and independence.

If Indonesia is to move confidently forward, it has to properly deal with its past. Tommy Suharto's case is a good starting point, but it must be the beginning of a much broader process.