General Suharto of Indonesia is fading fast, the news bulletins say.
So when I came into the country, I started asking how people felt about their dying killer. (Body count, circa one million plus, overwhelmingly civilian).
The first man I ran into — near a coffee/ rice stall — though the radio blared the death watch, said nothing about it, until I raised it. “So much the better,” he smiled.
Even people I know well did not bother to mention it, though they know I follow politics.
One market lady had just described her own recent ailments — decades of squatting and pounding grain take a toll — when I asked about Suharto.
“Suharto?”, she said. “He ate too much money. He’s full. He ate so such that others can’t eat.”
She chuckled at her own joke. Everybody laughed. The mourning period should be over by lunchtime.
The New York Times, in 1993, after the East Timor massacres, said Suharto “r[a]n the country with a grandfatherly smile and an iron fist” and lamented that his “accomplishments are not widely known abroad.” (Philip Shenon, “Hidden Giant — A special report.; Indonesia Improves Life for Many But the Political Shadows Remain,” The New York Times, August 27, 1993.)
On earth, in Indonesia — below the towers of life-giving-or-taking wealth and distant killing decision — Suharto seemed to have been seen, on the one hand, as a small man, but on the other, as a menace.
You could talk corruption, but you could not mention the murders. You had to work hard to forget them. The government helped with “Clean Environment” laws that banned the surviving relatives from social contacts, on the theory that if they got around, their memories might pollute society.
A grandmother, when pressed, once told me about bodies bobbing in Sumatra rivers.
But, as a rule, people don’t like to talk about Suharto’s founding massacre, the one that was, in the words of James Reston of The Times, the “gleam of light in Asia” (June 19, 1966), and in the words of the CIA, which assisted, “one of the worst mass murders of the 20th century” (for background see posting of November 8, 2007. “Duduk – Duduk, Ngobrol – Ngobrol. Sitting Around Talking, in Indonesia.”).
Interestingly enough, on the official, bureaucratic level, though, it is corruption talk that is taboo.
In 1998, I was being interrogated after giving a press conference on Suharto’s secret aid from Clinton (including snipers and “PSYOP”(s); see posting of December 12, 2007), and Suharto’s man began to read aloud from my file — parts disturbingly accurate, parts ridiculous.
He asked about my political views. I went into a speech about the massacres and how Suharto and Clinton should share a jail cell. The man was thoroughly bored. But, then, somehow, I mentioned corruption.
He was offended, angry. He sat upright: “What do you mean, corruption?!”
It made sense, on the popular level that was Topic A. So, therefore, it was a dangerous topic. Bureaucrats are not encouraged to speak the word. Cash envelopes enter pockets quietly.
But the massacres? They were unlikely to spark a flame, the Suhartoites had calculated.
Survivors really can be selfish sometimes — forget the dead and kiss the killers — especially if clever ongoing terror is applied. Forced thought control is sometimes possible.
When Suharto goes, there won’t be weeping in the kampungs I know, but there may be on some US campuses.
There, there developed a school of thought (and of subsidy) that held that Suharto was OK since, though he had “human rights” problems, the official statistics showed rapid GDP growth.
The proponents were strict anti-communists, but had absorbed some Pravda thinking, since that argument was — as it happened — the same one once used to justify Stalin.
But as short, thin people gathered this morning at, say, the Belawan ferry to Malaysia could tell you, Pak Harto’s massacre development, unlike Uncle Joe’s, did not vault Indonesia onto a new plane.
Neighboring countries, starting tied with Indonesia in real-eating development, have post-rise-of-Suharto-and-his-army far surpassed it, so Indonesians leave home, seeking work, often trading dignity for their babies’ brain growth. (See “Duduk-Duduk” on the choices sending poor Indonesians overseas, and the posting of November 24, 2007, “Rising in Malaysia. The Dangers of Feeding Poor People, ” on Malaysia’s different, far-faster development).
The interesting question is not why are foreign sponsors so suave about explaining murder (key answer: because they can get away with it), but rather why do local people, in so many place, let one small man rise above them?
That’s a complex question, for another day. But right now, some people here are busy with the death anniversary of another, far bigger, person, a lady buried in a goat field, who was — by consensus of several kampungs — a shining, good person, a great one.
If they had met, Suharto would have told her to wash his floor (I can assure that you she wouldn’t have).
But even she, with her strong shoulders, could not possibly have washed all that blood.
That’s a task for a whole society, after Suharto is condemned and gone.
Then they’ll have to get together and resolve to henceforth keep the floor clean.
ALLAN NAIRN can be reached through his blog.