Soeharto: A Political Obituary
Soeharto died on January 27 in Jakarta. He was 86 years old. I have written previously that Soeharto was an often-contradictory figure. I think that this is how he will be remembered. I’m writing this “political obituary” not only to collect my own thoughts on his death and his legacy, but also to clarify and correct some misconceptions that I have seen in the media over the past two days. (Click pictures to view larger versions.)
Soeharto’s life story is fascinating, at the same quintessentially Javanese and quintessentially modern. Wikipedia summarizes what we know about him rather well. The first thing that is striking about him is how little we know about his early life. He was born in 1921 in a small village in Central Java, the son of rather ordinary peasants. His parents divorced when he was very young–there are contradictory accounts as to when exactly this happened–and he grew up while being shuttled around to various aunts and uncles. Beyond this, we do not know much. First off, we don’t know if his birth name was actually Soeharto, for many Indonesians adopt different names at different points in their lives. What we do know is that, contrary to what many English-language media have reported, even if his birth name was Soeharto, he was definitely not born “Haji Mohamed Soeharto.” We get to this part of his name shortly. Second off, there are credible rumors that Soeharto was the illegitimate son of either a Chinese merchant or a minor Javanese noble. Evidence in favor of this is the fact that Soeharto received a basic education, something that was rather unusual for a peasant in colonial Java.
After a rough childhood and a brief and unsuccessful career working in a bank, in 1940 Soeharto joined the indigenous colonial army. This did not last long: he quit when the Japanese invaded, and like many figures from Indonesia’s independence movement (including both Sukarno and Mohammed Hatta), he entered the Japanese colonial administration as a police officer and later troop commander. Soeharto’s burgeoning nationalism appears to date to this period, as the Japanese encouraged pre-existing anti-Dutch movements among Indonesians. After the Japanese surrendered, Soeharto joined the independence movement that fought for four years against the returning Dutch. Whatever Soeharto’s actual role in commanding troops in various important battles, he earned the respect of his superiors, and rose quickly through the ranks.
After independence, Soeharto’s military career flourished. In an important prelude to his future views of the Indonesian state, Soeharto was dispatched to fight anti-government forces in the Moluccas, Java, and in Netherlands New Guinea. By the early 1960s, he was a Major General. This rank gave him a substantial role in Indonesian politics. At the time, Indonesia’s President Sukarno had suspended liberal democracy and was attempting to hold together a delicate authoritarian coalition, with substantial support coming from the Communist Party of Indonesia (PKI) and the largely anti-communist Indonesian armed forces (ABRI).
Sukarno (left) and Soeharto (right)
This coalition was made all the more fragile by Sukarno’s own prevarications, siding at times with the communists and at times with the nationalists in ABRI. Internationally, along with U Nu in Burma and Jawaharlal Nehru in India, Sukarno attempted to forge a “third way” between capitalism and communism. This Non-Aligned Movement refused to side either with the Soviet or American blocs in world affairs. Domestically, Sukarno presented a bewildering array of slogans and corporatist bodies that attempted to create a unified political front, one that encompassed nationalists, communists, and religious Muslims. Predictably, this attempt to satisfy all groups in society could satisfy none. Even more disastrous was Sukarno’s inability to manage the economy, leading to rampant corruption, skyrocketing inflation (600% per year by 1965), weak investment, and near starvation for many ordinary citizens. Indonesians at the time could be excused for seeking a new political system that would decisively break from Sukarno.
It was in this context that the abortive coup of September 30, 1965 took place. We know little about this coup. Ostensibly, it was organized by communist elements with support from sympathetic generals in ABRI, but many authors believe that Soeharto himself organized (or provoked) the coup in order that he himself might put it down. In the event, six firmly anti-communist generals were murdered, prompting an overwhelming response by Soeharto and his anti-communist allies within ABRI. Claiming to be supporting Sukarno’s legal government, Soeharto launched a brutal offensive against the PKI.
