Suharto’s Death: Time to Move On

The Straits Times (Singapore), 30 January 2008

Evan A. Laksmana

THE death of Indonesia’s father of development, former president Suharto, on Sunday has led to a debate about whether the people should remember him for his achievements and forgive his misconduct, or continue with a civil suit against him.

The government had been seeking US$1.4 billion (S$2 billion) in damages and assets allegedly acquired illegally through a charitable foundation Mr Suharto chaired while in power.

If a recent poll by Kompas – an Indonesian-language daily – is any indication, the public is split. Around 66 per cent of respondents felt Mr Suharto should be forgiven because of his achievements in ensuring domestic stability and alleviating poverty while developing the economy.

But when asked whether the civil suit should continue, 61 per cent said it should.

The poll also revealed a generation gap. Respondents aged above 35, particularly those with less education, seemed to be more sympathetic towards the former president while those between 17 and 30 wanted to see the legal proceedings continue.

But perhaps it is best for now to set these achievements and misconduct aside, allow history to record them for what they are, and let future generations judge Mr Suharto’s contributions.

The more pressing issue for Indonesia, now that his era has officially ended, is to move beyond this debate. It should not be allowed to distract any more attention from the bigger problems.

One could argue that going ahead with the legal proceedings is in fact one such distraction. Many have seen it as an exercise in futility, especially in view of the fact that even during the height of the reform movement, the case had been shelved.

Indonesia needs to move on and deal with more pressing issues affecting millions of citizens.

According to the Central Bureau of Statistics, from March 2006 until March 2007, the poverty rate fell just 0.17 per cent, leaving Indonesia with around 39 million impoverished people.

Recent food price hikes have made things worse. Those in the lower and middle classes cannot even afford to eat the traditional tempeh (a sort of soya bean cake often used as a meat substitute) due to higher soya bean prices.

Meanwhile, unpaid teachers all over the country continue to organise protests even as they are told to upgrade their own education levels to ensure re-certification. And the government cannot even fulfil the constitutional requirement of setting aside 20 per cent of the national budget for education.

The military also remains underfunded, despite the recent increase in the defence budget to around US$3.6 billion. Basic reforms, including the territorial command structure, military business regulations, laws on military tribunals and even doctrinal issues remain unresolved.

And the nation’s political elite continues its manoeuvring ahead of next year’s legislative and presidential elections. Everything has become politicised. Even worse, parliament has approved an extra 39 million rupiah (S$5,900) in cash incentives for each Member of Parliament, despite opposition from several factions.

These issues form just a fraction of the challenges facing Indonesia today. Education, poverty alleviation, judicial reform – the list goes on. Meanwhile, the gap between the political elite and common people continues to grow. This perhaps is one of the most basic failures of Indonesian democracy over the past decade.

The government should be more decisive. The lingering, perhaps indecisive, stance of President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono and his Cabinet over Mr Suharto, for example, has allowed the national debate regarding his legacy to continue to some extent.

Nevertheless, as Indonesians, there is a lesson we can draw from our childhood. In primary school, we are all taught that the best way to honour our national heroes is to keep the flame alive and to build the country.

Today, with more people living below the poverty line even as prices continue to rise, there is no better time to do this. This year is a critical one for Indonesian politics. The general election is just around the corner.

We should not simply let it be another year of waiting for the administration to fulfil its campaign promises such as alleviating poverty. This year should be a year of action and not simply a year of political manoeuvring.

We should honour our fallen president by moving to solve the real issues affecting the majority of Indonesians. Nothing more and nothing less will do.

The writer is a research analyst at the Indonesia Programme, S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, Nanyang Technological University, Singapore

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