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Jeffrey A. Winters: Indonesia's Suharto  Tapol
 Jan 29, 2008 08:21 PST 




January 29, 2008

Indonesia's Suharto

by Jeffrey A. Winters, Northwestern University

As fallen dictators go, Indonesia's Suharto fared rather well at
his death. President Yudhoyono, one of Suharto's top generals,
announced his passing to the nation in dignified tones and
attended his burial with full state honors.

Southeast Asia's other notorious dictator, Ferdinand Marcos, had
a rougher time of it. He died in exile and disgrace in Honolulu,
and was kept at home in a freezer until Hawaii's health
department informed his wife Imelda that it was illegal to store
a corpse in a private residence.

Marcos did finally get transported back to the Philippines. But
19 years after his death, he remains unburied as his family
holds out for full presidential honors while haggling with
officials over unpaid electric bills to run the freezer.

The contrasting fates of the two strongmen is telling. Although
both were deposed in "people power" movements, Suharto was
always safe in Jakarta and never set foot in a courtroom. From
his fall in 1998 until his death a decade later, his lawyers
maintained he was too ill to face corruption charges.

No subsequent leader really pressed the matter, even as Suharto
continued to play golf and attend lavish family weddings.

The remarkable thing is that Suharto's crimes easily dwarfed
those of Marcos. Marcos was an iron-fisted dictator for 14
years, Suharto for 32. Marcos stole an estimated $5 billion,
while Suharto's ill-gotten wealth was easily three or four times
that. And although Marcos was a brutal autocrat who tortured and
killed many thousands of Filipinos, Suharto was responsible for
the suffering and violent death of nearly a million Indonesians,
Timorese, and Papuans.

A crucial difference between the two dictators lies in whom they
killed and how they stole, while a crucial similarity is that
neither left a legacy of development the nation could build upon.

Suharto oversaw unspeakable human carnage, front-loading most of
the violence by massacring over 500,000 members of the then
legal Indonesian Communist Party when he seized power at the end
of 1965. Ten years later he caused the death of another 200,000
Timorese in a war of territorial conquest.

The horror of 1965 remains blurred by a fear even today of being
labeled a Communist. Meanwhile, most Indonesians supported the
invasion of East Timor and, if anything, were upset that the
occupation ended in a successful referendum for independence in
1999.

Suharto never had to worry that he'd be treated like Milosovic,
Saddam, or even Pinochet for his crimes against humanity.
Western powers were delighted when Suharto annihilated the
largest Communist party outside a Communist country in the
world, just as the U.S. was getting mired in Vietnam.

He was also safe from prosecution for the deaths of a third of
East Timor's population. Leaders of this tiny new nation decided
it was wiser to adopt a "forward-looking" relationship with
their huge neighbor than seek justice in international tribunals
against Suharto and his generals.

Although Suharto's hands are among the bloodiest of the 20th
century, he never committed anything like Marcos's 1983 blunder
of killing a member of the nation's ruling elite. The
assassination of Senator Aquino violated an unspoken rule among
the powerful that harshly penalizes such extreme measures.

Suharto used a range of incentives and punishments with his
fellow elites. But he was careful not to trigger their outrage
by killing or torturing them -- tactics reserved for the middle
and lower strata.

General Suharto also stole from the country in a way that
differed from civilian Marcos. Partly because he was a military
man and came to power by unleashing awe-inspiring violence,
Suharto was able to establish a more solid dominance over his
fellow oligarchs.

He positioned himself as a mafia don in a manner Marcos never
quite managed to achieve. More secure in his role as
"godfather," Suharto managed the distribution of spoils among
his underbosses and capos while taming their potentially
pathological behavior.

His regime emerged as more predictably corrupt than that of
Marcos. Under Suharto, a deal was a deal, whereas under Marcos
the system was more unwieldy as the ruling family made a
frenzied grab of the spoils for their own clan or region.

Predictable corruption proved highly beneficial to investment
and job creation as the domestic and foreign private sector
adjusted to paying tribute to the godfather instead of taxes to
the treasury. The result was an average 7% per annum growth rate
during Suharto's reign, a record Marcos never came close to
matching.

Suharto had himself labeled as the "father of development." But
history has shown that the label is undeserved. It is true that
Indonesians fared better under Suharto than did Filipinos, who
were ripped off and had nothing to show for it.

But Suharto's developmental legacy proved highly debilitating.
To maintain himself as mafia don, Suharto actively destroyed all
independent institutions of government and civil society --
especially the legal infrastructure. He tamed the country's
oligarchs personally not institutionally.

By the time Suharto's greedy children grew up and the game of
spoils began to resemble the elite-aggravating pattern seen
under Marcos, the damage to the country was deep.

The same elites Suharto nurtured had had enough by 1998, and the
old general was nudged aside with no new godfather to replace
him.

The only alternative was the country's gutted institutional
infrastructure, which has proven to be no match for the powerful
actors Suharto once tamed.

The result is that the Suharto years did not launch Indonesia on
a path of sustainable growth, but rather has left a lasting
legacy of crippled institutions of law that are chronically
bribed or intimidated by the country's dominant elites.

The damage of the Suharto regime will far outlast the temporary
benefits it produced.

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