Indonesia: Remembering Suharto

He ruled with an iron grip for a generation then spent the last decade of his life dodging prosecution for alleged human-rights crimes and corruption. On Sunday, Indonesia's former strongman Suharto, once one of Asia's most influential leaders, died peacefully in a Jakarta hospital from multiple organ failure. He was 86.

Indonesia's reaction to the passing of its longest-ruling president was muted, and paradoxical. During the final weeks of his life, elder statesmen from across the region paraded past Suharto's sickbed to pay their respects. Yet several prominent domestic visitors emerged from Jakarta's Pertamina Hospital to declare that official investigations into alleged extrajudicial killings and ill-gotten family wealth should proceed even after the former strongman's death. From the halls of power to the streets, Indonesians praise today's democratic system without
vilifying the leader ousted in a student-led uprising back in 1998. Suharto "made mistakes," said former president Abdurrahman Wahid, who was democratically elected and held the nation's highest office from 1999-2001. "But he also did a great service to the nation."

Suharto loyalists credit him for rescuing the country and, by extension, greater Southeast Asia from chaos in the mid-1960s by establishing what the strident cold warrior himself called a "New Order." Its aim: build a modern, unified, anti-communist Indonesia. Its salient features included political repression of most dissent, discrimination against the country's ethnic Chinese merchant-class, virulent nationalism and a strong military hand in politics. In all, Suharto served seven terms as president and remained Indonesia's supreme leader for more than 32 years before being forced to resign after mass street demonstrations engulfed the capital Jakarta amidst the 1997-98 Asian financial crisis.

Ten years on, democracy has put down such firm roots in Indonesia that the post-Suharto political transition is largely complete. "The real story is that his death will have virtually no political impact," says Douglas Ramage, head of the Asia Foundation in Jakarta. "The country is so dynamic, and has gotten so much right in the past few years, that [Suharto's passing] is being greeted with a collective yawn."

Many Westerners know the backdrop to Suharto's rise from Peter Weir's 1982 film "The Year of Living angerously," a romance between an Aussie journalist and a British diplomat (played by Mel Gibson and Sigourney Weaver, respectively) set in Jakarta in 1965. That year, following an abortive communist uprising, Suharto led a military clique that deposed Indonesia's founding father and left-leaning "President for Life" Sukarno. In the months that followed, soldiers and vigilante groups loyal to the new regime massacred as many as a million communist sympathizers in what Goenawan Mohamad, founding editor of Tempo magazine and opposition figure during Suharto's rule, considers "the greatest violence to have ever occurred in the archipelago."

The ledger on Suharto's reign is long and contentious.

In the positive columns, he held together a fractious empire spanning three time zones, containing more than 17,000 islands and speaking hundreds of languages. He also took measures to ensure that the world's largest Muslim country by population remained secular. One was to promote rapid development with new ports, roadways, mines and manufacturing zones that by 1990 had turned the impoverished nation into a budding "tiger" economy. Until its rotten underpinnings were exposed, Indonesia's growth model was hailed as a blueprint for the rest of the developing world. In 1996, the International Monetary Fund included Indonesia in its list of top 10 emerging economies, lauding its 8 percent annual growth.

Regionally, Suharto's dictatorship removed Indonesia as a potential source of turmoil, allowing vulnerable neighbors Singapore and Malaysia to develop into economic dynamos. His commitment to regional cooperation led to the creation of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN). "When Indonesia got its act together, the whole region dodged a bullet," says Ramage.

On the negative side, Suharto condoned cronyism on a monumental scale; his relatives amassed a fortune estimated at $15 billion to $35 billion before their patriarch left office. In the 1997-98 Asian financial crisis, Indonesia's currency collapsed, its export machine sputtered and the government was forced to accept a humiliating IMF bailout; 10 years later, the scars of that downturn are still fresh. On the political front, Suharto's intolerance of dissent stunted democratic development and fanned sectarian discontent. Under his guidance, the Tentara Nasional Indonesia (TNI), or national armed forces, imposed reigns of terror on separatists
from Aceh on the northwest tip of Sumatra to the provinces of Papua and West Papua (Indonesia's half of New Guinea) on the Coral Sea.

The bloodiest military actions took place after the TNI invaded East Timor, a small former Portuguese colony with a population of 650,000, in 1975. Indonesia annexed it a year later. During the 24 years Jakarta ruled the territory, according to Amnesty International, some 200,000 Timorese died in fighting or from conflict-related illnesses and starvation. After Suharto's departure, citizens in East Timor voted overwhelmingly for independence and, under intense international pressure, the TNI pulled out. A United Nations-sponsored peacekeeping force remains on the ground in independent East Timor, which ranks among the world's poorest nations.

Forecasts that Indonesia would fracture without a strongman at its helm proved wrong. Democracy has flourished despite a series of weak presidents and unstable political parties that coalesce and dissolve around charismatic personalities more than policy positions or ideals. The military is largely out of politics, courts are growing more independent and Indonesia's media is arguably ASEAN's freest. President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono has won praise for his economic reforms and handling of the 2005 tsunami, including a breakthrough peace deal brokered with rebels in Aceh just months after nearly 200,000 Indonesians perished in the province when the giant waves hit.

Yet democracy remains messy business in Indonesia, and Suharto's passing has evoked tinges of nostalgia. "To be frank, I really regret that he had to step down, and I was among those who wanted him to," says Mahmudin, a motorcycle-taxi driver in Jakarta. "I did not know that life would get harder and it would be more difficult to make living."

In a country of 230 million with one of Asia's highest poverty rates, it's not surprising that, 40 years on, Suharto is best remembered at home and abroad for the economic prosperity and stability he pledged to his people and, for a time, delivered.