When Soeharto's privacy becomes public knowledge

Asvi Warman Adam, Jakarta

Last week, as former president Soeharto lay seriously ill in hospital, his lawyers sent a letter to President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono requesting the suspension of the civil lawsuit against the former dictator. The lawyers took advantage of the moment of sadness surrounding Soeharto's family and the intensive media coverage that touched many people.

The fact is, his civil case legal proceedings are ongoing and will continue, regardless of the developments in his health, and even if he dies.

But the brilliant strategy paid off; President Yudhoyono, in Kuala Lumpur for a bilateral meeting, gave "directions" to the district attorney to offer an out-of-court settlement. A court trial will result in one party winning and the other losing while this alternative will expectedly provide a "win-win solution". In her response, Siti Hardiyanti Rukmana, representing Soeharto's family, said the family would think about the offer later, saying it was inappropriate to discuss legal matters while Soeharto was in a critical condition.

The purpose of this article is not to judge the lawyers of the former president Soeharto, from a legal or ethical perspective, but to try and see how their strategy will affect post-1998 Indonesian history.

Since stepping down as president, Soeharto has been hospitalized almost a dozen times.

His first visit was after he was brought to trial in 1999. Scheduled to stand as a witness in the South Jakarta District Court, he suffered a mild stroke on July 20. His lawyer provided a phalanx of specialists to convince the court and the public of Soeharto's illness.

In 2002, his doctors said he had a permanent cerebral disorder making him unable to understand and respond to complex questions.

But the public saw him attending his grandchild's wedding and visiting his wife's grave in Astana Giribangun in Surakarta. On television, people also watched him receive former prime ministers of Malaysia and Singapore, who visited him at his residence on Jl. Cendana in Central Jakarta.

This gave people the impression that Soeharto was "sick but not sick", meaning that he had a formal doctor's certificate but that his quality of life did not seem to have been greatly diminished.

The doctor's statement that Soeharto had a permanent cerebral disorder was actually something personal which the general public did not have to know about. Health information is kept strictly confidential in western countries. Records regarding the health of a known figure take a long time, maybe a hundred years, before they can be revealed to the public. We know that there are documents that can be declassified after 25 years, but medical records are those with the longest "shelf life".

There is an anecdote in Russia regarding this. A person was arrested by the secret police because, out in the open, he had accused President Kruschev of being mad. The man was tried and heavily punished: five years of imprisonment for humiliating a high official and 20 years for "leaking a state secret". A president's health is more than just a personal secret; it is considered a "state secret".

In European countries and in the United States no presidential never been publicized on television in such a detailed manner as in the case of former president Soeharto.

People all over Indonesia know about the problems with his neural system, intestines, heart and lungs, and what instruments have been planted in his body. On June 13, 2001, doctors put a U.S.-made VVIR single-chamber pacemaker inside the former president's body. The flat, round machine that weighed 2 grams and cost Rp 30 million could last 20 years.

It was as if the man who took office for a record 32 years was disrobed in front of the public; his flesh and bones were taken apart; and his organs were examined for any malfunction. Such a move was actually a violation of his (and his family's) privacy.

If Soeharto were allowed to appear in court by his lawyers, the results would probably be in his favor. There would be open debate over the pros and cons of the case, and this would speed up the legal process. If the court decided to release him, the rehabilitation of his name would be in order. But if the court found him guilty, our current president would face demands to give him a pardon.

The case would soon be over and his lawyers would not have spend years dealing with it. Whatever the outcome may be, it would benefit Soeharto, his family and the public at large.

Now that Soeharto "is sick and definitely sick", the proper thing to do would be for the team of doctors to make statements only on his medical condition and the family to ask the public to pray for his recovery. His lawyers are welcome to make comments and moves in the court room, but not in the hospital.

The writer is a historian and chief researcher at the Indonesian Institute of Sciences. He can be reached at asvi@cbn.net.id

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