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Politicians Are Rewriting the History of Indonesia's Most Corrupt Dictator

Throughout his time in office, Suharto’s Golkar Party was an election vehicle masquerading as a political entity.
Photo by Wikimedia Commons

Indonesia’s former President Suharto, a man who ruled the southeast Asian nation for more than 30 years, is experiencing a resurgence in the run-up to this year’s presidential election.

Suharto's New Order was a time of disappearances, bloodshed, and corruption, but some politicians are trying to recast the era in a friendlier light, presenting Suharto's reign as a time of stability and economic equality.


Throughout his time in office, Suharto’s Golkar Party was an election vehicle masquerading as a political entity. He was able to retain a tight grip on the nation by requiring that all civil servants — and there were a lot of civil servants in this nation of 240 million people — vote Golkar, ensuring the party’s victory in every election between 1967 to 1998.

What did Suharto do with all this power? Amass a fortune that dwarfed the wealth of even the most corrupt leaders of his time. The Suharto family reportedly pocketed so much money — as much as US$35 billion (more than twice the gross domestic product of neighboring Papua New Guinea) — from the country’s coffers that he was once named the most corrupt leader on earth by Transparency International.

But now Suharto's smiling mug is adorning t-shirts, staring back from stickers affixed to the rear windows of vehicles, and peering out from political posters across Java. The image is one of the aging dictator in the twilight of his life. His hair gray, his face grandfatherly, he raises a hand to wave hello — “How are you doing, bro? It was better in my time, right?”

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Some academics and human rights groups are worried about what this all means.

“We began to enter the period where historians were divided into two mainstreams: those who believe Suharto is a savior, and me and my generation, who believe that Suharto was a piece of shit,” says historian Boni Triyana.


Suharto fell from power in the aftermath of the Asian financial crisis, stepping down in 1998 amid turbulent student protests and a plummeting rupiah.

So is 16 years long enough to forget?

Apparently so, or at least it is for some people. Presidential hopefuls like Aburizal Bakrie, one of Indonesia’s richest men and the current head of the Golkar Party, recently tried to cash in on Suharto nostalgia by running a campaign that unfavorably compared the current Reform era with Suharto's New Order.

“In the Reform era, it is more democratic, people can talk about every single thing, the possibilities are endless,” an elderly woman in the campaign video explains. “Which era is better? To be honest, I would choose the Golkar era. Life was better, easier.”

And for some life was better. Basic staples, like food and fuel, were cheap while religious minorities were free to practice their faiths openly, as long as their religions were one of six recognized by the nation’s constitution, the Pancasila.

The Suharto family was notoriously corrupt, but the ensuing years of aggressive decentralization have only allowed graft to creep beyond the halls of the Central Government.

The nation’s current president, Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono (more fashionably referred to as SBY), helms a political party deeply mired in some of the country’s largest graft scandals.

Religious intolerance is also on the rise in some corners of Indonesia as hardline Islamist groups like the notorious Islamic Defender's Front (FPI) wage a sometimes violent campaign against religious minorities.


SBY's critics have accused him of turning a blind eye to his corrupt cronies and ignoring the religious divisions. Andreas Harsono of Human Rights Watch says this is why it comes as no surprise to hear the nation’s religious minorities speak of Suharto in glowing terms.

“Some people do have this nostalgia for the Suharto era,” he says. “Religious minorities who are being discriminated against, who are being abused, they told me they longed for the Suharto regime. I think it is because they are so fed up with SBY neglecting all of this religious violence going on uncontrolled. It makes sense, I think.”

The Golkar Party has flirted with this nostalgia since the start of the election season, with Bakrie going so far as to tell reporters that the Indonesian people are pining for a return to the New Order, although without the one-party rule. The party also backed Suharto’s daughter Siti Hediati Suharto, a woman popularly known as "Titiek," in the April 9 legislative elections.

Golkar performed as expected the legislative elections, netting around 15 percent of the national vote. While the outcome of individual races, and the party's true performance, won't be known until the official results are released by the General Elections Commission (KPU) on May 9, the party could be the second most popular in Indonesia.

According to most predictions Joko Widodo, the popular governor of Jakarta and a civilian, will take the presidential race. This has done little to stop Bakrie from boasting that the party will ride these feelings of New Order nostalgia right into the Istana Merdeka in the July 9 election. But for some, these campaign tactics smack of a decades-old problem: the whitewashing of history for political gain.


“We paid a lot of things to get freedom from Suharto,” says Triyana. “Golkar, as a party of the New Order, of course they want to push people to vote for them by using these kinds of memories about Suharto… but they just want people to be reminded of the good story of the New Order. People will never know about how New Order created this kind of stability — with the gun.”

Boni Triyana came of age during the pro-democracy student demonstrations of the late 1990s, participating in the protests that eventually toppled Suharto’s regime. He is now the editor-in-chief of Majalah Historia, a history magazine that attempts to unearth the stories long-obscured by propaganda and government revisionists. It’s a magazine that couldn’t have existed during the New Order, when the only version of history was the official version, he says.

“During the Suharto era people were taught a one-sided version of history,” he says. “History was used by the Government, by Suharto, to legitimize their power by putting Suharto as the savior of the nation and putting the PKI, the communists, the leftists, as the demons.”

While this narrative has softened since the end of the New Order — the gruesome anti-communist propaganda film Pengkhianatan G30S/PKI is no longer required viewing in schools — many of the overarching ideals, like the official narrative of the 1965 communist purges, remains intact.“This is a battle for history,” Triyana says. It’s a battle he and his peers already lost once.

Historians redrafted the history of the New Order shortly after the fall of Suharto, including the new text as a supplement in the nation’s schoolbooks. But the pages were soon cut amid protests from groups angered over the suggestion that the PKI were anything but aggressors in 1965. The school lessons reverted back to the Suharto-era line.

“To understand today’s Indonesian politics, you must understand the way the New Order ran the power because today still relates to yesterday,” Triyana says. “People now are smarter than at least 20 years ago, you can get a lot of information from the Internet. I doubt that Golkar will win this election just because they sell the story about the success of the New Order. I doubt it.”

Follow Jonathan Vit on Twitter: @Vit_Jonathan

Photo via Wikimedia Commons