It's been quite a long time since I wrote something longer than 400 words. But here it is now--about Soeharto--a towering figure indeed, although not necessarily somebody I looked up to ...
What kind of legacy did former president Soeharto leave behind for
He had always been opaque, detached, aloof, and calm. Unlike his extrovert predecessor Sukarno, it was never easy to read and interpret the General of the Army who passed away in
Probably that was also the reason that some adored him till the very end while others despised him. Some deemed him the country’s best president so far—as revealed by a survey conducted prior to his hospitalization on Jan. 4—while others considered him a ruthless ruler with bloody hands.
However, the fact is—for good or for bad—he was indeed a towering figure for the larger part of our life, even after he was toppled down by a popular revolt exactly 10 years ago.
Well, probably it is always the case with all great leaders. They have always been multi-faceted. The way we see them, actually also depends on how we interact with them. In the case of Soeharto, one facet would earn him the description he himself loved so much: Father of Development. Another one would be his bloody crackdown on the now defunct Indonesian Communist party (PKI) and its supporters. Between the two, there were also many other facets and all were—actually still are—open to various interpretations.
In other words, it is extremely difficult to pin down in one common term about the way Indonesians felt, or feel, about him.
But one thing for sure was his approach to ruling this sprawling and diverse country. It was nothing but a stern, yet benevolent father, who enjoyed delivering folksy advices and assistance to ordinary farmers, but would brook no criticism. A very paternalistic leadership style.
That’s why he could not take it when one criticized his immediate family circles for enriching themselves, even when they came from his closest aides. He simply turned a blind eye to his relatives' abuse of their connections to him to gain lucrative contracts and increasingly egregious deals. That’s why he could not stand opposition as well, because to him it was a challenge to his role as a father.
Following his fall, he became vulnerable to the “machinations” of his country’s elite politicians: his cabinet abandoned him and the military quarreled over who would take over. Ordinary people died in the crossfire and the students—who started all the calls for his resignation—were manipulated and then let down by the social climbers.
Even during his last hospitalization, he was still subjected to this machinations as evident from the request for pardons by even his harshest critics or from the demands that he was brought before the court for his sins by those who were not even “there” when pressures were mounting on him to relinquish his presidency back in 1998.
Therefore, the continuous pros and cons apparently will be his biggest legacy.
It is true that we have been able to conduct direct and free elections—something that Soeharto did not intend to develop during his 32 year rule—but such elections must also lead to the delivery of social justice. If not, then surely more and more people will look at Soeharto’s era with nostalgic feelings. Those were the days of peaceful time when rice was plentiful and beggars were few while poverty was cut from almost 60% in 1970 to 15% by 1990.
After he quit office, Soeharto was charged with embezzling hundreds of millions of US dollars in state funds, but four presidents after him—including Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono who made the fight against graft his campaign promise back in 2004—were all unable to bring him before the court because of health reasons.
Last year, state prosecutors filed a civil suit seeking US$440 million of state funds and a further US$1 billion in damages for the alleged misuse of money held by one of his charitable foundations but this legal case is still pending to this date.
The government, meanwhile has declared seven-days of mourning following the official announcement of his demise.
Hopefully, after the mourning period is over, it will also be able to steer the nation away from its current problems, mainly by putting and end to the endemic corruption at all levels of the society.