Jun 14, 2024 Last Updated 8:34 AM, May 27, 2024

The passing of a dictator

The passing of a dictator
Published: Feb 02, 2008

Arief Budiman reflects on Suharto and his legacy.

Rahadian Permadi

    Arief at home in Salatiga
    Arief Budiman archive

Arief Budiman, the recently retired Professor of Indonesian Studies at the University of Melbourne, was a student activist in Indonesia in the 1960s and 1970s. Like many in the student movement at the time, he initially supported the New Order. Arief moved to Australia in 1997 after being blacklisted for his critical analysis of Indonesian politics in 1996.

Why did you decide to support Suharto?

It was 1963 I think when Bung Karno made a speech in which he officially banned the Cultural Manifesto [a declaration by a group of writers and intellectuals rejecting Sukarno’s leftist cultural policies]. He also condemned those who he felt were pro-West, like Sutan Takdir Alisyahbana. Up until then we didn’t have a problem with Bung Karno. He was a hero of Independence, a brave man, and someone who could articulate the aspirations of the nationalist struggle. But the banning of the Cultural Manifesto meant I wasn’t allowed to write. We opposed Bung Karno, and he became increasingly hard line. The good thing, though, was that he didn’t arrest us.

When Sukarno entered a period of crisis – economic, communist, and military – we sided with the military. When Pak Harto made moves to remove Sukarno, we supported him, thinking that he would restore democracy. We didn’t know who he was – he was a nobody really. Basically we didn’t care what hell we were getting into, we just wanted to get out of the hell we were in. We hoped Suharto would become democratic. But that didn’t happen.

At that time I told myself that my support for Suharto’s movement didn’t mean that I supported Suharto the man. Rather, I was supporting the principle of democracy, and Suharto was the person who could save us from Sukarno’s dictatorship. When Suharto turned into a dictator, I opposed him too.

So was it his dictatorship that made you disillusioned?

Yes, I demonstrated when the electoral laws were changed to allow only three parties. We advocated a boycott of the election. Later we also demonstrated against the banning of the PKI. If a member of the PKI broke the law, an individual should be charged. If Aidit orchestrated a coup, then arrest Aidit, but don’t restrict the party.

Do you regret that early support now? Do you think you were naïve?

No. I think there were strong reasons for supporting Suharto at that time. We were bringing down Sukarno’s dictatorship. It would have been different if Sukarno was a democratic leader. I saw myself as part of a moral force. We had to oppose what was wrong.

You have met Suharto. Can you describe the context of that meeting and your impressions?

I was demonstrating against corruption. I wasn’t accusing Suharto of anything, I was accusing his cronies. Then Suharto said to the media, ‘If the students have evidence that I am corrupt they should bring it to me.’ So we presented evidence of, amongst other things, contracts that Bu Tien [Suharto’s wife] had obtained from the Bureau of Logistics without going through a tender process.

Suharto was kind. He was an old gentleman, fatherly. We thought he was alright. He accepted us well, and was not confrontational. When Suharto was attacked, he did not bite back. He was a typical Javanese.

What were Suharto's strengths as a politician? How could he stay in power for so long?

He was not an articulate politician. He led from behind the scenes. Even though he was hard line, he was not confrontational. As I said, very Javanese. He would not show emotion, even though all his actions were based on emotion.

I think [he stayed in power so long] because he was able to control the military, and because of how he distributed government funds. Many military officials prospered under Suharto, many generals became heads of state companies, or advisors.

How do you relate this personality to his acts of repression?

Suharto was basically a military man, not a political manipulator. If someone criticised him, he would not express anger, but someone would be arrested. Suharto’s men would act on his behalf without direct instruction, but with his implicit agreement. If Suharto disagreed with their actions he would correct them.

It’s interesting to contrast Suharto’s style with Sukarno, who is also Javanese, but much more expressive…

Sukarno is like the Javanese working class. Before acting, he would explain why he was planning to do something. His intellectual bent also meant he based actions on reason. Agree or disagree, Sukarno’s deeds were based in his ideological convictions: Marxism, Marhaenism, Nasakom [Sukarno’s amalgam of Nationalism, Religion and Communism].

