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Suharto dies, impunity lives

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For most Asian dictators, death seems to be the most convenient escape route out of prosecution for past misdeed. It was no different for Indonesia when former President Suharto died on 27 January; but was Suharto a great leader and a hero to the people of Indonesia? What does his death mean to the whole of Asia?
For most Asian dictators, death seems to be the most convenient escape route out of prosecution for past misdeed. Upon their deaths, they are honoured instead for the “positive developments” they brought to their countries. It was no different for Indonesia when former President Suharto died on 27 January 2008 at the age of 86: he was buried in a state funeral, with all the pomp and glory befitting a great leader and hero. But was Suharto a great leader and a hero to the people of Indonesia? What does his death mean to Indonesia and to the whole of Asia?

Suharto held office as Indonesia’s president for more than three decades (1967-1998), and was eventually forced to step down from the office after violent mass protests from all over the country. At that point in history, Indonesia was suffering from devastating effects of the 1997-1998 Asian financial crisis.

Suharto described his administration as the “New Order”. But for Indonesians, this “New Order” meant a military-dominated government, oppressive restrictions on the country’s ethnic Chinese, and authoritarian rule. It was also Suharto’s “New Order” that invaded East Timor, occupied it for 24 years, and caused the deaths of more than 100,000 East Timorese. Suharto’s “New Order” also meant widespread corruption to the Indonesians. His family reportedly amassed a fortune of more than US$35 billion when he was in power.

Since his resignation, several attempts have been made to prosecute him for corruption. These attempts, however, were unsuccessful due to his poor health. He was placed under house arrest on 29 May 2000 and the government then announced that he will be prosecuted under a 1971 anti-corruption law. He was charged with embezzling US$571 million of government donations to one of a number of foundations under his control and then using the money to finance family investments. The trial was set to begin on 31 August 2000, but a month thereafter, a panel of court-appointed doctors found him permanently physically and mentally unfit to stand trial.

For many years until his death, the government tried to bring him to court, but would fail in their attempts because of his alleged “poor health”. Now that he is dead, Indonesia would never be able to make him accountable for his past crimes. Again, impunity has prevailed.

There appears to be a pattern in Asia of perpetrators not having to answer for their past violations due to “poor health” or death. A culture of impunity is becoming more and more pervasive in Asia. Perpetrators somehow escape justice and are never made accountable for the violations they have committed.

In the Philippines, for instance, Ferdinand Marcos’ death on 28 September 1989 also meant the death of the hope of making him answer for the hundreds of illegal arrests, tortures, deaths, and disappearances under his 20-year rule.

Meanwhile, in Cambodia, the lack of political will by Hun Sen’s government to speed up the process of indicting Khmer Rouge surviving leaders may mean Cambodia would lose the chance of prosecuting these leaders. There are now only five surviving leaders of the Khmer Rouge. Its chief, Pol Pot, died in 15 April 1998, while Ta Mok, Khmer Rouge’s general who directed numerous massacres, died in 21 July 2006.

The surviving leaders are either sick or dying of old age. Leng Sary, another senior leader, is allegedly ill with a heart condition and has been travelling to Bangkok regularly for treatment. Khieu Samphan, the Khmer Rouge’s official head of state, is now 73 years old. The youngest surviving member of the movement’s leadership, Kang Kek Leu, more commonly known as Duch, is now aged 65: he used to run the notorious Tuol Sleng prison where thousands were tortured and met their death. All of these leaders have been complaining of ill health. Many human rights groups are concerned that these old and ailing leaders would die before ever being brought to trial.

There is no respect for human rights in a country where there is a culture of impunity. Impunity encourages a cycle of fighting, bloodshed, suffering, and more human rights violations. Where there is impunity, there is lawlessness, paranoia, graft and corruption, and distrust among the people. It is therefore important to combat impunity. Making these perpetrators accountable for the violations they have committed is one way of combating impunity.

Making these perpetrators accountable serves to fulfil the right to justice of their victims and lead towards genuine reconciliation. These perpetrators must show a sincere repentance for what they have done before victims could grant them forgiveness. It is only after this that there can be genuine reconciliation in the country.

Moreover, making these perpetrators accountable will also fulfil the right of their victims to know, to understand and be aware of all the facts surrounding the violations committed against them. If these perpetrators are made to go through trials, their testimonies and that of the witnesses may enable the victims to comprehend the circumstances that led to the violations. This is important in order to prevent a recurrence of the same violations in the future. Also, records during these trials may serve as part of the collective memory, which must be preserved. These records may be used as proof that such a period of oppression existed in order to guard against forces that may attempt to whitewash the same.

We can already see some attempt to whitewash the period of Suharto’s rule when last month: Indonesians were asked to fly the national flag at half mast to mark his death. His burial is that for a hero, neglecting the fact that under his rule, the Indonesians suffered and that thousands of people died because of the brutality of the military that he controlled. It also neglects the fact that he stole from the country’s coffers and that until now, his family lives on money stolen from the people.

Suharto’s death is not the demise of a great leader. His death is about another perpetrator escaping justice. Once again, impunity has prevailed in Asia.