I don’t imagine many readers will be shedding tears at the death of former Indonesian dictator Suharto, and certainly I won’t be. The bloody massacres in which he rode to power amid the collapse of the Sukarno regime, and the brutal invasion and occupation of East Timor, not to mention his spectacular corruption, mark him down among the worst political criminals of a terrible century. Like some other dictators, he managed some significant successes in economic management, but overreached himself in the period leading up to the Asian economic crisis if 1997, which brought his downfall from power. Unfortunately, hostility to the Suharto regime has coloured attitudes to Indonesia in the decade since his fall from power, certainly in Australia and I suspect elsewhere.
In fact, Indonesia has been remarkably successful in dealing with what was, in many respects, a poisonous legacy from the Suharto era.
From one of the tightest dictatorships in the region, with a military caste heavily embedded in both politics and business, the country has made a successful transition to democracy, with, in my judgement, each succeeding government better than the last. While the current president Yudhoyono is a former general he also seems to be both competent and a genuine democrat.
When Suharto fell, Indonesia was plagued with civil conflicts including the failing occupation of East Timor, the Aceh and West Papua separatist movement and religious strife promoted by groups within the regime, as well as growing movement towards extreme Islamism, again with support from within the government. Today East Timor is independent, the Aceh conflict has been settled, and some progress has been made in Papua. The fight against Islamist terrorism has been far more successful than in any other Islamic country I can think of, and has been pursued through proper legal processes, despite criticisms from those in Australia and elsewhere who would prefer Suharto-style abandonment of the rule of law.
Unfortunately, Australian media attention to Indonesia has been dominated by a series of court cases, in which the predominant Australian attitude has been one of childish petulance, demanding that the Indonesian legal system deliver the result we want, whether it means reversing properly-reached convictions on the basis of little more than the fact that the defendant is a photogenic Australian (the Corby case) or delivering convictions on cases that would probably never have made it to court in Australia, such as the terrorism trial of Abu Bashir . In this case, the one witness who might have implicated Bashir directly, Hambali, couldn’t be called because the Americans have him in custody and wouldn’t make him available. If anyone deserves blame for the fact that Bashir is walking free, it’s the Bush Administration.
Suharto’s death should be a good thing for Indonesia, since he remained an obstacle to cleaning up the remnants of his system of nepotism and corruption. Now that he’s gone, I hope Australians and others will begin to recognise the immense progress Indonesia has made against daunting odds.