I don’t imagine many readers will be shedding tears at the death of former Indonesian dictator Suharto, and certainly I won’t be. The bloody massacres in which he rode to power amid the collapse of the Sukarno regime, and the brutal invasion and occupation of East Timor, not to mention his spectacular corruption, mark him down among the worst political criminals of a terrible century, and have coloured Australian attitudes to Indonesia in the decade since his fall from power.
Now that he’s gone, I hope Australians will begin to recognise the immense progress Indonesia has made against daunting odds
From one of the tightest dictatorships in our region, with a military caste heavily embedded in both politics and business, the country has made a successful transition to democracy, with, in my judgement, each succeeding government better than the last. While the current president Yudhoyono is a former general he also seems to be both competent and a genuine democrat.
When Suharto fell, Indonesia was plagued with civil conflcts including the failing occupation of East Timor, the Aceh and West Papua separatist movement and religious strife promoted by groups within the regime, as well as growing movement towards extreme Islamism, again with support from within the government. Today East Timor is independent, the Aceh conflict has been settled, and some progress has been made in Papua. The fight against Islamist terrorism has been far more successful than in any other Islamic country I can think of, and has been pursued through proper legal processes, despite criticisms from those in Australia and elsewhere who would prefer Suharto-style abandonment of the rule of law.
Unfortunately, media attention to Indonesia has been dominated by a series of court cases, in which the predominant Australian attitude has been one of childish petulance, demanding that the Indonesian legal system deliver the result we want, whether it means reversing properly-reached convictions on the basis of little more than the fact that the defendant is a photogenic Australian (the Corby case) or delivering convictions on cases that would probably never have made it to court in Australia, such as the terrorism trial of Abu Bashir.
This came up again in relation to the Bali Nine case, where the Australian authorities played a deplorable role in tipping the Indonesians off for arrests that should have been made here in Australia, then complaining hypocritically about the imposition of the death penalty,. Fnally, during the election campaign, we saw people playing cheap politics to score points off anyone who argued consistently against the dealth penalty. I sincerely hope that President Yudhoyono will commute these sentences. It would certainly help relations between our countries, and perhaps shake some Australians out of their prejudices against Indonesia. If you want to help, you can get some useful links here ..
fn1. The one witness who might have implicated Bashir directly, Hambali, couldn’t be called because the Americans have him in custody and wouldn’t make him available. If anyone deserves blame for the fact that Bashir is walking free, it’s the Bush Administration.
fn2. I’ll delete any comments on this topic that support the death penalty in this case, or are otherwise not constructive. If you don’t like this, read the comments policy first and please remember that people’s lives are at stake.