Feb 27, 2024 Last Updated 12:52 AM, Feb 22, 2024

How will Indonesians remember Suharto?

How will Indonesians remember Suharto?
Published: Feb 23, 2008

Newspaper obituaries, from Sabang to Merauke

Compiled and translated by Rahadian Permadi, Gerry van Klinken, and Lis Jackson

The death of former president Soeharto (as his name is more often spelled in Indonesia) on 27 January 2008 prompted Indonesians to reflect on his contribution to the nation, re-examine his faults and address the question of the as yet unresolved legal cases involving him. Here Inside Indonesia presents extracts taken from newspapers across the archipelago which reveal some of the responses Indonesians had to the news of Soeharto’s death.

Much of the coverage focused on the positive aspects of Soeharto’s presidency. On the day following the former president’s death, the daily Suara Pembaruan, for example, carried a series of appreciative retrospectives on Soeharto’s contributions in various fields, including ‘Foreign Policy in Soeharto’s Hands’ by former chief editor of The Jakarta Post and Indonesian ambassador to Australia from 1991-1995 Sabam Siagian, ‘Transmigrants Lose Father of Development’ and ‘Department of Agriculture Adopted Many of Soeharto’s Programs’ (Suara Pembaruan, 27 January 2008).

Republika Online also featured a large number of complimentary farewell reports, often formulaic like this one from Papua:

In Jayapura Hamadi ethnic community leader Herman Hamadi said that Pak Harto’s greatest service to the people of Papua was as commander of the Mandala Command, which through Operation Trikora seized West Irian [now Papua, ed] from the hands of the Dutch colonialists [and returned it] to the Motherland, Indonesia (Republika Online, 28 January 2008).

Of Soeharto’s achievements, the most commonly cited was the economic growth achieved as a result of his government’s development policies. Jakarta’s Koran Tempo, for example, praised the Soeharto government’s ability to ensure stability and economic growth:

It must be acknowledged that during his 32 years in power Soeharto was able to maintain political and economic stability. He introduced a phased program of development, and implemented it consistently. This yielded high economic growth and meant that Indonesians were spoiled with controlled prices for basic necessities and subsidised fuel (Koran Tempo, 28 January 2008).

This theme was also a feature of coverage in Kompas, Makassar’s Tribun Timur and Bali Pos:

After he was officially appointed as president, Pak Harto set about managing [Indonesia’s process of] development. With his development trilogy concept, namely stability, growth and equity, he was able to turn Indonesia’s lagging economy into one of Asia’s tigers (Kompas, 26 January 2008).

The concept of population equity as a driver of economic growth and Indonesian national unity is a wonderful reminder [of Soeharto]. Through the five year development programs, abbreviated to Pelita for the period 1979-2004, Indonesia appeared in the world arena full of confidence. The economy grew significantly. The Green Revolution yielded an award at the World Food Summit in Rome in 1984. Indonesia successfully became self-sufficient in rice. Achievements were also made in population control (Tribun Timur, 29 January 2008).

Indonesians will never forget two things from the period of Soeharto’s leadership of this nation. These are: security and the availability of the nine basic necessities at a stable price. Governments after Soeharto have not yet been able to guarantee these (Bali Pos, 29 January 2008).

The former president’s leadership skills were also the subject of several reports, such as these in the Pontianak Post and Tribun Timur:

It would not be too far wrong to consider Pak Harto as someone who had a significant influence on the improvement – and even the dramatic transformation - of this nation. Principally, this occurred at the beginning of Pak Harto’s time in power, between 1966 and 1973 (Pontianak Post, 29 January 2008).

Domestically, Soeharto established strong foundations of governance and statehood. Furthermore, the former president of Indonesia - known as ‘the smiling general’ - was said to be one of the best presidents in the Asian region and his government became a model for other Asian nations (Tribun Timur, 29 January 2008).

An editorial in Semarang’s Suara Merdeka was more circumspect in its evaluation of Soeharto’s contribution to the nation. The editorial draws on a Javanese proverb – one which Soeharto himself was fond of quoting – which urges respect for one’s elders by emphasising their positive contributions and playing down their faults. Soeharto’s own observance of this principle was evident in his reluctance to openly criticise his predecessor Sukarno:

The spirit of mikul dhuwur mendhem jero (literally, raise high, bury deep) has coloured the view of a segment of the elite in this country towards Pak Harto. This philosophy [teaches us to] value and respect those acknowledged to have made a significant contribution, even if they have also made (equally significant) mistakes. In this view, the person is given a special place – raised as high as possible – while his faults are played down by being buried as deeply as possible. This is an ethical-moral value which foregrounds respect (Suara Merdeka, 28 January 2008).

Newspapers in Aceh, Papua and West Timor paid little attention to Soeharto’s passing.