In contrast, Suharto could make big moves – like arresting someone – without feeling the need to justify it intellectually. For Suharto the important thing was that there was calm and order.

What were Suharto’s weaknesses?

He could not do democracy. He was not able to engage in intellectual dialogue or discussion. As a result his actions were seen as authoritarian. Suharto could present ideology, but his ideology was very simple and not well explained. The development trilogy, for example, was probably someone else’s idea.

Economic growth was his first priority, but this could not happen without political stability. And neither could be truly achieved without equality. Suharto achieved economic growth, but with the burden of large foreign debts. He also achieved political stability, not through a dynamic of multi-party engagement, but rather through repression. So he failed to achieve equality, the third element of his agenda.

His weakness was his family. Why was Suharto so weak with his own family, when he was so strict with everyone else? Suharto himself had been adopted by Sudwikatmono. He was treated well, but differently to the other children. The children all ate, but Suharto was the one to clean the dishes. Suharto saw how his step brothers and sisters were treated, and longed for his own family. So when Suharto became powerful, he put his family first, to the point of excessiveness. If his family were attacked, Suharto was enraged. Because of his childhood experience, he longed for a harmonious family life.

How did this family experience affect Indonesian politics?

Suharto saw Indonesia as a big family. In the Javanese concept of family, the father can do no wrong. A critic of his government, therefore, was like a child speaking disrespectfully to his or her father. Suharto was not familiar with the Western political belief that openness and discussion do not equate to hostility.

Do you think it would have been very different if one of the other generals – say, Ali Moertopo or Soemitro – had taken over?

Ali Moertopo was more refined. Sumitro would have been a greater contrast, because he loved to talk. There would have been more discussion under Sumitro. Indonesia might not have been democratic, but there would have been a greater exchange of ideas. It might have been better, although we can’t say how much.

Were you surprised with the way that Suharto fell from power? Do you think Suharto made poor judgements and if so, why?

I don’t think I was surprised. Particularly given the events of the final months. Suharto had already lost international support due to corruption, and [Speaker of the People’s Consultative Assembly and Golkar party head] Harmoko had withdrawn Golkar’s support. I also heard from Chinese businesspeople that they no longer supported Suharto either. When people walked away from Suharto, they walked away in great numbers.

Yeah, he did make poor judgements. Because he’d get angry when criticised, he wasn’t getting good feedback. Miscalculations happened because he didn’t have enough information, a direct consequence of his style of leadership.

What do you think Suharto's legacy is? What lasting effect has he had on the way that Indonesian politics works?

Indonesia has become used to corruption. This is a real negative. On the positive side, the Suharto era saw the formation of a strong state in which government programs could be carried out. Unfortunately since Suharto’s fall, there has not been a strong political leader. Habibie lacked legitimacy, Gus Dur was chaotic, Megawati was incompetent. The emergence of Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono (SBY) perhaps signifies a compromise.

Have Suharto’s ‘cronies’ hindered reformasi, and the installation of democracy in Indonesia?

I don’t think so. With the rise of reformasi, there was a political move to exclude the military. Anything that smelled of the military was removed. The absence of the military put more responsibility in civilian hands. But the political parties were not ready. Their political growth had been inhibited during Suharto’s rule. Any good leader had been beaten down by Suharto. The removal of the military resulted in a leadership vacuum. The political parties who should have taken the lead lacked good candidates. These days there are efforts to improve this.

What is the most significant impact of his death on Indonesian politics?

There will be no immediate impact. De-Suhartoisation has already happened. Maybe the emotion surrounding his death will make people focus more on the positive aspects of his rule. Indonesians do not like to speak ill of the dead.     ii

Rahadian Permadi (rahadianp@hotmail.com ) is a third year student of Arts at Latrobe University.

See also Arief Budimans article New Order old school (edition 58, Apr-Jun 1999)

Inside Indonesia 91: Jan-Mar 2008

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