Students reflect on Suharto as Indonesia grieves

Sara Peck

Though his reign was stained by massive corruption and the deaths of an estimated 1 million civilians, former Indonesian President Suharto’s death Sunday has brought up conflicted feelings around the world and among Indonesian students at Northwestern.

At the time of his death, Suharto was awaiting a civil case seeking $1.4 billion in compensation for embezzlement and kickbacks during his 32-year-long rule. Still, mourners sobbed at his full military funeral services Monday, and the U.S. Embassy at Jakarta released a statement praising the “remarkable” economic development under his regime.

Students echoed the same divided sentiments, appreciating economic development in their native country under Suharto while decrying the former head of state’s corruption.

NU Prof. Jeffrey Winters, who has specialized in Indonesian politics for 25 years, said the corruption and nostalgia are connected and not necessarily incongruous.

“Part of the reason for the outpouring of nostalgia is because he, in classic mafia don style, did create stability,” the political science professor said. “He was predictably corrupt. He did build the country up and take an enormous slice of the cream off of the top.”

Winters has written various opinion pieces critical of the U.S. and World Bank’s relationships with the former dictator, and said Suharto’s strict control of the media explains the surprisingly positive view of the dictator in the wake of his death.

“He nurtured the media, and they are now carefully controlling the tone,” he said. “Most people in power now were groomed by the Suharto regime, so there’s an enormous amount of continuity.”

Indonesian citizen and NU student Melissa Pangkey, who said many of her friends in Indonesia are children of high-ranking Indonesian businesspeople, described Suharto’s control of public opinion.

“He was really good at keeping up his image. His cronies covered everything up,” the Communication senior said. “He got out of prosecution, still managed to keep his wealth and still had influence even after he left power. It’s ridiculous.”

Rishi Taparia, who grew up in Indonesia before moving to Canada with his family, said both the positive and negative aspects of Suharto’s reign need to be considered.

“Had it not been for him, I wouldn’t have been able to go here,” said Taparia, a Communication senior. “What he did was very good (for the economy) in a number of ways, but he also set back the country and was quite ruthless.”

Since Suharto destroyed so much of the Indonesian legal structure, investment rates have dropped, job opportunities are scarce and the economy has yet to return to its previous strength, Winters said.

“Indonesians are going to have to rebuild,” Winters said. “Suharto destroyed all of the social and legal institutions. The problem is that Indonesia doesn’t have an effective rule of law.”

Though the former dictator ordered the deaths of between 250,000 and 1 million members of the Indonesian Communist Party in 1965, he was also a Cold War ally to the U.S.

Additionally, he invaded the Portuguese colony of East Timor, killing more than 250,000 citizens, either directly or as a result of famine and disease.

“(The invasion) was identical to Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait,” Winters said. “Suharto is a classic example of dictators that the U.S. supported when it suited our interests. We stuck a financial IV in his arm, and he never set foot in a courtroom.”

Students said the U.S. has obligations to Indonesia, from helping with economic recovery to issuing an apology for supporting Suharto.

” I think that the U.S. should try to help the Indonesian people to return the favor of being an ally in the past,” Taparia said. “(The U.S.) should make good on a past agreement.”

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