Interestingly, unlike papers in Java, those in Aceh, Papua and West Timor paid little attention to Soeharto’s passing. Papua’s Cenderawasih Post carried only a notice of Soeharto’s death on 28 January while West Timor’s Kupang Pos added a life history copied from an online encyclopedia. Neither carried its own editorial comment. Aceh’s Serambi Indonesia had only one item on Soeharto’s death, which took up the theme of forgiveness:

According to philosophers good law does not only guarantee legal certainty, but must also guarantee justice and be beneficial. Even if legal certainty and justice and benefit are often incompatible, as in the case of Soeharto, which has offended Indonesians‘ sense of justice. This [case] demonstrates that positive law is often in contradiction to justice, a fact which can produce new problems. Therefore, truth and justice must be uncovered before a pardon is given (Serambi Indonesia, 28 January 2008).

The topic of forgiveness, and in particular the legal cases against Soeharto and his family and associates, was also a feature of coverage in a number of other papers. Some, like Republika and Solo Pos, advocated pardoning the former president:

This amnesty and pardon includes Pak Harto’s legal cases. Once again: only Pak Harto! The legal cases which involve his family and cronies must still stand. We must emphasise that Indonesia is not a nation of cronies, or the property of one family. Indonesia belongs to all Indonesians (Republika, 28 January 2008).

Pak Harto is still a human being who is not exempt from mistakes and sins. Because of this we agree with Amien Rais, who was so conscientious in criticising and even opposing and condemning various of Pak Harto’s policies and who requested that the legal process against former president Soeharto be stopped. Moreover, the government has officially pardoned Soeharto (Solo Pos, 28 January 2008).

In an editorial in Jawa Pos, Mohammad Mahfud M D, Professor of Law and Defence Minister under President Abdurrahman Wahid expressed a similar view:

Perhaps there is good in not continuing with Pak Harto’s legal cases, but for others to be pursued. There is far more valuable work to be done than groping around in the dark to finalise Pak Harto’s cases legally through a ‘free-for-all’ debate that is without a clear legal lens (Jawa Pos, 28 January 2008).

Much of the coverage focused on the positive aspects of Soeharto’s presidency.

However, Republika also published a more critical piece:

... the team investigating Soeharto in the National Human Rights Commission has been asked to finalise as quickly as possible five large cases [involving Soeharto], namely the Buru Island case, the 1981-1985 Mysterious Shootings (Petrus) case, the 27 July case, the Tanjung Priok case, and the case of the Military Operations Region (DOM) in Aceh and Papua.

‘The National Human Rights Commission must finalise their investigations into these cases as quickly as possible,’ said the Coordinator of the Commission for Missing Persons and Victims of Violence (Kontras) Usman Hamid in Jakarta, on Sunday afternoon.

He said that the death of Soeharto must be treated as a wakeup call for the government to speed up the legal process so that victims get the justice they demand (Republika Online, 27 January 2008).

Of the newspapers surveyed, Jawa Pos provided more space for discussion of some of the negative aspects of Soeharto’s rule, such as this opinion piece, written by Antonius Steven Un, a researcher and teacher in theology, philosophy and culture:

In the Soeharto case, a pardon must be considered and sought to be carried out in light of the comprehensive punishments he has and will receive. First, he has already been judged politically when he was overturned by people power in May 1998...

Second, the father of development and his family have been and continue to be condemned by the domestic and international public as a consequence of their behaviour for many years.

Third, he will be judged by history...

Fourth, Soeharto and any other human individual who does not act responsibly during their lifetime will receive a religious punishment in the court and by the law of the Creator in the afterlife. If dictators and criminals escape [the judgement of] the earthly courts they will not escape [that of] the courts of eternity. If Soeharto is not prosecuted or punished today, he will still receive a theological judgement. Because of this, we should not be troubled by Soeharto’s passing (Jawa Pos, 28 January 2008).

A second opinion piece discussed some of the negative legacies of Soeharto’s rule...

Pak Harto is no more. As a human being, he was not perfect. [The consequences of his imperfections] were principally felt during the period 1982-1992, before the political crisis of 1997, during which his many misuses of power began.

Apart from human rights violations, a negative legacy of Soeharto’s New Order is this country’s widespread practice of corruption. The law was emasculated, and corruption snatched away its authority. This is the worst legacy of the New Order regime and has yet to be rectified.

If we must raise high and bury deep (mikul dhuwur mendhem jero), as Pak Harto taught, then what we should hold high is the law. Uphold the law which has been crooked since the New Order. And what we should bury low is corruption. Now that Soeharto has gone, we should no longer be reluctant to investigate his cronies.

Goodbye Pak Harto, may your path be bright (Jawa Pos, 28 January 2008).

And finally, a less conventional farewell for Indonesia’s second president from one of his countrymen in the Netherlands. A Dutch guest at a function held at the Indonesian Ambassador’s home in Wassenaar to thank Dutch partners in tsunami relief, two days into the seven days of mourning following Soeharto’s death, was surprised to hear Ambassador Junus Effendi (Fanny) Habibie (younger brother of the former Indonesian president) close his speech with this German drinking song:

‘Trink, trink, Brüderlein, trink/ lass doch die Sorgen zu Haus!/ ... Meide den Kummer und meide den Schmerz/ Dann ist das Leben ein Scherz!’ ('Drink, drink, brother, drink/ Leave your troubles at home/ ... Avoid the worry, avoid the pain/ As life is just a joke')     ii

Inside Indonesia 91: Jan-Mar 2008


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