Indonesia still suffering from legacy of former president Suharto

Developing Just Leadership

Abdar Rahman Koya

Muharram 23, 1429 2008-02-01

South-East Asia

by Abdar Rahman Koya (South-East Asia, Crescent International Vol. 36, No. 12, Muharram, 1429)

Perhaps the only confusion that emerged in the aftermath of Suharto’s death on January 27 was the conflicting reports about how many names he had: whether he had one name, like most Javanese, or two, prefixed by ‘Muhammad’. The rest of the details about his life are clear.

Suharto’s death merely ended his physical presence. His obituary is the kind which can be prepared in advance of the death; the author need only to fill up the blanks for the date and place. He was effectively dead years ago after his fall in 1997 following pressures from both domestic protestors and his foreign protectors, who turned into adversaries as soon as they realised that their blue-eyed boy was being cornered. Though he was no longer in action during the last decade since stepping down, the domino effect that is accompanied every time a tyrant leaves the scene is still felt throughout the Indonesian archipelago today. The social and economic mess he left eclipses whatever “development” he brought about during his rule. Yet, whether or not Suharto or his legacy lives on is irrelevant, even amidst all the noise to bring him to ‘justice’: a process which will ultimately end with his being pardoned by the current president.

The mainstream western media will insert this information when reporting his death: Suharto’s time saw some of the worst atrocities committed on the peoples of Indonesia. And what they will omit is this: that he was backed by the same western powers as were celebrating his resignation during the peak of the East Asian economic crisis. While the West pay attention almost entirely to his killings of his opponents, the invasion of East Timor, his desperate attempt to hold on to Papua as part of Indonesia, the fact is that the brunt of Suharto’s tyranny was targeted at Muslims in Jawa and Sumatra for the greater part of his tenure.

In Sumatra (read Aceh), the West’s campaign is well documented, especially in helping the Suharto dynasty suck out its oil and reap billions of dollars of profit for Western oil-companies and Suharto allies. Apart from enriching themselves, Westerners also funded Suharto’s long and brutal campaign against Aceh’s resistance, whose aim had been to break free from the pancasila order imposed by Java. In Jawa, Suharto and his Christian military advisors had embarked on a grand Christianisation programme (only to fail to achieve the desired results), building thousands of churches with funding from western Christian missionaries, and ‘de-Islamising’ Indonesian Muslims.

Suharto’s rise to power was the same old story; as with many other tyrants in the twentieth century, the CIA’s footprints were all over it. As an ambitious general, Suharto became unstoppable after a failed coup in 1965 to take control of the army by communist party elements within the army who were aligned to Sukarno, the then president. Soon after being appointed a government minister and commander of the army, Suharto, backed by the CIA, began his first job: to cleanse the army of communist members in an attempt to undermine Sukarno. He was to conduct the cleansing process: with the help of militias armed by the West, more than a million people were killed and Sukarno found himself isolated, forcing him to hand over power to Suharto two years later. Ties with Washington improved immediately, with millions of dollars of military aid being provided by the Americans to help Suharto’s fledgling dictatorship. He handpicked judges and bosses of state-owned companies, held dubious elections and selected a third of the country’s MPs himself.

The communist-cleansing killings which accompanied Sukarno’s fall became a commonplace of Suharto’s rule for the next three decades. Although his fellow generals lost political power after his departure, they briefly continued to commit such crimes through the Indonesian National Army for a few more years even after his fall. Parallel to the anti-communist campaign was the campaign to obliterate Islam from the political scene. This was supposed to be achieved by “de-Islamising” Indonesian society altogether. Key to this effort was what became known as “Kristenisasi” or ‘Christianisation’. The aim was not so much to convert Muslims to Christianity; rather, the hope was to undermine the people’s Islamic identity by means of think-tanks and NGOs, as well as the establishment of hundreds of Christian institutions calling for ‘pluralism’ in a country that is overwhelmingly Muslim. In the seventies and eighties, Sukarno extended the same brutal tactics to Muslim activists and intellectuals opposed to pancasila, which was in fact another aspect of the “de-Islamisation” campaign.

