Divorcing the Dictator
The day of reckoning may finally be at hand for Indonesia's Suharto
JAKARTA--The old man at No. 8 Cendana Street sits by his satellite TV, watching local sitcoms and nature shows on the Discovery, National Geographic, and Animal Planet channels. After three strokes, he is on a low-fat, low-stress regimen, and his doctors think it best that he avoid newspapers and magazines. Occasionally, he grabs a golf club and practices his swing in his bedroom. But because he is under house arrest, golf is no longer an option. At 79 and feeling his mortality, the old man is often found deep in prayer, alone or with neighbors on Fridays, the Muslim sabbath. His six kids, who keep houses nearby, drop by regularly.
All seems quiet inside the modest two-story, red-tiled house in a leafy neighborhood of the Indonesian capital. There is little sense that the man who lives there is at the center of a political and legal storm roiling this young democracy. Or that for 32 years he was the man who ruled Indonesia with an iron hand, smothering dissent and allowing his associates and his children to plunder the nation. Only his parrot harks back to that past, dutifully squawking a daily greeting: "Good morning, Father President."
Inside No. 8 Cendana, the man known simply as Suharto is still revered. Outside, things are very different. Violent student protests erupt on short notice. Graffiti throughout Jakarta scream: "Try Suharto!" and "Hang Suharto!" Late last week, prosecutors charged him with siphoning off some $570 million in state funds and vowed to take Suharto to court this month. Indonesian President Abdurrahman Wahid, in an interview with U.S. News, insisted that Suharto must face trial--but that he will be pardoned if he cooperates in returning the family's ill-gotten gains.
Disciplining dictators. Demands for justice are driving Indonesia to take stock of its corrupt and bloody past. But Indonesians are divided over what to do with their former dictator, who resigned two years ago amid a frenzy of rioting, rape, and arson that took more than 1,000 lives. Other countries have dealt with deposed dictators in varying ways. Chile guaranteed junta Gen. Augusto Pinochet freedom from prosecution to buy some peace, though courts are now reassessing his immunity. Ferdinand Marcos managed to flee the Philippines with much of his loot. In Romania, Nicolae Ceausescu and his wife were shot dead.
But here the only leader whom most Indonesians had ever known simply quit. Almost surreally, he planned to live quietly among them. But he left behind an embedded system of corruption, cronyism, and nepotism, as well as countless supporters throughout government and business. Suharto dominated the world's fourth most populous nation, and many Indonesians saw his reign in semimystical terms. "Twenty to 25 percent of the `little people' believed that he was a modern Javanese king who was given courtly power [by God] to rule," says Amien Rais, the leading opposition politician. "Suharto's had a lot of power over every single sector of national life."
Officials believe that influence, at least from Suharto's followers, persists. Defense Minister Juwono Sudarsono charged in an interview that former Suharto cabinet members are fomenting Muslim-Christian violence in the Molucca Islands to destabilize Wahid's government. He emphatically told U.S. News that authorities are investigating Suharto backers--as well as "one or two" of his children--suspected of financing attacks by Muslim extremists. Documents providing evidence of payments to Laskar Jihad, or Holy War Troops, were recovered from a truck that exploded in east Java in June. But bribes have apparently hampered the probe. "The residual power of the old guard is there and we feel it," Sudarsono said. "We realize we are not in full control."