New book on Soeharto tells thoughts on probe, enemies

Tony Hotland, The Jakarta Post, Jakarta

An authorized biography of former president Soeharto has been published arguing that his historical legacies should be remembered over his ill-fated rule.

Author Retnowati Abdulgani-Knapp, the daughter of the late Indonesian freedom fighter Roeslan Abdulgani, said Tuesday she wanted to put Soeharto's reign into a perspective she believed was accurate without intending to convert any staunch haters of the country's second president. Soeharto resigned in 1998 following nationwide demonstrations.

"There's no political motivation whatsoever, let alone a desire to clear (Soeharto's) image or name," she said during her book launch here, adding that she acknowledged many readers would have reservations about picking up the book.

She began intensive interviews with Soeharto in 2005 and has met with him three to four times a year since. Each visit, she said, lasted for no more than an hour.

Retnowati said she was aware the 376-page book, titled Soeharto: The Life and Legacy of Indonesia's Second President, could appear as defending Soeharto, but that she believed the former president was a victim of the actions of his children and former ministers.

"(The biggest misconception about Soeharto) is that he's like his children. I don't think he's corrupt. His children on the other hand, must have been difficult to control," she said, adding that Soeharto believes he is innocent of corruption charges filed against him.

"He doesn't feel guilty. Whatever moves he made were products of a Cabinet, which included all former officials ever to have worked with him. So if they're seeking his prosecution, they would have to involve all former vice presidents and ministers," said Retnowati.

The book also details grudges Soeharto still holds against those he believes betrayed and deserted him at the time of his fall in the wake of the 1997 financial crisis.

One of these people is Soeharto's successor, B.J. Habibie, who was vice president prior to the 1997 resignation of the "smiling general".

Judging from her interviews with Soeharto, Retnowati believes he is still unable to forgive Habibie, who was seen as one of his closest friends, for allowing his prosecution. The Supreme Court declared Soeharto unfit to stand trial in 2002.

The corruption charges were revoked last year by the Attorney General's Office over the impossibility of a trial due to what a presidential team of doctors claim to be permanent brain damage and a physical inability to stand trial.

Retnowati said it was difficult to discuss with accuracy past issues with Soeharto because of his memory loss, and that Soeharto's case highlighted to future leaders that they should not overly trust their ministers, but rather examine political situations from the grassroots level up.

Muhammadiyah figure Ahmad Syafii Maarif said the book was empathetic toward Soeharto, but agreed that the former president should be remembered for his accomplishments during his 32-year reign.

"His children should be mature enough to defend and face all the charges against their father. There's no way he's ever going to be able to stand trial, so his children need to wake up and be bold," he said.

Azyumardi Azra, rector at state Islamic university Syarif Hidayatullah, said that despite his fall, none of Soeharto's successors had managed to combine his political skills with his ability to "conveniently" position Indonesia in the international community.


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