International Herald Tribune
Bowring: Balancing Suharto's record
Tuesday, January 29, 2008

HONG KONG: There is an unsettling contrast between Indonesian and other Asian obituaries of Suharto and those of the Western media. If the former often seem too forgiving of the sins of a strongman who ruled for 33 years, the latter show armchair moralizing and a black-and-white view of the world.

Even this newspaper led its coverage by describing him as "one of the most brutal and corrupt of the 20th century" - quite a claim for a century that gave the world Hitler, Stalin, Mao, Pol Pot, Saddam Hussein and dozens of murderous lesser thugs who brutalized nations in Europe, Asia, Latin America and Africa.

As a journalist who reported periodically on Indonesia for all but the early part of Suharto's rule, this designation seems greatly exaggerated. He was undoubtedly authoritarian, occasionally ruthless, certainly corrupt as far as favors to his family were concerned, but none of that makes him the bloodthirsty villain portrayed in the West. In reality, Suharto was more in the league of Ferdinand Marcos of the Philippines, Tito of Yugoslavia, Pibul Songkram of Thailand, Nasser of Egypt, Salazar of Portugal or Turkey's Ataturk.

Many Western obituary writers forgot - if they ever knew - that the last decade or so of Suharto's rule saw advances in political pluralism and media freedom that provided a basis for a relatively smooth transfer of power.

Indeed, the Indonesian media in that era was more free than its counterparts in Malaysia and Singapore are today. Its coverage of the outrageous commercial favors given to Suharto's offspring helped undermine him.

In Indonesia the focus has mostly been on forgiving Suharto for his sins while acknowledging his accomplishments. It is worth remembering that the careers of other famous leaders, Winston Churchill and Lyndon Johnson for example, also contained plenty of negatives, some resulting in large loss of life. But their deaths were not the time to dwell on their mistakes alone.

In Indonesia, the instinct to forgive is given added weight by the youth of the population, many of whom do not remember his rule, let alone the bloody turmoil of 1965 from which he emerged as leader.

Yet the Western media too often prefers not to quote Indonesians but foreign academics in Europe and North America who demand that Indonesia rewrite its history to accord with their opinions of Suharto. Many are frustrated that he was never brought to trial. Yet that would have made no more sense than a future U.S. Congress putting George W. Bush on trial for the Iraq invasion. Learning from mistakes is more important than punishing people for them, particularly, as in the cases of Aceh and Papua, when decisions were made, however wrongly, for the sake of national cohesion.

Some obituaries attribute the deaths of hundreds of thousands in 1965-66 to Suharto personally, as though he attained power by arranging the massacres of alleged Communists and ethnic Chinese. But the causes of the bloodletting were complex and remain obscure. Few leaders emerged from that era with credit; it remains in the collective consciousness and may well explain why the transformation of Indonesia from the Suharto era of imposed unity to today's open if corrupt democracy was relatively peaceful. It may also partly explain why secularism continues to prevail over religious identity as the bedrock of the Indonesian state.

The foreign coverage of Suharto also has focused heavily on the human cost of his occupation of East Timor and repression of separatism in Aceh and Papua. For sure, Timor was a huge mistake, but Western powers - and the media - mostly encouraged him, so it makes scant sense to demonize him now. Even many Timorese have agreed to put the past behind them.

These places on the country's geographical fringe have always been peripheral to most of Indonesia's 200 million people, who will no more judge Suharto from the perspective of Timor and Papua than Americans focus on John F. Kennedy's entry into the Vietnam war or judge Theodore Roosevelt on his government's brutalization of the Philippines. While Timor and Papua are given huge prominence, there is scant, if any, reference in many obituaries to Suharto's ending of Sukarno's bloody "confrontation" with Malaysia, or of Indonesia's stabilizing role in a fragmented, post-colonial Asia.

Many Indonesians remember the good things that happened under Suharto, notably the 25 years of economic growth. Over the past decade they have put right many of his mistakes - including Timor, Aceh, over-centralization and authoritarianism. For sure, corruption is as bad as ever, but it is endemic in almost every Southeast Asian economy. Blaming Suharto makes no more sense than blaming Marcos for corruption in the Philippines.

In short, Suharto deserves more nuanced coverage than he has received from the foreign media, which apparently has not bothered to read its own past accounts of his years in power.