By Seth Mydans
Published: January 17, 2008
Alfata, 49, holding a portrait of her son Gilang, a protester killed as Suharto left power.
SOLO, Indonesia: Gilang was one of the last victims of Suharto's harsh 32-year rule, a young activist who disappeared on the day the former president was forced from power 10 years ago and whose body was found six days later, shot, stabbed and disemboweled.
As with many of Suharto's victims, his killers have never been identified or brought to justice, escaping prosecution much as Suharto himself has done over the past decade.
Now, on what appears to be his deathbed, it seems Suharto will end his life - like Pol Pot in Cambodia - without having to answer for crimes on a monumental scale that include severe human rights abuses and prodigious corruption.
For the past two weeks Suharto, 86, has struggled for life in a Jakarta hospital with what doctors say is multiple organ failure. Along with a stream of medical reports about his condition, a debate has emerged over whether to honor him as a statesman or to pursue him as a criminal even after his death.
The day of Gilang's disappearance, May 21, 1998, marked the end of a regime in which hundreds of thousands of people were killed in purges, massacres, assassinations, kidnappings and civil wars.
It was a regime that has been compared with a Mafia empire in which Suharto, as president, enriched himself, his family and his friends and is accused of stealing at least $15 billion in state funds.
It ended when Suharto's power was undermined by a devastating economic collapse, widespread rioting, student demonstrations and finally rejection by his own military and cabinet ministers.
Now in the capital, Jakarta, the mood seems to be forgiveness and amnesia. A parade of politicians, religious figures, pop stars and three foreign leaders has paid hushed visits to his bedside as if he were already lying in state.
A number of public figures have joined a call for an end to investigations and prosecutions against him as unseemly.
Criminal corruption cases against him were shelved years ago but could be revived. The government recently discussed with Suharto's family the settlement of a civil case seeking $1.4 billion for money allegedly stolen from charitable foundations.
"There is nothing wrong if we pardon the mistakes made by our former leader, who has made significant contributions to the nation," said Suryadharma Ali, the minister for small and medium enterprises, in a commonly heard comment.
The philosophy behind this view was articulated the other day by a trader named Japendi Hendry Christianto, 33, as he sat on a stool on the sidewalk here in Solo, in central Java.
"Many people see Suharto as the tiger that eats the deer," he said. "It is not cruel. It is natural. This is what tigers do." Every animal has its own nature, he said, and must accept its place in the natural order.
"Suharto cannot be tried, because he is the tiger," Japendi said. "He is the king of the jungle. He will die a natural death, and the worms will eat him. It is the cycle of life."
But as the days have passed, other voices have emerged, taking the view that Suharto's crimes are too enormous to shunt aside and that no one is above the law.
"We cannot excuse him," said Hendardi, who heads the Indonesian Legal Aid and Human Rights Association. "Forgiveness is in the private domain, but law enforcement is in the public domain. We cannot set a precedent that discriminates in favor of the powerful."
One of Suharto's successors as president, Abdurrahman Wahid, also said the law must take its course.
"It is all right to forgive someone's mistakes," said Wahid, who was president from 1999 to 2001. "For Suharto the charges must be continued and examined by the courts. After the trial it is up to people whether he should be forgiven or not."
Among those challenging the public mood of forgiveness are victims of the abuses of his rule, who have staged small demonstrations in Jakarta and here in central Java.
"Suharto must be put on trial to prove whether he is guilty or not guilty," said Budiardi, the mother of Gilang, who still weeps when she talks about her loss. "I cannot forgive him before he is put on trial."
Gilang, whose full name was Leonardus Nugroho Iskandar, was a 20-year-old street singer who joined the student movement calling for Suharto's ouster and who had been beaten and arrested several times before his disappearance.
His parents have petitioned the government to investigate the case but have received no response, his mother said. That lack of response has played out also on a national scale.
Four presidents have succeeded Suharto over the past decade but, facing the power of his money and his influential friends, none has pushed through a case against him.
Some people who say they are realists assert that no matter what the furor, this will never happen.
"The idea of putting former President Suharto on trial, which has been heard often lately, is now as unlikely as draining the oceans," said the weekly newsmagazine Tempo in an editorial this week. "What is the point of discussing things that are unlikely to happen?"
Government leaders and high-ranking officials are expected to attend Suharto's funeral at his mausoleum on a mystical hilltop not far from here, where he will be buried with solemn Javanese ritual.
Those who suffered under his regime may be left with only their tears and their anger.
Winarsa, 69, was one of the first victims of Suharto's rule, a schoolteacher who was imprisoned for 15 years in a series of camps. He was arrested in 1965, when Suharto seized power, at the start of an anti-communist purge that took at least 500,000 lives.
"All these people who are saying good things about Suharto don't know what they're talking about," he said. "What I remember is that whoever had a different opinion on politics from Suharto would be killed or kidnapped."
Three brothers and a cousin were killed in the purges, he said. He still carries the scars of beatings he received.
"As a human, no, I'm not angry," he said, although he sounded angry. "But if you ask me to say a good word about Suharto, no, I won't. For me he is not a good man."