Corrupt leader to national hero – Indonesians reflect on Soeharto

Sixteen years after a people’s uprising ended the three decade long rule of General Soeharto, a growing number of Indonesians are looking back fondly on his reign.

Sixteen years after a people’s uprising ended the three decade long rule of General Soeharto, a growing number of Indonesians are looking back fondly on his reign.

In a recent survey by a local polling group, almost 40 per cent of people named him as their favourite president, saying it was a time when goods and petrol were cheaper.

Kiswoyo has brought his students on an overnight train from Jakarta to Jogyakarta to come to a new museum dedicated to the life and times of former President Soeharto.

“We want to learn about our history, about the life of Soeharto and about his childhood. The students are very keen to learn about this,” he said.

His students are too young to remember what it was like living under Soeharto’s three-decade-long rule and given that the museum was paid for by Suharto’s family, the students – not surprisingly – are being given a very positive picture of that time.

Muhammad Arief Ramadhan, the museum’s manager, believes Indonesians should view Soeharto as a national hero.

“The museum commemorates Suharto’s legacy and what he gave to this country during his military and political career. We hope people will now have a better understanding about Pak Hartos life and his legacy,” he said.

There is no mention here of Soeharto being named the world’s most corrupt leader by anti-corruption monitor – Transparency International.

Nowhere in the museum will you find the allegations that he misappropriated up to $35 billion US dollars during his rule but visitors will find plenty of information about his time in power.

Around ten kilometres from the museum in the bustling market of Malioboro, Soeharto’s face has made a comeback.

Anto sells up to 60 shirts a month with the former president’s face on them.

“People are buying this shirt a lot. The tag line on it is: ‘It was better under my era, right?’.”

“People say it was better during the New Order era because everything is much cheaper.”

Corruption is rampant and elected politicians have disappointed many, making Soeharto a popular and nostalgic figure, says Anto.

“Everyone buys this shirt! Even foreigners buy it because they like the figure of Soeharto.”

Soeharto stickers can also be seen on buses and motorbikes across Java.

Soeharto’s former son-in-law, Prabowo Subianto, is using Soeharto’s image in his campaign to become Indonesia’s next President.

What Prabowo’s campaign team is hoping the public will forget are the human rights abuses that took place during the Soeharto era.

The killing and abduction of students in the 1990s, the mass killings in Aceh and East Timor and one of the worst atrocities of the 20th century, the massacre of suspected members of the Communist party in the 1960s.

Soeharto blamed the Communists for a failed coup, and banned the party.

Indonesia’s National Commission on Human Rights estimates that the purge that followed killed up to one million people.

80-year-old Mbah Karno was working as a teacher in a village in East Java when he was accused of being a communist. Without trial, he was tortured and thrown in jail.

“I didn’t know anything about Marxism or Leninism. In the name of God I promise that I didn’t know anything. I was not involved with any party. I was only a teacher,” he said.

A documentary about this dark period of Indonesia’s history was nominated for an Oscar this year, but it can’t be released in Indonesian cinemas.

At the new Soeharto museum, there is no mention of the 1960s killings or any of the other abuses that happened during Soeharto’s rule.

“I don’t believe that Soeharto was involved,” Mr Ramadhan, the museum manager, said.

“There’s no proof that he’s guilty.”