The general in the midst of his autogolpe (picture from October 6, 1965)
By March 1966, after six months of political maneuvering, Soeharto was able to produce a document known as the Supersemar, signed by Sukarno, that gave Soeharto complete authority to take any measures necessary to protect the unity of the Indonesian state. (Like so much of this period, we know little about this as well: some believe that Sukarno’s signature was forged, some that Sukarno signed it voluntarily, but most likely Sukarno was coerced into signing it by Soeharto.) Meanwhile, the purge of PKI members and sympathizers (to borrow a phrase from one commentator) “ran wild.” By early 1967, somewhere between 500,000 and 1 million Indonesians had been murdered. This figure includes not only communists, but also hundreds of thousands of ordinary Indonesians–many of ethnic Chinese ancestry–killed in retribution for ordinary grievances. Also by 1967, Soeharto had been named Acting President of Indonesia by a Provisional People’s Consultative Assembly. Soeharto would hold this position until May 21, 1998.
What kind of regime did Soeharto create? His “New Order” regime did indeed break decisively from Sukarno’s “Guided Democracy,” but it cleverly retained a few key holdovers that would suit it well. Under Sukarno, ABRI had developed an ideology of dwifungsi, or dual function, that painted the military as both the entity responsible for the country’s external security and a “sociopolitical force” with a “territorial presence.” This continued under Soeharto’s rule. ABRI units remained stationed throughout the archipelago, organized hierarchically into territorial commands that effectively represented the oppressive arm of the New Order.
Ideologically, the New Order both changed and stayed the same. Gone was the taint of communism. Under Soeharto, there was no small amount of rhetorical commitment to the poor, but this was to be accomplished through economic development, not through coarse redistribution. Industries nationalized under Sukarno remained nationalized, but this was justified as a loose sort of nativist industrialization, not communism. Gone as well were any remnants of independent political Islam. Soeharto in 1971 decreed that all Islamist political parties would merge into a single party, the United Development Party (PPP), which would operate under the heavy hand of the regime and present little more than token political opposition. Internationally, Soeharto ended Indonesia’s flirtation with the Non-Aligned Movement, and threw his country into the Western capitalist alliance. This made Soeharto a favorite ally of many American administrations, and a key anti-communist regional partner in a time when Southeast Asian communism terrified the Western world.
A Kissinger favorite. “It’s not fascism when we do it.”
After the end of the Cold War, of course, the value of being an anti-communist fell. But the importance of being a secular Muslim dictatorship remained, even in the wake of the brutal 1991 massacre of thousands of East Timorese, who had seen the end of Portuguese colonialism in 1974 but the beginning of Indonesian colonialism in 1975.
Kissinger wasn’t the only one to excuse Soeharto
One aspect of Sukarno’s ideology remained, though. This was Pancasila (five principles), a pluralist and nationalist ideology upon which the Indonesian constitution was based and which both Sukarno and Soeharto promoted. Pancasila reaffirms all Indonesians’ belief in a higher spiritual authority (be it Christian, Muslim, Buddhist, or Hindu), emphasizes the importance of Indonesia’s territorial integrity, and places justice, economic prosperity, and “consensual” democracy at the heart of the government’s mission. Just as Sukarno found this a convenient ideological cover for his authoritarian rule, Soeharto deployed Pancasila as a tool for justifying his grip on power and the abuses committed to protect it.
But while the ideological basis of the regime focused on consensus and justice, the reality of New Order politics reflected the raw coercion of a regime built by a general. Soeharto retained power through control, not consensus. Between early 1967 and mid-1998, as many as 300,000 Indonesians perished in “extrajudicial” circumstances, occasionally through formal campaigns against political opponents but more commonly through the excesses of subordinates protecting the New Order status quo. Perhaps the most notable victims were the citizens of West Papua and East Timor, but throughout the archipelago, students, activists, workers, and regular citizens suffered under the repressive hand of the regime.
What Soeharto knew, though, was that ruling through control alone is expensive and dangerous. It is better to be respected, not just feared, and it is always better to incentivize your subordinates to protect your rule than to compel them to do the same. Soeharto, moreover, realized that Indonesia’s economy offered the tools for accomplishing these tasks. This was Soeharto’s greatest insight. The fact that ordinary Indonesians themselves craved development and sensible economic management in the wake of Sukarno’s incompetent rule meant that Soeharto was able to adopt the policies that would spur economic development at the same time that he constructed one of the world’s most impressive systems of patronage and corruption.
One way to think about this–and this is a perspective developed independently by Andrew MacIntyre and Ross McLeod, based on work by Shleifer and Vishny–is to consider Soeharto as a franchiser. Or, less charitably, a mafioso.
