Soeharto's 'liminal' problem

Opinion and Editorial - January 12, 2008

Aboeprijadi Santoso, Jakarta

Power accumulates in many ways. In the Javanese view, however, power
is concrete and constant, argued Ben Anderson, an old hand in
Indonesian studies, years ago. But, what if a (Javanese) man, once the
most powerful in this country, having lost his formal authority for
almost a decade, doesn't totally lose power and influence? Soeharto
has a so-called "liminal" problem.

Soeharto, Indonesia's second president and former dictator, has
uniquely suffered for too long. Since July 1999, just a year after he
was forced from office, he has gone back and forth to the hospital.
Time and again he was released, a bit healthier than before, only to
enter the hospital again some time later. This pattern has continued
for almost a decade. In total, he has been hospitalized at least 14
times as a result of bad health and old age.

Medical aspects aside, this process raises a question of transition,
both political and cultural.

For, like it or not, Soeharto is a phenomenon. Each time he was
brought to the hospital, a growing number of (former) state
dignitaries who served under him paid him a visit and homage. And each
time he's thus back in the headlines, his opponents remind the public
of his alleged criminal past.

Among his supporters, there has been a sort of state ritual, albeit
rather informal, in the making. For, to pay a visit is to honor the
man being visited, but it's also a demonstration of the visitors'
loyalty and allegiance; possibly with some interests projected on his
family business. They carefully conveyed public messages of empathy,
forgiveness, even proposals to the effect of dropping all legal
charges against him.

Over time, it might be expected that both the hospital-visit ritual by
the supporters and the debate over Soeharto's legacy, alleged
corruption and crimes among his opponents, may become routine and
loses relevance. Wrong. The visit ritual and the debate has only
intensified as Soeharto's health has gotten worse. Both sides have to
get used to it, and silently expect that his final day will soon come.

While Soeharto has definitely lost his status of most powerful,
leaving one stage, he has not yet entered a new one. Such a
station-in-between carries characteristics of an earlier stage
without, however, acquiring new ones. Pioneering anthropologist Victor
Turner (1967) calls this a liminal phase. It's a critical stage in any
human society; hence, its significant as part of society's rite of

An obvious example from our society is the circumcision of a Muslim
boy. Once circumcised, the boy is no longer a stupid child, but is
ready to reach the status of a man (akil baliq), or, in Javanese
terms, ready to become civilized. In reality, though, he is neither
the yesterday boy nor a new man.

To simplify: similarly, Soeharto is no longer what he used to be, but,
thanks to the visit ritual, he is still able to show some power and
influence; yet, at the same time, now at 86, he is about to enter a
final stage where he will be without power at all.

Soeharto, of course, has always been aware of his past privilege
(abuse, that is) of being the most powerful man, so he too must have
recognized how his power accumulated during his good old days. This is
the way we understand power in "western", rational sense.

Viewed in the Javanese way, as Soeharto would have it, power, being
something concrete, is always clearly marked by concrete acts and
events; and, being constant, it is always a zero sum; i.e. you get
more at the cost of your counterparts -- or subjects, for that matter
-- getting less; never a win-win, but always win and lose.

The ritual of hospital visits by (former) state dignitaries are
concrete events which clearly illustrate this relationship that goes
for Soeharto winning more and his former subjects getting less -- in
terms of political status and image, that is. The ambiguity of
Soeharto's liminal status means that whatever "power" he possesses is
no longer relevant even for him, and that the ritual of his loyal and
humble (former) dignitaries only serves their own interests.

Since Soeharto's rule is viewed as an antithesis of all virtues of
democracy, the homage ritual by his supporters cannot be seen as
serving Indonesia's new democracy and its people. Soeharto himself
never acted similarly: he only visited Gen. A.H. Nasution's and
president Sukarno's families after the two men died.

On balance, while the hospital visit ritual by Soeharto loyalists does
nothing to educate the nation on democracy, the debate and discourse
over Soeharto's legacy are clearly more useful -- certainly as many of
his critics would remind the public of him being politically
responsible for the 1965 mass killings, East Timor genocide, Aceh
bloodbath and massive corruption.

The writer is a journalist and can be contacted at

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