Jan 28th 2008 | BANGKOK
s deathbed saga finally ends in Indonesia
FOR weeks, Indonesia's former dictator, General Suharto, had been lingering on his deathbed in a hospital in Jakarta, attended by a team of doctors and a scrum of reporters. Some of the country's 226m people, meanwhile, debated his legacy: was he a nation-builder or a plunderer of the nation's wealth? A bringer of stability or a murderous destroyer of liberty? As his life ebbed away, the enigmatic ex-soldier who had ruled with a rod of iron for 32 years until 1998 was visited by two fellow retired autocratsMalaysia'
His burial, in line with Muslim tradition, took place the next day. Tens of thousands lined the streets as his body was driven through the royal city of Solo in central Java, to the family mausoleum. Born in 1921 when Indonesia was still a Dutch colony, Mr Suharto was officially recorded as being the son of peasant farmers, although rumours suggested that he might have been the illegitimate son of a Javanese aristocrat or perhaps a wealthy businessman.
Mr Suharto joined the colonial Dutch army, then served under the occupying Japanese forces in the second world war, after which he fought for independence. In 1965 he shoved aside the then president, Sukarno, after the murders of six army generals in what was later officially claimed to have been a communist plot. Whatever the truth, Mr Suharto used it as an excuse to launch a bloody crackdown on communists, Sukarno supporters and anyone else in his way. Hundreds of thousands were slaughtered.
From then on all dissent was crushed in the name of stability and economic progress: Mr Suharto named himself the "Father of Development"
However, behind a façade of modernity and mock democracy Mr Suharto was creating a mafia state, with himself as godfather, built on patronage, corruption and repression. Separatist movements in Aceh, Papua and especially that in East Timor, a former Portuguese colony which Mr Suharto had invaded in 1975, were repressed with exceptional brutalityagain, the body-count ran into the hundreds of thousands.
By the 1990s the rot was obvious. Mr Suharto's former backers in the West regretted praising him so effusively. With the 1997 Asian crisis the whole decayed structure collapsed. Amid street protests and a plunging economy, Mr Suharto was forced to resign the next year. The survival, however, of many of his cronies ensured he was never brought to justice. He continued to live comfortably in downtown Jakarta, suffering periodic bouts of serious illness that correlated, suspiciously, with spasmodic attempts to prosecute him.
In May 2006 the country's attorney-general dropped all criminal proceedings against the former dictator. A civil case was then launched to try to recover some of the billions that he, his family and his "charities" allegedly looted (which he continued, to the end, to deny). Earlier this month his supporters in parliament urged the dropping of even this case.
By his death Mr Suharto has cheated justice. Like Chairman Mao, the Philippines' Ferdinand Marcos and even Cambodia's Pol Pot, he leaves behind a coterie of diehard supporters with irrational nostalgia for the supposedly golden days of autocratic rule. Indonesia suffered years of chaos and low growth after the collapse of his rotten regime. But recently democracy and civil society have begun to blossom, the public finances have been repaired, a peace agreement has been struck to end Aceh's separatist conflict and the country has come to terms with the loss of East Timor (now independent Timor-Leste)