Tony Soprano at age 80?
Soeharto’s subordinates (or “franchisees,” or “made men”) did his dirty work for him, and in exchange were offered lucrative business opportunities throughout the archipelago. These subordinates (usually ABRI figures with territorial commands) had small fiefdoms, maintained their own micro-fiefdoms from which they extracted tributes and levies, and passed a portion of these proceeds up to Soeharto, who sat at the apex of this steep pyramid of corruption. In exchange for tribute, the subordinates received protection and political favoritism. For subordinates, the incentive to perpetuate the system came from the immense opportunities for personal enrichment that a personal relationship with Soeharto offered. For Soeharto, a never-ending pool of potential cronies allowed him to keep overly-ambitious subordinates in check. And the genius is that Soeharto also had an incentive to keep the economy running smoothly. Economic growth throughout the economy flowed right into his wallet. This means that Soeharto himself had a strong motivation to keep corruption “in check,” to make sure that it never hampered growth. (Think of Matthew Bevilaqua and Brendan Filone: too much corruption is bad for business.) And perhaps ironically, this growth that lined Soeharto’s pockets spilled over into the entire Indonesian economy. While the greatest benefits were heaped upon those with high political connections, a rising tide did lift most boats. Under Soeharto’s rule the economy grew by an average of over 7% per year. This is one of the greatest feats of development in any country in recent history. Soeharto, though immensely corrupt, was no Sani Abacha, no Mobutu Sese Soko, no Ferdinand Marcos. He wasn’t even a Pinochet or a Fujimori. The World Bank ranks Soeharto as the most corrupt politician in modern history, yet the economic development that he engineered is stunning.
Soeharto’s capitalist impulses may have come from his rejection of communism and his recognizance that a market economy offered unprecedented opportunities for self-enrichment. But it is unlikely that Soeharto knew much about how to run an economy, the arcane minutiae of interest rates, bank regulation, trade policy, and the like. For this, he depended on a small clique of “technocrats,” economists trained at the University of California at Berkeley under the auspices of a Ford Foundation program. These economists are commonly known as the Berkeley Mafia. (Contrary to some media reports, they were not an actual mafia.) The Berkeley Mafia are often likened to the Chicago Boys, a group of neo-conservative economists who advised Pinochet in Chile. (NB: This is “neo-conservative” in the Rolf Luders sense, not the Paul Wolfowitz sense.) This is misleading, for liberal though they were, Indonesia’s technocrats were eminently pragmatic. Indonesia in the late 1960s did not receive a shock treatment of deregulation such as that which Chile received in the mid-1970s, nor did Soeharto turn over the entire economy to the technocrats, as Pinochet did. Pragmatism was necessary, for the Berkeley Mafia depended on Soeharto for their influence–and Soeharto was as concerned with enriching his cronies and placating nationalist generals as he was with textbook market efficiency. Still, for decades Soeharto listened to the Berkeley Mafia when it mattered the most: in the adjustment programs of the late 1960s that brought inflation under control, in the outward export orientation of the economy, and in the halting State Enterprise deregulation of the mid-1980s. The Berkeley Mafia have often been blamed by Soeharto’s critics for authoring the financial liberalization of the late 1980s that foreshadowed the financial collapse of 1997, but the technocrats certainly did not advocate the types of financial misdealings that made Indonesia’s banking sector so fragile. The Berkeley Mafia’s economic ideology, favoring free markets as much as possible, was always tempered by realism. It is to Soeharto’s credit that the was willing to heed the advice of the Berkeley Mafia when he did.
Two additional facets of the Indonesian political economy are worth noting here, because they had dramatic consequences for the fall of Soeharto. The first is the partnership between ABRI and ethnic Chinese Indonesian businessmen. To continue the Sopranos conceit, think of local ABRI commanders as Christopher Moltisanti, and ethnic Chinese businessmen as the brokerage where Christopher “works” on his pump-and-dump scams. ABRI commanders knew little about business, but Indonesia’s large ethnic Chinese minority had dominated the colonial economy. An alliance between the politically vulnerable ethnic Chinese minority and individual ABRI commanders made great sense for both. Ethnic Chinese businessmen gained protection in a society that was otherwise quite hostile to them. ABRI generals, like Christopher, made a handsome profit. Soeharto himself had recognized the importance of country’s ethnic Chinese as early as 1950s, when he forged business partnerships with Liem Sioe Liong and Bob Hasan (The Kian Seng) in order to supply his troops with rice and other supplies. Liem and Hasan, like dozens of other ethnic Chinese cronies, would later become some of the richest men in Asia, with empires reaching into the billions of dollars.
