General Suharto’s 32-year rule collapsed on May 21 like a pack of cards after a few weeks of protests led by students and the urban poor. The Muslim world’s longest serving dictator after king Husain of Jordan, was consigned to the dustbin of history. His so-called Asian miracle had already proved a mirage.
Outwardly his regime was swept by the tide of protests spearheaded by students and supported by millions of urban poor caught in a spiral of rising food and fuel prices. These were brought on by the removal of subsidies on essential items following demands by the international monetary fund (IMF) as a condition to provide the US$43 billion bail-out package.
How the showpiece of Asian economic miracle collapsed so quickly has important lessons for the region and beyond. While Suharto’s ouster was greeted with joy and relief by almost all Indonesians, rulers in neighbouring countries would not be immune to the ill-wind blowing from Jakarta. There have already been calls in neighbouring Malaysia for prime minister Mahathir Mohamed, no less autocratic, to resign.
Suharto had assumed power 32 years ago amid mayhem and bloodshed in which more than a million people perished, much of it perpetrated by Suharto himself. He grabbed power from Ahmed Sukarno in a CIA-engineered coup. Suharto was ousted in similar fashion when the military chief, general Wiranto, told him on the night of May 20 that the generals wanted him to go although there was nothing like the slaughter of 32 years ago. This time the loss of life was limited to several hundred - 522 was the official figure - only because the military refused to perpetrate a bloodbath.
The people of Indonesia are still adjusting to the new reality - hardly a dramatic change given the assumption of power by Baharuddin Jusuf Habibie, a Suharto protege who was appointed vice president last March. Habibie, however, is seen as merely a stop-gap measure. He has no power base, either in the military or among the people.
A power struggle is already underway in the most populous Southeast Asian country. Ginandjar Kartasasmita, the economic coordination minister, called for fresh elections on May 23. This was endorsed by four other ministers a day later. Amien Rais, leader of the Muhammadiyah, an opposition group, who is being groomed as a potential successor by the west, has also withheld his support for Habibie. And students have called for his resignation, demanding a clean break with the Suharto era. Habibie promised on May 25 to hold elections soon.
Like most other Muslim nation-States, however, it is the military which has ultimate authority in Indonesia . Wiranto, the armed forces chief, moved quickly to strengthen his grip by relieving lieutenant general Probowo, Suharto’s son in law and a ruthless operator, from the important post of commander of the marines. Like the old man he too is history now. On May 23, Wiranto ordered troops to evict students from the parliament building, which they had occupied since May 18.
When the protests against his rule gained momentum, Suharto tried to ride out the storm by promising unspecified ‘reforms’. He also said that after a suitable cooling off period, he would call fresh elections and make himself ‘unavailable’ as a presidential candidate. It was clear, however, that by then events had slipped out of his control.
On May 15, Rais had called in a Friday khutbah for Suharto’s resignation. Barely two months earlier, this would have constituted treason. Three days later, speaker of the People’s Assembly, Harmoko - another long-time Suharto protege - said the president must resign. Harmoko’s call was made while representatives of Golkar, the ruling party, and the opposition, were present with him. Wiranto had dismissed Harmoko’s call as an individual’s personal opinion.
Protests against Suharto’s dictatorial rule had started in Medan, capital of north Sumatra, where the Achenese Liberation Movement has been waging a relentless struggle against Javanese imperialism. Thousands of Achenese have been murdered or tortured to death by the military. In April, scores of Achenese refugees, forcibly expelled from Malaysia, were killed when they landed in Sumatra (see Malaysia Deports Asylum Seekers - April 16-30, 1998).
From Medan, the protests spreaded to Jakarta, Bandung, Yogyakarta and Surabaya, all on the island of Java, the main power centre. A crucial turning point came on May 12 when the military shot and killed six students from Trisaki University in West Jakarta. These were all children of the elite - backbone of the Suharto regime who had struck it rich in the crony capitalism of his economic ‘miracle.’
Two days later, some 500 people were burnt alive in shopping malls set on fire. Most of the targeted properties belonged to Suharto’s six children, or they had major shares in them: banks, shopping malls and car dealerships. It was this kind of crony capitalism in conjunction with western multinationals that was dubbed Suharto’s Asian miracle.
Among the major western multinationals that struck it rich with the Suharto offsprings were Lucent Technologies, Edison Mission/General Electric, Hyatt Hotels, Hughes and Freeport McMoRan, all American. Some Japanese and Korean companies also joined the plunder. It is estimated the Suharto children have already siphoned off an estimated $30 billion out of the country.
There has been much drum-beating about the Asian miracle. While Indonesia under Suharto did better than other States in Asia - Pakistan, India, Bangladesh etc - it was at enormous political and social costs. Suharto created phony political parties, the military was given vast powers both in the assemblies as well as in civilian life. And almost all contracts went to his family and friends. The miracle was a mirage for the majority of the people in this vast family fiefdom.
In Indonesia, as elsewhere in Southeast Asia, people have tried to blame western speculators for the sudden collapse of their economies. There is some truth in this but given the degree of political repression, once the economic bubble was pricked, the people had no stake in preserving the system. The Indonesian experience is likely to be repeated elsewhere in the region, especially Malaysia where similar practices have been in vogue for just as long.
Similarly, Suharto served the US with total loyalty for 32 years. He had conspired with the CIA in 1965-66 to carry out one of the greatest massacres of innocent civilians since the second world war. The Americans realised that he had now become a liability. A puppet of 32 years was discarded. This should give cause for concern to other US puppets around the world.
Muslimedia: June 1-15, 1998