Silence of the ruling brotherhood

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 02 February, 2008, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 02 February, 2008, 12:00am

In death, Indonesia's former president Suharto was praised as a great and almost saintly ruler. At the state funeral, President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono saluted the casket, one general to another, and declared: 'His service is an example to us.'

World leaders vied to praise the late dictator's contribution to building peace and prosperity. And I thought: was this the man also responsible for the deaths of so many people, for the turmoil, destruction and death in East Timor, and for corruption and kleptocracy on an unparalleled scale?

The truth is that in death, as in life, the regime of Suharto raises awkward questions for politicians, economists, professors, Indonesians, Asians and the rest of humanity. It raises questions for the elite club of world rulers: were they complicit in the excesses of his rule through their support, or their silence?

Lee Kuan Yew, former leader of Singapore and now minister mentor, visited the Indonesian leader on his death bed and lamented: 'I feel sad to see a very old friend with whom I had worked closely over the last 30 years, not really getting the honours that he deserves. He deserves recognition for what he did.

'The younger generations - both in Indonesia and in the world - do not remember where Indonesia started. I do. He gave Indonesia progress and development. He educated the population. He built roads and infrastructure. And from Sukarno's Konfrontasi and other foreign-policy excesses, he stabilised international relations, co-operated in Asean ... Today, we have a stable Southeast Asia.'

Mr Lee acknowledged that 'yes, there was corruption. Yes, he gave favours to his family and his friends. But there was real growth and real progress. I think the people of Indonesia are lucky. They had a general in charge, they had a team of competent administrators - including a very good team of economists to build up the country.'

Japan's prime minister, Yasuo Fukuda, was more restrained, but expressed 'heartfelt sorrow on behalf of the Japanese government and people'. Other Southeast Asian leaders gave thanks for Suharto's life. Kevin Rudd, of Australia, was more measured and put the standard argument for a benign view of the Suharto era: 'Until the catastrophic Asian financial crisis of 1997, he oversaw a period of significant economic growth and modernisation at a time when Indonesia faced fundamental political, social and economic challenges.'

I never met Suharto, but I did know most members of the so-called 'Berkeley Mafia', the technocrats responsible for the economic success that Suharto claimed as his own.

Suharto was a difficult person to read. Although most of Indonesia's 235 million people are Muslims, it is a religion influenced by its rich past of Buddhism, Hinduism, colonialism and a strong belief in the powers of the spirit world. Suharto deliberately cloaked himself in much of this mysticism.

He came to power as the beneficiary of the bloodbath that led to the toppling of founding president Sukarno. He mysteriously escaped the slaughter of other generals in what was billed as a failed leftist coup. In the crackdown on communists, leftists and others who did not fit in, between 500,000 and 1 million people died. Suharto avoided responsibility, even though he was head of the army, and soldiers carried out atrocities.

He took over a sprawling, divided, impoverished country and turned it, ruthlessly and brooking no opposition, into a relatively stable nation that survived his brutal adventure in East Timor.

Suharto's Indonesia won plaudits from economists as a developing country that was really prospering and developing - until its economic policies were called into question in the 1997 Asian financial crisis. A year later, Suharto fell, two months into his seventh five-year term.

He presided over, but could not claim personal credit for, the economic policy that saw growth rates soar. His chief economic adviser, Widjojo Nitisastro, and his team sought a liberal, deregulated economy, and there will always be criticism of whether the policies led to the growing income gaps.

But the technocrats were undermined and undercut. Throughout the time when they were supposedly running the economy, they had to contend with political and economic nationalists - or else Suharto's golfing buddies who had the president's ear.

And then there was the corruption. Even in her lifetime, Indonesians called Suharto's wife, Tien, 'Madame Tien Percent'. When she died in 1996, their children were unconstrained and became multibillionaires.

Suharto institutionalised corruption; not just a sliver here and there, but big deals to family and friends, and favours for a whole raft of businesses.

The awkward questions remain: how many people must die to allow a ruler to become a strong ruler? How many freedoms must be curtailed in the name of stability?

For fellow dictators, Suharto's last sad years should be a lesson; it is worth remembering Lord Acton's dictum that 'power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely'. What is power worth? You cannot take your wealth with you, and whether it is the judgment of God or of history that you fear, your sins will find you out.

Members of the elite club of rulers should ask whether their support or turning a blind eye to abuses of power mean they are guilty of complicity in corruption, terror or atrocities. It is easy to shrug off responsibility and ask: 'Am I my brother's keeper?' (But they should remember the circumstances of that denial - by Cain to God after he had killed his brother.)

Indonesia and Asia - and even Suharto himself - would have been better off if his brother rulers had dared to speak out and encourage him to restrain his excesses and his corrupt friends. Indonesia has picked itself up but has not fully recovered. It remains a fragile country with too many fault lines that prevent it from fully tapping its immense riches, both natural and human.

Kevin Rafferty is a political commentator