The one that got away ... or not?

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From: Sunny
Sent: Thursday, January 17, 2008 4:22 AM
Subject: [kkn-watch] The one that got away ... or not?

International Herald Tribune 
The one that got away ... or not?
Wednesday, January 16, 2008

It's part of the traditional belief of Javanese and of Muslims - and many other people for that matter - that there is a judgment day waiting for all of us. There are variations on this theme, but basically the idea is that the end is not the end.

Many Indonesians believe the first stage of punishment in the afterlife is "siksa kubur" - literally "tomb torture." You may have heard stories about corpses exhumed soon after burial showing signs of severe beating, with broken arms or legs and bruised and swollen faces distorted with fear and pain. This is the stuff of Indonesian horror movies, but it helps explain why so many elderly Indonesians start getting religious as the end draws nigh.

Perhaps that's why Suharto had his sickbed re-aligned last week to point toward Mecca. I don't know why he bothered. Given his track record, when Suharto comes face-to-face with his tormentors in the grave, he'll probably weasel out of retribution by summoning a "pasukan siluman" (army of devils) in the form of demonic lawyers.

Despite his well-known role in decades of political and business corruption, despite the vast amounts of money his family amassed and despite the human rights abuses that stained his 32 years in power, Suharto consistently managed to avoid facing trial.

When he dies, Suharto will leave a mixed legacy. Over decades of authoritarian dictatorship backed by violent armed intervention, he achieved massive economic development and delivered basic social services across the archipelago. But it came at a high cost. In addition to human rights abuses and the loss of basic freedoms, his inner circle became obscenely rich.

But his corrupt personal franchise fell apart in 1997. The Indonesian economy, weighed down by corruption, collapsed. Within months he was gone.

To the end, he has remained a hugely intimidating figure, capable of commanding fear and respect even in his dotage. Incredibly, just about every major office-bearer in our government has gone cap in hand to Suharto's sickbed. They certainly didn't go just to bask in his sunny personality.

No. The elite took notice when he said that if he ever ended up in the witness box he would take everyone else with him. It is a threat that has won him immunity from prosecution for years. So now, like when the Godfather lies dying, most of the visitors come to make sure he really is on the way out.

Will Suharto be thumbing his nose from the grave at those who wanted him to face justice? It certainly looks like he will never be made to answer for his role in Indonesia's massacres and purges between 1965 and 1966, when an estimated 500,000 to 1 million people were killed and another million detained and abused in the crackdown on suspected Communists and Chinese-Indonesians.

The figures are vague, perhaps unknowable, and this is part of the problem: The whole grim episode is still officially shrouded in mystery. Reading government sources, you could be forgiven for wondering whether it ever really happened at all.

Everyone knows a family that lost a member or knows someone who became a "non-person" because of real or imagined association with Communism. But no one seems to know who did the actual killing.

In part, this was because the essential foundation myth of the "new order" was based on Suharto's version of his response to a Communist coup attempt. There was a long period when to publicly question that version of events - or even to discuss it - was considered subversive and could see you facing the same fate as the "Communists."

But this public secret - the greatest mass slaughter in modern Southeast Asian history apart from the Khmer Rouge killing fields - must be faced publicly if Indonesia is to move forward. That will not be simple because it involves a host of unresolved and potentially explosive social and political problems: the role of Islamic organizations (especially the conservative Sunni group Nahdlatul Ulama) in the massacres, the military's shocking human rights record, the basic political legitimacy of Suharto's Golkar Party and its heirs, and whether the left can ever again have role in public life.

The killings are still the elephant in the room of Indonesian politics. That is why we need a national truth and reconciliation process like in South Africa, which demonstrated so effectively that public honesty and truth are essential prerequisites to real political transition.

Suharto may escape accountability for the bloodbath that accompanied his rise to power, just as he has escaped trial for corruption, but once he is gone, an obstacle - perhaps the major obstacle - to examining the record will be removed.

His death may be just what is needed to let Indonesia face the dark past he helped create. If the surviving victims join with researchers, the media and the few genuine reformers still in politics, maybe the government will, one day, open a proper investigation.

If that happens, then perhaps Suharto's final escape from justice will allow millions of others to claim it for themselves, at last - and I reckon that would be "siksa kubur" for the old man.

Julia Suryakusuma is the author of "Sex, Power and Nation."


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