Suharto’s exit: end of the era of Asia’s strongmen?
Tuesday, 29 January 2008

Suharto’s passing marks the end of an era, a period that spanned the second half of the 20th century in the wake of the Second World War and the Cold War the quickly followed suit. It would not be an exaggeration to say that with the passing of Suharto the age of strongmen-politics will come to an end Farish A Noor THERE are strongmen, and then again there are really strong strongmen.

Indonesia’s former president Suharto falls into the latter category and though the man was finally deposed after waves of student demonstrations that rocked Indonesia in May 1998, he remains firmly planted on the map of Indonesian and Southeast Asia’s regional politics till now. Observers of Indonesian politics have already put their pens to paper and have begun to write the obituary to what has to be one of the most important (if not notorious) and enigmatic of Asia’s leaders of the 20th century.

Indeed, so long and extensive was Suharto’s period of rule in Indonesia that the man has been elevated to the level of a national icon, seen as a hero for some and as one of the most brutal dictators the world has ever seen by others. Suharto’s passing marks the end of an era, a period that spanned the second half of the 20th century in the wake of the Second World War and the Cold War the quickly followed suit.

It would not be an exaggeration to say that with the passing of Suharto the age of strongmen-politics will come to an end. Suharto’s own record and personal life story reads as an epic tale of the small man made good, of the poor peasant boy who was at the right place at the right time and consequently was picked by history to play a crucial part in the drama of nations.

Born in 1921 in a humble village in central Java that was even then teeming with an overcrowded population suffering from illiteracy, poverty and lack of development, he joined the Dutch colonial army just when the star of Dutch colonial rule was waning and the Japanese were about to occupy the country. Suharto’s military career then took off under Japanese military rule where he learned fast enough how men in uniform could run a country and reduce civilian politicians to pen-pushers and redundant rubber stamps.

He also earned his stripes by fighting against the Dutch in the independence war of the mid-1940s, and made his name as one of the young nationalist-patriots of his time, very much in the same mould as Aung San, father of Burma’s Aung San Su Kyi, who was likewise a Japanese-trained military man and nationalist. But Suharto’s moment only arrived when it became clear that Sukarno’s ailing government and his feeble attempts at introducing what was then termed ‘guided democracy’ had failed in Indonesia.

Following the failure of the 1965 coup, Sukarno unleashed the army and senior officers like Suharto (then commander of KONSTRAD, the Indonesian army’s special forces) on the Indonesian Communist Party. The anti-communist purges that followed were the bloodiest massacres in Indonesian history, with anything between half a million to one million people killed in the name of anti-Communism.

What was clear from the time that Suharto really took over power in 1970, however, was that the ‘New Order’ he instituted after Sukarno’s disgraceful downfall was supported, financed, trained and protected by none other than Indonesia’s new strategic ally, the United States of America. Successive American presidents like Lyndon Johnson, Kennedy, Nixon and Jimmy Carter spoke about human rights and democracy in their struggle to discredit the Soviet Union then, but the same standards were not applied in many an American allied state such as Indonesia, the Philippines and South Vietnam.

This was the era of Asia’s strongmen: Indonesia’s Suharto, the Philippines’s Ferdinand Marcos and even Vietnam’s Bao Dai were propped up by their friends and allies in Washington and while the struggle against Communism was being fought in the jungles of Southeast Asia, scant regard was paid to the plight of those who were the victims of these military regimes.

The end of the Cold War marked the end of these strongmen, for the game was up and as Eastern Europe was brought into the fold of the free market it became less and less palatable for Western heads of states to dine and chat with Asian and African mass-murderers and tyrants. Suharto’s fall in 1998 during the East Asian economic crisis marked the final chapter of a long and painful history where such great and powerful men were made all the greater (and consequently dangerous) thanks to the weapons and military training given to them and their counterparts at army bases such as Fort Bragg in the United States.

Today as the Bush presidency winds down to an abysmal flop and the last futile gestures of appeasement are made by Bush to the leaders of the Arab world, the pitiful story of the rise and fall of Suharto serves as a timely corrective reminder of the mistakes of the 20th century. Sadly, as recent developments have shown in places such as Lebanon, many Western governments remain on the look-out for local strongmen whom they can call their loyal boys and dogsbodies.

Yet for all the economic prosperity that Suharto brought to Indonesia in the 1980s, the country remained one of the most unevenly-developed, corrupt and violent in the world. A minority of Indonesians lamented the fall of Suharto in 1998 and were worried about the power vacuum that was created in his absence, but that precisely proves the point that such dictatorial rule only cripples and hobbles a nation in the long run.

Suharto was and remains one of the most historically important figures of Asia in the 20th century, but like all great men he leaves in his trail a long shadow that shrouded the rest of his nation in darkness. Dr Farish A Noor is Senior Fellow and Research Director at the Rajaratnam School of International Studies of Nanyang Technical University, Singapore. He is also one of the founders of the www.othermalaysia.org research site.

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