The second facet of note is Soeharto’s own family. Three of Soeharto’s six children–Siti Hardiyanti Rukmana (Tutut), Hutomo Mandala Putra (Tommy), and Bambang Trihatmodjo–developed enormous business empires tied directly to their father’s political influence. Tutut, for instance, owned every toll road around Jakarta. Tommy had a monopoly on Indonesia’s lucrative clove industry. These are but the most notorious examples; each of the three had diversified business interests penetrating the entire Indonesian economy. Soeharto’s other three children, while not nearly as flamboyant in their corruption, each developed business empires as well. Soeharto’s own wife, known as Ibu Tien (Madame Tien), had such a voracious appetite for corruption that she earned the moniker Ibu “Tien Percent.” Soeharto himself used a vast array of charitable foundations, known as yayasan, to disguise his own business interests. According to the World Bank, Soeharto and his family extracted somewhere between $25 and $35 billion dollars from the Indonesian economy during the 32 years of Soeharto’s rule. To put that in American terms, multiply those figures by 10, the ratio of American to Indonesian per capita GDP. As time progressed, it seemed that however much he was able to keep the lid on official corruption, Soeharto was blind to his children’s excesses.
Nevertheless, just focusing on Soeharto’s outrageous corruption risks neglecting the other accomplishments of his rule. The economic development over which he presided was dramatic. There was also social development. The New Order did emphasize education, family planning, and women’s rights. This is illustrated by the fact that still today, children can recite patriotic songs glorifying the nationalist heroine Ibu Kartini and extolling the virtues of study. Other researchers have emphasized the New Order’s success in ensuring stable supplies of rice, and in ensuring that the benefits of growth were shared across the country.
Soeharto’s relationships with Indonesia’s enormous Muslim community are likewise important for understanding both him as a man and the regime that he created. Soeharto, like many Javanese, had personal ties to both traditional Islam and indigenous spirituality. He was no doubt a Muslim, but the Islam practiced by many Javanese is not considered antithetical to pre-Islamic religious traditions. While the extent to which Soeharto personally adhered to these pre-Islamic forms of worship is unknown, many commentators have cited evidence that Soeharto consulted with Javanese shamans (dukun), and that like many Indonesians, he apparently believed that sorcery and wizardry were real forces in nature. Many Indonesians claim that Soeharto was protected from harm during the revolutionary period by spells cast by local dukun. In the years preceding his death, many Indonesians commented that Soeharto would never die, or that he would not die until heaven was prepared to accept him. In the final month, as he was hospitalized, commentators attributed his survival not to the machines that supported his organs, but to a handful of mystical objects that accompanied him.
These views of Soeharto are consistent with the way that many Indonesians viewed him: as a modern-day Javanese sultan. There is no doubt that Soeharto consciously attempted to project this image. Like Javanese sultans of old, his public persona was one of a reflective and benevolent sovereign, one loved due to his wisdom and munificence. He clearly had read his Javanese epic poems, and knew the value of ensuring the stability of his “kingdom.” Even in stepping down in 1998, he played the part of a wise sultan retiring and entering a state of spiritual reflection (lengser keprabon, madeg pandhito). Incidentally, Soeharto’s death has been viewed through a similar lens. In the past several days, there have been repeated reports of sudden thunderstorms and minor earthquakes that accompanied his internment. These have been interpreted through a traditional mystical Javanese lens as his spirit entering a state of peace, or by more traditional Muslims as heaven accepting him and pardoning his sins on earth.
This, of course, is not to say that Soeharto was not an actual Muslim. He was. And he recognized the value of his Muslim identity throughout his rule, which coincided with the rise of Islam as a political identity throughout the world. His regime harnessed this Islamic identity, creating government bodies that were to represent the interests of devout Muslims and Muslim intellectuals. In 1991, he went on pilgrimage to Mecca, and thereafter adopted the Muslim first name of Mohamed and the title of Haji. Of course, nobody has ever seriously used these names, but they did reflect a conscious attempt to co-opt Islamists and put them to work for the New Order.
