The day that Sukarno died

09 June 2013


January 4, 2009

by Wimar Witoelar


I just happened to come across this piece as I was browsing. Thought you might like to share this


It was June 21, 1970, and I was riding a taxi from Jakarta airport after completing a tour of the United States as a student leader. This was a program made available to Indonesian students by the Suharto government as Indonesia came out of isolation imposed by Sukarno. The streets were quiet and I asked the taxi driver why. He said in a neutral voice that Sukarno had just passed away. I was silent with mixed emotions. For four years our student movement had been urging Suharto to take charge of the country. Now Sukarno’s death made the process irrevocable. There was a feeling of passage, and in fact an anticlimax. Sukarno’s death was a low-key event; nobody talked about it, because Sukarno had disappeared ever since Suharto took over power in 1966. Nobody even knew where he was; it was not even clear where he died or how long he was critically ill. Suharto had never visited him in the five years since Sukarno effectively lost power, and the media never ran stories on him.


Suharto was the hero of the student movement as we started our political honeymoon. From 1966 to 1970 numerous seminars and rallies celebrated the new freedom. Little did we know that the democratic honeymoon would be short. Soon the New Order was introduced and democracy was subordinated to a system of power and control which would keep Suharto in power for three decades. Suharto’s New Order was, if not a police state certainly a policed one, with everything kept in check—political parties, religious (especially Islamic) groups, activists and dissidents, writers and artists.


I moved on to become a university lecturer with close contact with students, and supported a 1978 movement calling for the dismissal of Suharto. This landed me in political detention and came out subdued. But long practice in talking to people turned me into a television talk show host in 1993. The show was mild-mannered but clear in its values of free speech. We were banned in 1994, but that in fact rallied public support and we were swept by the wave of reform that finally brought Suharto down in 1998.


Suharto died on Jan. 27, 2008 in a circus atmosphere. For days before his death people milled around the hospital. Television crews jostled for camera space while news anchors played up the melodrama. It was like opera, with tragedy and comedy served up in equal parts. The tragedy of death, and the comedy of dignitaries past and present and sundry celebrities falling over themselves for a piece of the global spotlight.


Without doubt, the story of Suharto is grand opera: a village boy who grows up into an army general, then acquires absolute power in the wake of a mysterious communist coup and military counter-coup. Historians say those tumultuous days in the fall of 1965 sparked half a million murders, and that Suharto and his soldiers were responsible. We did not know about the massacres. If we heard about it, we refused to believe it. And if we believed it, we thought it was justified. It was kill or be killed when it came to the communists. You were either for them or against them. We chose freedom against communism. And we witnessed complete regime change.


There is no sense of regime change with Suharto’s death. He had been out of power, and practically out of sight, living quietly in a residential area in central Jakarta, for nearly 10 years. But he was not a forgotten man, when he should have been. That says much about who he was and what he stood for. Suharto was truly seen as the ‘Bapak Pembangunan’ (father of development) espousing a philosophy of economic development and a closed political system to support it—a model of governance that was once the rule in much of Asia. During his nearly 33 years in power, Suharto seemed to have forged a paternalistic pact with the people of Indonesia which went like this: I will build infrastructure, raise income levels, reduce poverty, battle disease and illiteracy and provide stability, and you will let me run the country as my personal fiefdom. Other leaders have made that same deal, but no one ever implemented it on such a large scale—Indonesia is the world’s fourth most populous nation—for so long and with so much success. But the end result of failure is what counts.


Suharto was not forgotten for another reason: the attempts at political reform since he left have not produced tangible improvement in the daily lives of the people. Indonesia has been reborn as a young democracy, but because Suharto did not establish durable civic institutions, that democracy is messy enough for many Indonesians to pine for stability which Suharto’s New Order once ensured.


The post-Suharto lifting of press censorship revealed the bankruptcy of governance and a business system totally destroyed by cronyism and corruption. Movements to demand accountability from Suharto were started soon after he stepped down. However, attempts to bring Suharto to trial were thwarted. Efforts to find justice for students killed during the uprising in 1998—which forced Suharto to resign—seem to be forever hidden under the rug.


Suharto’s eldest daughter, Siti Hardiyanti Rukmana, who was a member of her father’s last cabinet, said after his death: “If he committed mistakes, we hope all are willing to forgive him.” But no one has the right to forgive Suharto other than his victims, and God. There needed to be some sort of reckoning for Suharto, not necessarily for the sake of justice or revenge, but because a young democracy like Indonesia needs to have a sense of what is right and what is wrong. Because Suharto did both good and evil, the distinction has been blurred. Yes, the economy grew during Suharto’s rule, but so did corruption and abuse of power.


Indonesia’s self-respect, and self-confidence, has been hurt as a result. More than anything else, that is Suharto’s legacy.

About these ads

Print article only


« Home