The tragedy of Suharto of Indonesia
In Shakespeare’s Macbeth, Duncan says of the death of the Earl of Cawdor: “Nothing in his life became him like the leaving it.” It is too early to render the verdict on former President Suharto of Indonesia, but it now appears that nothing so became his rule as the relatively peaceful way that it ended.
The tragedy for Mr Suharto and his country is that he would have been widely admired by his countrymen if he had stepped down 10 years ago.
When I was leaving Indonesia in 1989 after three years as US ambassador, during a farewell call on the president I asked about three sensitive issues: the problem of succession; the problem of corruption as a drag on economic growth; and the need for greater political openness in a country whose economy was becoming increasingly open and whose growing middle class was demanding a greater voice in government.
Mr Suharto did not take offense at these sensitive questions, but his answers were disappointing.
He replied with a lengthy repetition of cliches about how the constitution provided for “the people” to choose their leaders or how existing laws on corruption needed to be better enforced. Mr Suharto was too smart and too shrewd not to know that the real problems concerned his practice of suppressing political dissent, of weakening alternative leaders and of showing favoritism to his children’s business deals, frequently at the expense of sound economic policy.
I also made the plea for greater political openness in a public farewell speech. An impressive number of Indonesian voices quickly and loudly echoed the sentiment. The highly independent newsweekly Tempo had a cover story in one issue with the large headline “What Is Political Upenness?”
I am told that Mr Suharto never forgave me for those public comments. Two years later he complained about them in an interview with Time magazine, and just last year he told several of his ministers that my speech was the cause of the violent incidents that marked Indonesia’s largely stage-managed elections in 1997.
It is sad that Mr Suharto needed to invoke a seven-year-old speech by a foreign ambassador to explain his own people’s dissatisfaction with a political system that he had deliberately neutered by such actions as engineering the removal of the popular Megawati Sukarno from the leadership of one of the opposition parties or shutting down Tempo in 1994 for publicizing the finance minister’s criticism of B.J. Habibie then a fellow minister and now Indonesia’s president.
It is sad not only for Indonesia but for Mr Suharto personally. For if he had been willing to risk having real competitors emerge, he could have shaped the next generation of Indonesian leaders and he might have avoided the run on the rupiah that occurred when his disappearance from public view last December raised fears about his health. He might even still be president had he not allowed his children to amass so much wealth through their political influence that they became a lightning rod for Indonesians’ anger over the disastrous economy.
Perhaps most tragic, if Mr Suharto had left office 10 years ago, he would have left as a hero.
He would still be admired today — most of all for his undisputed role in transforming Indonesia from a country that was in economic ruins, where malnutrition was endemic and tens of thousands starved to death on the idyllic island of Bali in the 1960s, into a country that was self-sufficient in rice by the mid-1980s and where the prosperity of Jakarta was felt even in the smallest villages. Tens of millions of people were able to lift themselves out of poverty. Sadly, that achievement now lies almost in ruins.
Although it is fashionable to blame all of Asia’s present problems on corruption and the failure of Asian values, it is at bottom a case of a bubble bursting, of too many imprudent lenders chasing too many incautious borrowers. But the greed of Mr Suharto’s children ensured that their father would take the lion’s share of the blame for Indonesia’s financial collapse.
The Suharto children’s favored position became a major obstacle to the measures needed to restore economic confidence. Worst of all, they ensured that the economic crisis would be a political crisis as well. That he allowed this, and that he amassed such wealth himself, is all the more mysterious since he lived a relatively modest life.
Mr Suharto’s overstaying in office has also tarnished another achievement, although it has not destroyed it. Indonesia is a predominantly Islamic country — the largest in the world-in which other religions are treated with great equality and tolerance. It has dozens of different languages and ethnic groups. Achieving peace among a population so diverse requires a strong leader and a unified military. But in the past 10 years, Mr Suharto has been dividing his country rather than uniting it, using religious and ethnic appeals to shore up his weakening hold on power and creating splits within the military in order to ensure its obedience to himself.
Still, it is an extraordinary achievement that the Suharto regime ended so quietly and, in the end, quickly. It is an achievement in which many lndonesians participated, including the nameless thousands of students and others who demonstrated peacefully for political reform.
Many individuals also displayed great leadership, belying the claim that only Mr Suharto could govern this unwieldy country. People like Amien Rais, the leader of the 28 million-member Muhammadiyah and de facto leader of the students, who had the statesmanship and the authority to call off a mass demonstration that appeared headed for violence. People like Nurcholish Majid and Abdurrahman Wahid and other Islamic democrats, advocates of a “middle way,” who had the courage to tell Mr Suharto to his face that he had to resign immediately. People like Gen. Wiranto and his colleagues in the Indonesian armed forces who had the wisdom to appreciate the restraint of the students and who brought the most dangerous elements of the military under control.
Mr Suharto also deserves some credit for his own peaceful departure from the scene. Although he resisted needed changes for 10 years, his resistance was not so violent or so dictatorial as to make peaceful change impossible. Indonesia was never a Burma or a China, and Jakarta’s Monas Square did not become a second Tiananmen. For that, Indonesians and the world should be grateful.
And we should all also be grateful for the statesmanship that Mr Suharto displayed internationally.
It is not easy for the largest country by far in the region to take its place as an equal alongside countries that are a third or a tenth its size. For that Mr Suharto was personally responsible on many occasions, as for example in 1997 when he rallied the leaders of the Association of South East Asian Nations behind then-President Corazon Aquino of the Philippines, who had just faced down a military coup.
But the lesson that all his successors should take away is the lesson not to stay too long and block legitimate political change. Now even the Indonesian military is talking about limiting presidents to two terms in office and about a smaller military role in politics.
President Habibie, for his part, is talking about holding elections in one year and seems to understand that he is a viable president only for the short term. Democracy, for all its apparent instability, brings the security of peaceful change.
We may hope that Indonesians will not again have to say to another president, as Cromwell said to the Rump Parliament: “You have stayed too long for any good that you may have done. It is not fit that you sit here any longer! … You shall now give place to, better men.”