One trait common to both Sukarno and Suharto, and about which the West has no problem, is their animosity towards Muslim activists eager to re-establish the Islamic identity of Muslims in the archipelago after centuries of plunder by Europeans, most notably the Dutch. Although both openly declared war on such Islamic aspirations, added to Suharto’s strategy was subverting Islam through the use of “Muslim” intellectuals and, eventually, the de-politicising of Islam. This naturally involved some sort of Machiavellianism to bring into his fold Muslim intellectuals and organisations that had earlier been opposed to Sukarno, and whose leaders had been imprisoned. With the coming of Suharto, some of these activists were released, including those of the Masyumi party, the core Islamic organisation that later broke up into several smaller Islamic groups, most notably Nahdatul Ulama, which is now the largest Muslim body in Indonesia.

Suharto was of course grateful to Masyumi’s leaders for supporting his coup against Sukarno. However, his conciliatory gesture had a price: they were not allowed to involve themselves in politics but were given all help for “da’wah” purposes, thus effectively banishing Islam from Indonesia’s public life. Suharto also used such Muslim intellectuals as the late Nurcholish Madjid, promoting “modernization, tolerance and pluralism”: the same three virtues that the current US government looks for in “Islamic democrats” today.

Nurcholish’s most famous remark (he said in 1972, “Islam, yes; Islamic parties, no”) was just one sign of how Suharto engaged “Muslim democrats” to pacify Islamic groups. During his rule, this campaign met with some success, with Islamic groups being confined to da’wah activities. They were tolerated, indeed encouraged, by Western governments, and funded by the Saudi lobby, most notably the Rabita al-Alam al-Islami (World Islamic League).

While these conservative ulama were gradually being converted to Saudi Wahhabism and de-politicised, “moderate” spokesmen such as Nurcholish were busy promoting “liberal Islam”. In 1986 he established the Paramadina foundation. Its activities, among others, were running training centres and educational institutions, and teaching ‘Islamic’ subjects such as law, philosophy and mysticism. It also organised forums and seminars in luxury hotels, where it invited “neo-liberal” Muslim scholars to speak. Women and girls in the classes it conducted were even free to wear short skirts: just one example of the kind of de-Islamisation desired by Suharto. Today, many such institutions still remain, one of them run by the daughter of Abdurrahman Wahid, the leader of Nahdatul Ulama. In addition, many thinktanks and “Islamic” NGOs are supported by USAID and German-based Friedrich Naumann Foundation, which sponsor trips for budding “human rights activists” and politicians in south-east Asia.

A few years after Suharto, Nurcholish’s efforts where shown to be bearing few or no fruit: election results in 2004 showed an increase in votes for “radical” Islamic parties – almost one fifth of the total votes cast. Islamic groups that had been suppressed by successive rulers in Java sprang back like rubber balls. This is perhaps the most noticeable change that took place in Indonesian politics after the political demise of Suharto. The West, however, did not like to share the ‘democratic’ pie with Muslims. It is no surprise that it is still pouring all its resources into making sure that only those Muslim “leaders” whom they tolerate remain in the mainstream.

Indonesia is a region that has produced renowned Muslim scholars in south-east Asia, whose contribution and life-long dedication ensured that Islam became strongly entrenched politically and geographically. The Dutch, Sukarno and Suharto successively failed to alter this reality in the region, including in neighbouring Malaysia, Cambodia and Thailand. Islam came relatively late to this part of the world, but when it came it refused to leave and even became synonymous with the local Muslims’ ethnicity. Little wonder that no colonial power or their colonial heirs have been able to subvert the Islamic character of the Muslims, either in Indonesia or elsewhere.

Suharto’s failure is part of the same story. Now that he is not present even physically, Muslims in Indonesia face the greater challenge of neutralising his effects, which are littered among the many Islamic ‘mainstream’ organisations.

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