The keys to Soeharto’s rule, and to the New Order’s success, were economic development and political coercion. This all came crashing down in mid-1997, as the Asian Financial Crisis struck Indonesia. Within the space of just six months, rapid growth turned to economic collapse. Indonesia had weathered periodic economic crises under Soeharto, but nothing compared to meltdown of the country’s financial system, driven by massive currency depreciation and a devastated financial sector.
I have spend some time thinking about how the Asian Financial Crisis drove the collapse of the New Order, but the basic story is one of factional conflict over adjustment policies. Simply unable to placate both his ethnic Chinese supporters and his ABRI associates, Soeharto hemmed and hawed, adopting some adjustment policies only to reverse them as domestic resistance became apparent. In an effort to project competence, Soeharto accepted a substantial IMF rescue package. But his refusal to implement most of its policies led to further re-negotiations with his foreign creditors; and at each sign of resistance, the economy deteriorated further.
Those international capital markets sure can humble an autocrat
With no end to the crisis in sight, ordinary Indonesians, led by students, turned against the New Order Soeharto’s allies attempted to crush the protests, but were unsuccessful, and by May 14, 1998 over a thousand citizens had perished in a wave of urban riots. For the first time unable to incentivize his backers to continue supporting him, Soeharto quietly resigned on May 21. His successor, B.J. Habibie, oversaw the country’s peaceful transition to democracy in 1999.
Soeharto’s retirement was quiet and uneventful. His children’s behavior remained outrageous (Tommy ordered the murder of a judge presiding over his corruption trial), and many called for Soeharto to be charged with corruption, graft, and crimes against humanity. But he never faced trial. Too many of his allies remain in positions of power in the Indonesian court system, and at any rate most ordinary Indonesians seem more concerned with current economic hardships than with rehashing the crimes of the old regime. In the last month of Soeharto’s life, civil society groups made a final push for justice. Their demands met with little popular support.
Soeharto leaves no simple legacy. So centered was Indonesian society around the reproduction of the New Order regime that it is difficult to find anything that was not touched by his rule. Most obviously, Soeharto leaves behind him a country so ravaged by economic crisis that even 10 years later, its effects are still apparent. Development under Soeharto’s corrupt authority was hardly “healthy” in the neo-liberal sense; even if Kissinger and Friedman can look to Soeharto as a capitalist, this was a capitalism so plagued by corruption and statism, by the “dark spaces” (ruang-ruang gelap) where politics and markets overlapped, that it is almost unrecognizable as capitalism. As it turns out, getting Soeharto to step down was the easy part. Ridding Indonesia’s economy of his legacy has been far more challenging.
Still, though, we can be circumspect in blaming Soeharto for Indonesia’s present state. Indonesia under Sukarno was just as corrupt, and Sukarno’s peculiar mix of nationalism and communism with indigenous principles of communalism and self-help produced economic stagnation. Soeharto certainly did not create Indonesia’s problem of corruption. The blame here lies squarely on the Dutch, and Sukarno did not improve matters either. Soeharto inherited an economy that was at a near standstill. If nothing else, and for all its faults, Indonesia’s economy grew by leaps and bounds until the very end of Soeharto’s rule. No longer one of the poorest countries in the world, Indonesia is today a middle income country, certainly with room for improvement but a good base upon which to grow. When Indonesians talk of missing Soeharto, what they talk about is the sense of dynamic economic growth under Soeharto. This was no small feat, and many respected economists in 1965 believed that Indonesia was fated for abject poverty.
I would suggest another possible legacy. It is clear that Soeharto was an “iron-fisted, brutal, cold-blooded dictator,” to quote Jeffrey Winters. But Soeharto was always careful to maintain the illusion of free political choice. Elections were held at regular five-year intervals, and even though the regime’s political party, Golkar, was always sure of victory, these elections were meaningful to many Indonesians.
