Ghosts of Suharto era must now be laid to rest

PUBLISHED : Monday, 28 January, 2008, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 28 January, 2008, 12:00am

Dictators, for all their power and determination, are in the end no mightier than the next person. Suharto, who ruled Indonesia with an iron fist until violent protests forced him aside a decade ago, clearly showed that. He died yesterday afternoon, a frail old man, succumbing to nature as we all one day must regardless of wealth or connections.

For years we followed Suharto's struggle to overcome health problems. All the while we knew that he was only mortal, but still there was his record of having been among Asia's most powerful people that made us think he was different. He was not, of course. Multiple organ failure claimed his life at the age of 86.

Appropriately, given his age and former status, his demise has been met with decorum from officials and governments. But the debate about his legacy lives on, with critics of his corruption, cronyism, nepotism and abuse of human rights calling for justice, and others saying it is time for forgiveness.

A lack of transparency and the passing of time has made determining a legacy difficult. Much remains unknown about how he came to power in 1965 by leading a military effort to put down a coup blamed on communist forces. Over the next four years, more than 1 million communists, trade unionists and critics were reportedly killed or disappeared. The following year, his assumption of the presidency from Indonesia's founding father, Sukarno, began a consolidation of power that had him repeatedly re-elected until the Asian financial crisis of 1997 and his fall from grace.

By that time, he and his family and associates had allegedly amassed interests permeating almost every sector of Indonesia's economy. Foreigners wanting to do business had to get their approval. In 2004, Transparency International, a global group dedicated to fighting corruption, put Suharto's personal worth at between US$15 billion and US$35 billion. His six children are counted as among the country's wealthiest people.

Suharto's biggest achievement was holding together a nation of diverse ethnic and religious groups. Where there had been poverty, he built economic growth, markedly improving lives until the financial turmoil of 1997 led to a reversal. His speedy resignation was necessary and he complied. Indonesia has not looked back.

The nation now has Asia's most vibrant democracy and a media that is among the freest. Ethnic Chinese, who previously could not practise their culture, have had it returned. But some of the biggest flaws of Suharto's regime remain. A lack of transparency, poor rule of law and corruption still hamper development. Until they are properly dealt with, economic and social growth will remain stunted.

The heart of the problem is laying to rest the ghosts of the Suharto era. Legal efforts to do so have been thwarted by lawyers, who have used his poor health as grounds for cases to be dropped. Only one remains, and even that appears to be in jeopardy, as Indonesian law stipulates that those who have died cannot face trial.

It is easy for outsiders to take the moral high ground that accountability for Suharto's crimes must not be allowed to die with him. Yet the emergence of calls for forgiveness is a sign that certain segments of the Indonesian political and judicial establishment feel that it is time to put aside the past, as the nation cannot afford the costs of reopening old wounds. In deciding whether to go after those who wrongly profited from Suharto's orders, Indonesia's current leaders may want to remember that abiding by the rule of law is the best means of demonstrating zero tolerance of corruption.