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Between Soeharto, Gus Dur & No Regrets: A Trio Of Very Different Books

South China Morning Post
15 October 2002
Vaudine England

A TRIO OF VERY different books have been released in Jakarta this year – a rare biography of former president Suharto, an authorized biography of the more recent former president Abdurahman Wahid and ripping yarn called No Regrets by Wahid’s former spokesman Wimar Witoelar.

Professor R E Elson from Brisbane’s Griffith University notes in his preface to Suharto, A Political Biography (Cambridge University Press $ 448) that Indonesians have an ambivalent attitude to their own history, often not wanting to know. In the case of Suharto, it seems the deep wounds inflicted by his rule are so fresh that many are unwilling to confront the facts.

Initial reactions from Indonesians academics to Elson’s work appear to suggest this is true. Elson is accused of “defending” Suharto instead of “understanding” him and local media has puzzled over Elson’s view that Suharto did not plan the alleged coup attempt of September 30, 1965, which swept him to power, and that he has no hidden wealth in his own name.

Elson is an academic who does not live in Indonesia. Unsurprisingly, he was never granted an interview with the man himself – although he did manage to gain entry to the Suharto family home. He shows a strong focus on documentation, difficult approach to maintain in the nuances world of personal politics in Indonesia.

But this is the true benefit of his biography. Surprising though it may seem, there simply has been no solid, serious, objective biography of Suharto before Elson dared to produce this definitive, balanced to me. Others are coming, but this is a vital and comprehensive reference work which, judging by local critiques, is considerably ahead of its time.

The plodding, cautious, opportunist farmer’s boy we meet in Elson’s pages is not lurid, vicious or greedy enough to keep some readers happy, nor will some even tolerate the notion of neutrality in the same sentence as Suharto.

Elson’s painstaking attempts to keep the examination of his subject clean of political bias are not found in the other two books out this year shrugged off that setback and now admits on the title page this is an “authorised” biography.

But what is seen by some as Barton’s weak point – his closeness to Gus Dur – is also this book’s strength. In contrast to Elson, Barton got up close and personal, virtually living in days, after years of staying and traveling with him, helping out, interpreting for him and iving his unstinting political support.

Whatever controversies such an approach might spark, anyone wanting to understand Gus Dur’s presidency better should read this book. (Where else could one learn that the “fervent Christian law worker” who joined others in seeing Wahid from the palace, actually used Eternity perfume to anoir her Muslim president, rather than holy oil?)

Wimar Witoelar’s No Regrets (Equinox Publishing ) is smaller and handier than both Elson and Barton’s books, not least because the author is an Indonesian who already had a high public profile – as talk show host, early radical and member of an ambitious family – and who was officialy in the belly of beast which was the Wahid presidency.

Wimar is personality in his own right and choice to join Wahid’s team probably helped the latter’s image a lot more than it helped Wimar’s.

Here was a big man with big hair, explaining that no matter what Wahid’s faults obviously were, he was the nation’s best hope for reform and therefore had to be supported.

Wimar’s style as spokesman was part of his persona. He was famous for his witty, frank fluency and for cracking jokes at the same time as admitting his boss was probably unfit for office. His book naturally background to new readers on Indonesia.

Paradoxically, behind all the backstabbing over the academic books, it is Wimar as an icon of radical chic who now appears the least objective about Wahid. He sees the fall of Wahid as “premeditated political murder” by a venal elite – a statement which cannot be faulted, but could be accompanied by some admissions about how Wahid helped along own fall.

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