Sunday, January 27, 2008

Suharto - dictator, murderer, thief, but....

Few should mourn the death of Suharto (yes that is his full name). From a great promise of creating another Asian tiger, (and the growth that did occur), he created a authoritarian corrupt state that brutally occupied and murdered hundreds of thousands of East Timorese.
I very much expect all those on the left to condemn him unconditionally, and so much is with good reason. His family made billions of dollars from special deals, concessions and privileges for businesses they set up. Not only were these corrupt, but they cost Indonesia a fortune economically. Estimates of his family holding billions in assets from that era are damning indeed, and attempts to confiscate this loot from the Suharto clan have been thwarted, no doubt because plenty of lackies also benefited from the Suharto kleptocracy. Nonsense policies that gave members of his family monopolies on importing, manufacturing, and the like, the lack of an effective independent judicial system to enforce contracts and debt collection, saw private entrepreneurship stunted. None of this was helped by extensive price controls on basic commodities and a vastly over valued currency. Unlike neighbours like Malaysia (which also suffered from some authoritarianism and corruption), innovation and new industries were rare or if they existed, were poorly guided and protected. Indonesia's oil wealth has been squandered by central planning and corruption, this culture of corruption, bribery and state theft continues to plague Indonesia today.
Far more damning is the authoritarian rule of Suharto. Laws against "subversion" and "spreading hate" were extensively used to arrest and imprison those accused of opposing his manufactured "democracy". The system he founded allowed three political parties to nominally contest elections, of which Golkar was always guaranteed to have a majority. The military was guaranteed seats in the Parliament, and all public servants were under strong pressure to belong to Golkar. The difference between Golkar and the state was blurred indeed, adding to the scope for corruption and patronage. Suharto's authoritarianism included oppression of Indonesia's Chinese. Whilst initially aimed at communists, it also tapped to racism of Javanese envious of the entrepreneurship and success of Chinese in Indonesia. This banned the used of Chinese characters and language, Chinese language schools and saw Chinese owned assets confiscated. This racism against Chinese in Indonesia remains to some extent today, even though most laws have been repealed. The lack of free speech, the blending of the state, party and military kept Indonesians under Suharto's thumb. In the 1970s, this was not unlike most states in Asia at the time, but he did not relent - until he had to.
However, two major incidents more than any others see blood covering Suharto's hands. One is unconditionally damning, the other may well deserve a mixed verdict. The invasion of East Timor was murderous, seeing between 60,000 and 100,000 killed in the resistance. Notwithstanding concerns over the communist ties of Fretilin at the time (Fretilin is not an organisation of angels either), the invasion, occupation and suppression of dissent in East Timor was bloody and vile. It was not genocide, as it was not a racial matter, it was pure political suppression, bloody and indiscriminate. However, few should pretend that Sukarno wouldn't also have suppressed independence in East Timor like he did elsewhere.
The East Timorese invasion and occupation was small fry compared to the initial period of Suharto's rule. There is little doubt that many thousands of innocent people were killed in the suppression and destruction of the Communist Party of Indonesia. The campaign to destroy communism, and to oppress those linked to it continued well into the 1980s - with anyone linked by family to the Communist Party facing discrimination by the state. However, the sheer scale of the attack on communism was monumental and indiscriminate. The suppression of communism saw hundreds of thousands murdered, not just communist party members but their entire families, slaughtered, as the army, Islamists (who were anti-communist due to communism's touting of atheism) and others went on a bloody killing spree. This was all carried out with the USA, Australia and the rest of the West turning an uncomfortable blind eye. Why?
The only good thing to be said of Suharto is that he did save Indonesia from the twin evils of communism and economic collapse. Sukarno's sympathy with Marxism, closeness to Maoist China and the Communist Party saw a relatively prosperous former colony be crippled by rampant inflation, confiscation of land from mainly Chinese owners, and socialist economic policies that saw agricultural production stifled and food shortages. Suppression of umpteen rebellions throughout Indonesia in the 1950s and 1960s, also cost in money and lives. Sukarno backed the so-called "confrontation" with Malaysia, with sporadic military attacks. The army was divided on this approach, which saw Indonesia have reportedly the largest communist party that was not ruling, with over 2 million members in the 1960s. Sukarno announced an axis of Jakarta, Peking, Hanoi, Phnom Penh and Pyongyang, posing a clear threat to Malaysia and Australia. While the suppression of communism was excessive and saw many many thousands of innocent people die, it is difficult to see what would have happened had Indonesia become a large communist state on our doorstep.
While speculation of what might have been may not be easy to justify, the aggressive suppression of rebellion, the military incursions into Malaysia tell that a pro-communist Indonesia was unlikely to be friendly towards an independent East Timor, and certainly not Singapore. A country led by a man supporting an axis that includes Maoist China, itself a state that had murdered and starved over 50 million, and totalitarian North Korea, was unlikely to remain peaceful, and was very likely to kill more than the thousands that already suffered under it. For saving Indonesia, south east Asia and maybe Australia from that, Suharto deserves at least some credit. Cold comfort to those caught up in the massacres, and is no excuse for the tyranny and corruption that followed.
So I wont be mourning Suharto - he was the last of Indonesia's bloody dictators. Sukarno was the one before, and oft ignored. He was better than Sukarno, for peace and for the economy, but he was only one step better. He was better as Park Chung Hee was better than Kim Il Sung - which is not an endorsement, but a realistic evaluation.
The obvious question is was he on balance good, or bad. The truth is that he was overwhelmingly bad, but had he changed after overthrowing Indonesia's emerging communism he would now be a hero. He may have saved (based on proportions killed in China) 10-20 million people by overthrowing communism, but he killed around a million doing so. Just as the string of South Korean dictators were all better than Kim Il Sung, it wasn't a high threshold to cross. A smaller positive to note is that he fought against the Japanese occupation in World War 2, and the Japanese treatment of the Dutch East Indies was far from honourable.
Bye Suharto, you dictator, murderer and thief, at least you were better than Sukarno and the inevitable communist dictatorship - but that one victory does not excuse decades of misrule.

1 comment:

Ken Westmoreland said...

A good analysis - Suharto was better than some dictators, but worse than others.

The problem was that he wanted to keep going on and on, unlike Pinochet in Chile, who knew it was a question of when, rather than if, he would step down, even if it were on his terms.

As you correctly point out, Suharto's Indonesia was far from a free-market economy, what with special privileges for his family's often unviable businesses.

Take the Indonesian national car, the Timor, which was exempt from taxes levied on other cars, even those built in Indonesia. The unfortunate choice of name aside, the problem with the Indonesian national car was that it wasn't actually built in Indonesia, but was just a rebadged Kia Sephia imported from South Korea.

As you can imagine, Toyota, which designed and built the Kijang in Indonesia, was less than impressed.

Had Sukarno ejected the Portuguese from East Timor in the 1960s, as the Indians ejected them from Goa, there is every probability that the Left would have supported him, just as it did over Papua.

"[The killing in East Timor] was not genocide, as it was not a racial matter"

Huh?? The East Timorese, many of whom are Melanesian, are very different from the Javanese. Anyway, the Khmer Rouge killed its own people in Cambodia, not just ethnic minorities.

Fretilin did no really have communist ties in 1975 (ironically, it was only after the Indonesian invasion and occupation that it declared itself Marxist-Leninist, although Xanana Gusmão had the good sense to reverse that).

It would be better to describe it (now, as then) as economically illiterate, which owes as much to Catholicism as Marxism.