28.1.08

Soeharto takes three mysteries to the grave

Opinion News - Monday, January 28, 2008

Endy M. Bayuni Jakarta

How much did Maj. Gen. Soeharto know about the plot to kidnap and murder six of his peers in the Army on the night of September 30, 1965? Did President Sukarno really give Gen. Soeharto sweeping executive powers on March 11, 1966, and if so, what were the exact circumstances that made Sukarno virtually gave up power? What prompted Soeharto to finally call it quits, ending his presidency after 32 years, on the eve of May 21, 1998?

These are three major events in the modern history of Indonesia that involved Soeharto for which some questions remain. The one person who knew the answers was Soeharto himself. Now that he is dead, he will be taking them with him to the grave.

These three dates defined his rise to power, the beginning of his presidency and its end.

Soeharto had apparently been informed about an imminent action by a group of young Army officers to kidnap several generals on that September night of 1965.

One of those officers, Lt. Col. Abdul Latief, visited Soeharto at a hospital in Jakarta to report to him the plan to preempt the "council of generals" from allegedly seizing power from President Sukarno. Soeharto was Chief of the Army's Reserve Strategic Command. His reaction was indifferent, according to accounts by Latief.

With all the top Army leadership slain by the following morning, Soeharto assumed command. He quickly linked the young officers' plot with the Indonesian Communist Party (PKI). Thus began the move to crush the PKI and all its followers that led to the killing of genocidal proportions across Indonesia from the late 1965 to mid-1966.

Sukarno's own power by early 1966 had been weakened by his failure to condemn the PKI for slaying the six generals. By March 1966, the Army under Soeharto controlled much of the nation while Sukarno was reduced to a sitting-duck president. This explains the ease with which Sukarno signed (if he ever did) the famous March 11, 1966, letter that transferred much of his power to the young Army general.

This takes us to the second major unanswered question about Soeharto's presidency.

Three Army generals, at the order of Soeharto, visited Sukarno at the Presidential Palace in nearby Bogor the morning of March 11, 1966. A few hours later, the three came back to report to Soeharto in Jakarta with a letter signed by Sukarno that purportedly gave unlimited powers to Soeharto to restore peace and order.

The exact wording of the letter is a mystery. The original letter is missing. The only document available is a purported transcript of the letter, which is indeed a transfer of executive power from Sukarno to Soeharto. This letter marked the beginning of the end for Sukarno, and paved the way for Soeharto to become full president the following year.

Also unclear are the circumstances in which Sukarno signed the letter, if he signed one.

Some analysts speculate there was coercion: the generals had already typed the letter beforehand and Sukarno may have signed it at gunpoint. What is clear is that Soeharto repeatedly had to deny that the event amounted to a coup d'etat.

Fast forward 32 years, precisely to the night before May 21, 1998, when Jakarta was very tense. A week earlier, the capital city was rocked by a riot targeting Chinese shops and businesses.

Indonesia was in a deep economic crisis and students had already taken over the House of Representatives building. They threatened to take to the streets in millions lest he complied with their only demand: his resignation.

The 77-year-old former general faced the toughest challenge of his presidency. Besides the economic crisis, he also faced eroding support not only from the public, but also from his traditional supporters. Golkar, his political party, had abandoned him. Many of his Cabinet members had written to him that they no longer could serve him.

The military under Gen. Wiranto remained loyal. He contacted Muslim scholar Amien Rais, who had offered to lead the student march, and warned him of massive bloodshed if they went ahead with the planned protests that Saturday. Wiranto stood his ground, saying it was his duty to protect the capital.

Soeharto could have called the students' bluff and let Wiranto clean up the mess. After all, this is a former general who justified the killing of hundreds of thousands of suspected communists in 1965-66 on the grounds of the greater good: save the nation from communism. He used violent tactics throughout his presidency to deal with any threat to his leadership.

So what happened in May 1998? Did he just lose his guts? Another unanswered mystery.

Instead, he wrote a letter transferring executive powers to Gen. Wiranto (modeled on the March 1966 letter), and called his vice president B.J. Habibie to say he was resigning the next day.

But the aircraft engineer apparently misread Soeharto's intentions, and presumed that as vice president he would be the next Indonesian leader by default. No one, including Habibie, was aware of Soeharto's letter to Wiranto until much later. Soeharto probably intended that Habibie would resign along with him since they had been elected on the same ticket two months earlier.

Soeharto resigned alone, or rather quit, on May 21, 1998, saying he could no longer continue his rule under the circumstances. Habibie was sworn in as president. Soeharto never spoke to him again.

What was his intention? Did he intend for Wiranto to succeed him rather than Habibie?

While Habibie, Wiranto and a few others involved in the saga of that night have spoken or written books about their part in the evolving situation, Soeharto remained silent to his death. We will never know now what was going through his mind when he decided enough was enough, and who he intended to succeed him.

Mysteries shrouded much of Soeharto's 32-year presidency. Some were revealed in his 1988 semi-autobiography, Soeharto, My Thoughts, Words, and Deeds, but he left many unanswered questions regarding his part in the 1965 putsch and the 1966 transfer of power.

Historians trying to reconstruct this period of Indonesia's modern history will have to speculate and interpret the available facts in filling in some of the gaping holes.

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