The jokes never end with Soeharto

Soeryo Winoto, Jakarta

Many organizations and individuals who condemned Soeharto soon after he stepped down in May 1998 are now demonstrating their "wisdom" by calling on the nation to forgive the former president now that he is in a critical condition in hospital.

They cite the sweet religious idiom, "while God forgives, why don't we".

Public officials, who used to benefit from Soeharto's power, are showing their gratitude by praying for the former dictator's recovery. The presidential medical team has said Soeharto has suffered multiple organ failure and rate his chances of living at 50 percent.

Inarguably, there have been things to learn from Soeharto's helpless position in a Pertamina Hospital sickbed. First, he has proved himself to be a great individual. From good friends like former Singaporean prime minister Lee Kuan Yew to Guruh Soekarnoputra, the youngest son of former president Sukarno, whom Soeharto politically tortured, public figures have flocked to visit the ailing Soeharto.

Despite his fight for life, Soeharto also shows he remains powerful as legal measures against corruption accusations implicating him have all been revoked. All his predecessors, B.J. Habibie, Abdurrahman Wahid, Megawati Soekarnoputri and now Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, have failed to bring Soeharto to court.

The jokes began with moves to prosecute Soeharto back in 1998. Former attorney general Muhamad Ghalib flew to Europe to trace Soeharto's ill-gotten wealth but he returned home empty-handed. Now current Attorney General Hendarman Supandji, after finding it difficult to bring Soeharto to justice, has said that the criminal charges against Soeharto have been dropped, but the civil cases involving his foundations would continue.

Hendarman visited the hospital in the wee hours of Saturday to offer Soeharto's children a win-win solution. The out-of-court settlement means Soeharto's case would be closed after his children paid a certain amount of money. The move, thought to come from the government, was later denied by President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, who told a media conference following his arrival home from Malaysia that it was not right to discuss legal matters while Soeharto was very ill.

Yudhoyono must be unable to tell us when it will be the right time. It has been during his presidency that many former and active government officials have stood trial and been convicted, but it seems he can do nothing with Soeharto, who tops the UN's list of the world's most corrupt leaders.

Yudhoyono seems happy to play it safe by asking the people to stop any debates and arguments on Soeharto and avoid using improper words or expressions about him, citing his great contribution to the nation.

The call sounds like another joke to many amid Yudhoyono's crusade against corruption and has inarguably caused Hendarman to look like a fool for offering the out-of-court settlement to Soeharto's family without his boss' consent. While nobody knows the reason for Yudhoyono's denial of Hendarman's out-of-court settlement offer, everybody must believe the boss can do no wrong.

Soeharto's former political enemies have also cracked jokes, taking advantage of his serious illness. The Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle's Taufik Kiemas claimed to have passed on to the party leader Megawati a message from Soeharto, who said he entrusted the nation to her.

People with common sense must not buy such claims, as they will ask why Soeharto, who kept Sukarno from his family, including his daughter Megawati, following his exit from office, would trust Megawati? In a recent interview with private television, one of Megawati's sisters revealed that during his house detention, the critically ill Sukarno was accompanied by a man who was later found to be a veterinarian, instead of a doctor.

It was also under Soeharto's rule that Megawati's Indonesian Democratic Party was restricted and split.

So why did Soeharto ask Megawati to take care of the nation?

If the message is true the public would assume that -- contrary to people's belief -- Megawati is actually one of Soeharto's confidants.

But if it is untrue, perhaps it is part of Megawati's political maneuvers to win the people's hearts ahead of the 2009 elections. But why use Soeharto? That's the joke.

The writer is a journalist. He can be reached at soeryo_winoto@yahoo.com


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