Voting, as political scientists know, is habit-forming. By institutionalizing the procedures of democracy, Soeharto regime may have laid the groundwork for Indonesia’s vibrant democracy in the post-New Order era. After all, Soeharto might have been followed by another dictator. As much as Indonesians appear to be more concerned with economic development than with liberal democracy, it is hard to imagine an Indonesian government today that eliminates democracy altogether.
Likewise, for as much as Pancasila was abused by the authoritarian regimes of Sukarno and Soeharto, it remains a powerful ideology in the minds of many Indonesians. Soeharto could have eliminated this vestige of Sukarno’s rule, giving ideological space to radical Islamists or any number of other groups (think Egypt under Mobarak or the Shah in Iran). But the idea of a plural society is more than just an abstract concept in contemporary Indonesia, it is a concrete view of social organization, and hundreds of millions of Indonesians have lived under no other political ideology. Sukarno (and others) created Pancasila, but Soeharto’s acceptance of its pluralist vision made it an ideology that far outlived the men that developed it.
These considerations will mean that Soeharto’s legacy will always be mixed. To be sure, his rule was brutal, exceedingly violent, and fantastically corrupt, Nonetheless, in its wake we see the closest thing that Indonesia has ever had to true “Pancasila Democracy.” What is certain is that Soeharto will remain the Father of Development (Bapak Pembangunan) as long as there is an Indonesia. If economic development didn’t matter to so many Indonesians, no one would be willing to forgive Soeharto for the excesses of his rule. If economic development were easy, every regime would do it. Few regimes have. Soeharto’s New Order was one of them.
For further reading, I’d recommend the following. This list is hopelessly incomplete, but a very good start.
- Anderson, Benedict R., and Ruth T. McVey. 1971. A Preliminary Analysis of the October 1, 1965 Coup in Indonesia. Ithaca, NY: Modern Indonesia Project, Southeast Asia Program, Cornell University.
- Bresnan, John. 1993. Managing Indonesia: The Modern Political Economy. New York: Columbia University Press.
- Coppel, Charles A. 1983. Indonesian Chinese in Crisis. Kuala Lumpur: Oxford University Press.
- Crouch, Harold. 1979. Patrimonialism and Military Rule in Indonesia. World Politics 31 (4):571-587.
- Elson, R.E. 2001. Suharto: A Political Biography. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
- Emmerson, Donald K. 1988. The Military and Development in Indonesia. In Soldiers and Stability in Southeast Asia, edited by J. S. Djiwandono and Y. M. Cheong. 107-130. Singapore: Institute of Southeast Asian Studies.
- Liddle, R. William. 1985. Soeharto’s Indonesia: Personal Rule and Political Institutions. Pacific Affairs 58 (1):68-90.
- Liddle, R. William. 1987. The Politics of Shared Growth: Some Indonesian Cases. Comparative Politics 19 (2):127-146.
- Mackie, Jamie, and Andrew MacIntyre. 1994. Politics. In Indonesia’s New Order: The Dynamics of Socio-economic Transformation, edited by H. Hill. 1-53. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press.
- MacIntyre, Andrew. 2003. Institutions and the Political Economy of Corruption in Developing Countries. Typescript.
- McLeod, Ross H. 2000. Government-Business Relations in Soeharto’s Indonesia. In Reform and Recovery in East Asia: The Role of the State and Economic Enterprise, edited by P. Drysdale. 146-168. London: Routledge.
- Mubyarto. 1987. Ekonomi Pancasila: Gagasan dan Kemungkinan. Jakarta: LP3ES.
- Roeder, O.G. 1969. The Smiling General: President Soeharto of Indonesia. Jakarta: Gunung Agung.
- Sjahrir. 1999. Krisis Ekonomi Menuju Reformasi Total. Second ed. Jakarta: Yayasan Obor Indonesia.
- Soeharto. 1989. Pikiran, Ucapan, dan Tinkakan Saya. Jakarta: Citra Lamtoro Gung Persada.
- Sundhaussen, Ulf. 1982. The Road to Power: Indonesian Military Politics 1945-1967. Kuala Lumpur: Oxford University Press.
- Winters, Jeffrey A. 1996. Power in Motion: Capital Mobility and the Indonesian State. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.
- Woo Wing Thye, Bruce Glassburner, and Anwar Nasution. 1994. Macroeconomic Policies, Crises, and Long-Term Growth in Indonesia, 1965-90. Washington, DC: The World Bank.