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Indonesian strongman’s legacy remains a matter of debate


JAKARTA, Indonesia — Tree-lined Cendana street in an upscale neighborhood in central Jakarta has not changed much in recent decades, save for the demolition of a few Dutch colonial homes in favor of modernist villas. Yet the former resident whose home once took up the entire middle of the block initiated dramatic changes in his country, and 15 years after he disappeared from Indonesia’s political scene, debate still rages about whether they were for better or worse.

Cendana is synonymous with Suharto, the army general-turned-president who ruled Indonesia for 32 years while residing in the houses at Nos. 6, 8 and 10, which were renovated and connected. After his death in 2008, an Indonesian website dedicated to paranormal activity published an account by an elderly servant who said that Suharto’s ghost was still there and occasionally pinched and poked him.

Perhaps. But more certain is that Suharto’s spirit continues to loom over modern-day Indonesia.

He brought the country back from the brink of political, social and economic calamity in the mid-1960s, dramatically reduced poverty and by the early 1990s had turned Indonesia into one of Asia’s tiger economies. But he also governed with an iron fist, sending his jackbooted military into separatist-minded regions, jailing and exiling political enemies, quashing democratic institutions and the news media, and presiding over what some claim is one of the most corrupt governments in modern history.

Tuesday is the 15th anniversary of Suharto’s resignation as president. He stepped down amid huge pro-democracy street protests in Jakarta, rioting and deadly attacks on ethnic Chinese in several cities, and economic calamity brought on by the 1997 Asian financial crisis.

Since then, Indonesia has undergone a dramatic transformation toward democracy and now has open elections and the world’s 16th-largest economy. Yet corruption remains endemic, crime is higher than during Suharto’s "New Order" regime, and Jakarta and other large cities have chronic traffic problems.

Whether the country’s 240 million people, more than a quarter of whom were born after Suharto resigned, will pause to reflect on the anniversary remains to be seen.

"Even right now, a lot of people look at his time as the good old days," said Saprudin, a 33-year-old security guard who has worked at Suharto’s compound since 2001 and who, like many here, goes by one name. "I think as time goes by, more people will feel that way."

That rosy view extended to the man whom many called a dictator. "Mr. Suharto was good — it was his cronies who acted badly, with all the corruption that created a lot of the problems," Saprudin said. "He didn’t want to continue being president but was pushed to by his supporters."

Other Indonesians, members of human rights groups in particular, do not see it that way. They say that Suharto clung to power, even as the country’s economy was collapsing because of a banking crisis in 1998, to protect the business interests of his family and associates. They remain angry that Suharto never stood trial for corruption and human rights abuses committed by his military and security forces.

As Saprudin reminisced about how prices were lower and jobs plentiful in Suharto’s state-controlled economy, workmen were busy repainting the Cendana compound’s wooden driveway awning and landscaping the front gardens. The work is part of a three-month renovation of the weather-beaten, unoccupied estate ordered by the leader’s adult children, who own the property and want it to be ready to entertain guests during the post-Ramadan Eid al-Fitr holiday in August.

A mile or so away, some 400 vendors were holding a spirited demonstration outside a shopping mall where they rent space, complaining that its management is in violation of a national law regulating negotiations on rental prices and protesting the way complaints about property maintenance are handled.

Suharto’s security forces did not tolerate street protests; these days, much to the chagrin of motorists, there are several per day in Jakarta alone.

Ivan Wijaya, a 26-year-old shop manager at the mall, said the management had refused to meet with tenants for seven years, prompting them to form a workers’ organization, consult with lawyers and organize the protest.

"In 1998, we didn’t have freedom of speech, freedom to demonstrate," Wijaya said. "This kind of thing is illegal in Singapore; this is illegal in China."

Another protest leader, Frankie Wong, 49, said the Indonesian public has and would probably continue to have mixed opinions about Suharto and his legacy. "Sometimes we appreciate what he has done for the country, and sometimes we do not," he said. "It’s like a yin and yang thing."

At a train station nearby, next to the National Monument, a 70-year-old man buying a ticket said he was firmly a Suharto man. A native of Central Java province, the man, Sukirno, spent 25 years in the Indonesian navy, retiring as a sergeant major. He said he saw Suharto once, when the leader spoke to naval personnel.

"The Suharto days were better — he had a strategy, a vision and he was a strong man," Sukirno said, indirectly criticizing the president of the last eight-plus years, Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, another former army general whose critics say is indecisive when it comes to tough policy decisions.

"Democracy here is still an uphill thing," Sukirno said.

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