The recent death of the former dictator of Indonesia, Suharto
[his single name, like that of Sukarno, is a Javanese trait] has brought tributes and obeisances from Australian political leaders past and present. Paul Keating was happy to describe the leader with whom he had such cordial relations as ‘quite shy and retiring…’. One can’t resist the urge to finish the sentence, ‘… for a mass-murderer.’
It shouldn’t be left to politicians to have the final say on the military leader who presided over Indonesia for over thirty years. That should be left to more disinterested historians, who will no doubt base their accounts partly on evidence from the families of Suharto’s innumerable innocent victims. The broad facts about the general are well enough known. While establishing himself in power in the mid-sixties, with the support of the USA, he killed up to a million fellow Indonesians under the guise of an anti-communist purge, as well as killing, and denying the rights to, vast numbers of ethnically Chinese Indonesians, for purely realpolitik reasons. He was also responsible for the deaths of 200,000 East Timorese in the invasion of 1975 – a third of the population. This has been described as the worst case of genocide, per head of population, since the Holocaust. Independence-minded populations in West Papua, in Aceh and in Ambon province suffered greatly under Suharto’s repressive policies, which included resettling Indonesians into those regions in abortive attempts to dilute the will of the native people.
Given such a record, any disinterested observer must wonder at the apparent lack of international will to bring such an obvious criminal to justice. Attempts to do so seem to have been as feeble as Suharto’s own health was in the years after his enforced retirement. Many explanations, though, can be cited. One of the more curious has been the view, popular about ten or fifteen years ago amongst some Western thinkers, that ‘Asian values’ are fundamentally different to Western ones. According to this view, Asians are not particularly in tune with human rights, an idea that has developed out of the increasingly individual-oriented West. Authoritarianism, in which order and discipline take precedence over individual freedom, is more natural to that part of the world, presumably because it has almost invariably been the practice. The view was probably first promoted by Western relativists, but unsurprisingly, advocates and practitioners of authoritarian government, such as Singapore’s Lee Kuan Yew, were happy to concur with and develop the idea, albeit in a simplistic and self-serving way.
Such arguments tend to forget that individual liberty, and its concomitant, democracy, are recent Western developments – and very happy ones, both for our economic and our emotional well-being. The sheer brutality of Suharto’s dictatorship serves to remind us that the benefits of authoritarian rule can come at enormous cost to those of the wrong ethnicity or political persuasion. No arguments for Asian values could possibly justify these costs.
However, the principle reason that Suharto wasn’t brought to justice has to do with geopolitical realities. Unlike Slobodan Milosevic and Saddam Hussein, who presided over relatively small nations which could be attacked or invaded with few consequences for the attacking or invading nations [or so they might convince themselves], Suharto had made himself master of a nation of near 200 million people, a nation of great diversity and unpredictability where perceived threats to its sovereignty might arise. As the region’s strong man, achieving stability through force rather than inclusivity, openness and balance, he naturally forged strong allegiances as well as making many enemies. Though he didn’t go out of his way to create a cult of personality around himself, as did Saddam and successive North Korean leaders, nevertheless he did have a cult-like, untouchable air. There was very little chance that his successors would risk handing him over to international authorities. Further, a trial involving Suharto would necessarily implicate those who materially supported and encouraged his regime, especially in the early, uncertain days.
It’s also worth remembering, for those of us impatient to see bigger fish being brought to book by international tribunals, that the terms crime against humanity and genocide were unheard of before the forties, only a generation before Suharto embarked on his first killing spree. International tribunals are a very new thing, and still – scandalously – unsupported by the world’s greatest military power.
It’s therefore understandable that the focus against Suharto has been less on his tendency toward mass-slaughter than on his tendency to enrich himself and his family while in office. He embezzled more money than any other leader in history, but his own ill-health, and lawyers’ claims about it, have allowed him to cheat justice on that score too. Currently his children, who must be feeling the heat now that their benefactor is gone, are asking the religious and political authorities to forgive and no doubt forget these financial crimes. However, in order to discourage such behaviour in the future, in Indonesia and elsewhere, it’s imperative that justice be pursued.