17.1.08

Opportunity lost in treating Soeharto right

Harry Bhaskara, The Jakarta Post, Jakarta


The ailing Soeharto has been the constant focus of the media for the last two weeks. As his doctors monitor his health minute by minute, television updates on his condition are aired every hour, while a trail of local and international dignitaries troop through his hospital room.

It is fitting to treat a leader with respect. Doing so is elegant and commendable. The former president has done a lot for this country. Like his predecessor, Sukarno, he dedicated his whole life to this country.

Yet something looks out of place at Pertamina Hospital, where he has been treated since Jan. 4. Many of those who have visited him have pleaded for all his past mistakes to be pardoned.

What a paradox! On one side, he is getting the best health treatment possible in the country, the care and respect of family members, friends and other leaders, while on the other side, this plea for a pardon.

A pardon for what? What has he done?

Was he responsible for the mass murder in the 1960s in which at least half a million people were killed and hundreds of thousands of others were tortured, raped, or jailed without trial? It's not clear.

Did he steal money from the people? It's not clear.

Should he be held accountable for numerous brutalities during his rule? It's not clear as there often were no trials held at the time. If there were, he has always had the power to influence any court proceedings.

Was he responsible for the killing of criminals in the 1980s? Yes, he admitted it in his book Soeharto, My Thoughts, Words and Deeds and yet still there was no trial.

So there is at least a springboard from which the authorities could use to look for justice.

As this never happens, subsequent governments are partly to blame.

Four governments have turned the Soeharto case into a publicity stunt. Every time he was about to be taken to court, he fell ill.

It is clear that there were people in power who wanted to stop the process lest it would expose their own vulnerable positions. Soeharto is being used as a buffer to save themselves. It looks like a vicious cycle and in the end the whole nation is to suffer as it will never know what he has done wrong.

Had a subsequent government been able to bring him to court, it would be a case involving his alleged embezzlement of US$440 million through his foundations. Not his other possible corruption cases, let alone his alleged human rights violations.

If the current government ignores all his wrongs, there will be lots of dark numbers in our nation's history. It is doing an injustice to the younger generation and is blocking the road for Indonesia to become a great nation as it fails to live in peace with its own past.

President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono's call for restraint in all talk about Soeharto's cases reflects the sentiments of many. Soeharto ruled this republic like a king and many people seem to have liked serving him.

Soeharto is constantly under a media blitz. The country's 10 or so television stations, many of which are owned by his cronies, are playing on the people's emotions, as pictures have a powerful impact.

It is a contrast to the fate of his many victims, who languished in the dark, suffering hunger and pain from untreated wounds inflicted by their torturers. No media dared report their plight during his tenure as Soeharto had tight control over the media. There were no comforting ng words from family members or friends and no adequate medication.

Or what about the tattooed criminals who were shot in the street in the episode known as the "mysterious killings" in the 1980s? Or the violence committed in the troubled regions of Aceh, Papua and East Timor?

The care Soeharto is receiving is exactly the way a sick people should be treated. Unfortunately, a light needs to be shone on his dark moments, so that everyone can see them. This is a gross mistake committed by subsequent governments, including the current one.

In a more mature democracy, dirty linen often gets aired in public, like the establishment of the controversial U.S. Guantanamo Bay detainment center under the leadership of George Bush, or the Bill Clinton-Monica Levinsky affair. Both are still respected leaders in their own right.

A willingness to be scrutinized is part of being a public figure, since power is so vulnerable to evil.

Darkness shrouding a leader suggests doubt in judging him or her, especially one as important as Soeharto. Subsequent governments' failure to bring him to light amounts to an injustice rendered by the state. At the last moment, he is not given the benefit of being properly treated for the sake of the nation and for his family. He will probably go down in history as both a hero and villain.

His cronies around him and those who are still in power may feel relieved when he eventually leaves this world without ever going to court. But they overlook the fact that their feeling of relief will come back to hit the nation many years from now.

Soeharto will serve as a precedent. The door is open for any new president to commit gross mistakes with impunity.

The author is a staff writer of The Jakarta Post. He can be reached at harry@thejakartapost.com


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