Published on January 30, 2008
Former Indonesian president Suharto died on Sunday, aged 86. It was the end of an era in Southeast Asia, where Suharto stood as a symbol of authoritarian power. He was and remained a unifying force for his country and Southeast Asia as a whole. Former Singapore prime minister Lee Kuan Yew and former Malaysian prime minister Mahathir Mohamad were at his hospital bedside before he died. These leaders went through turmoil four decades ago but were able to work together and build a stronger regional community in the form of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations.
Suharto's fate was eventually determined by political circumstances. He was purged by a people's power uprising in a dramatic turnaround of events in 1998. As he was grew old, entering the fourth decade of power, he began to lose touch with the harsh realities of modern Indonesian society.
Both Lee and Mahathir relinquished control in their respective countries, but the transition of power was smooth, and both former leaders remained forces to be reckoned with. Suharto, who ruled the Indonesian archipelago with an iron fist, could have left a great legacy. But he was foolish enough to allow his family members, especially his wife and children, to take advantage of his power and connections.
The outcome was obvious: unparalleled corruption, nepotism and cronyism were all part and parcel of the regime he headed. Under Suharto, huge construction projects and government concessions were not possible without the involvement of his family members or cronies. As a result, Indonesia has constantly been labelled one of the most corrupt countries in the world because of the bribery that went on as normal practice.
For the countries of Southeast Asia, Suharto was seen as bringing stability and peace. When he was approached by Thailand, he readily agreed to the establishment of the Asean regional grouping. This was just two years after the infamous Bloody Sunday incident in 1965.
Thailand sympathised with Indonesia because the two countries were at that time battling against communist insurgents. But Suharto's methods for dealing with the threat were much harsher than Thailand's. He began a campaign in which nearly half a million communist suspects and supporters were killed. It left a big scar on his political career.
Suharto knew the importance of a regional grouping, and he knew the great potential of Indonesia and its population - the world's fourth largest. By becoming a founding member of Asean, Indonesia succeeded in bringing confidence to the rest of Southeast Asia. Other countries in the region were assured they could live peacefully with their giant neighbour. Since then, the country has been one of the driving forces of Asean. Under Suharto, nothing in Asean moved forward without Jakarta's acquiescence. That is no longer the case, as Indonesia has become more democratic within the group.
Thailand's relationship with Indonesia under Suharto was good. It is worth mentioning that the government agreed recently that Deputy Prime Minister Sonthi Boonyaratglin should pay Suharto a visit on behalf of Thailand. At first, former prime minister Chuan Leekpai was mentioned as the Thai representative. During Suharto's reign, there were no outstanding bilateral problems between Thailand and Indonesia, except for a short period during the Cambodian conflict. Indonesia, together with Malaysia, wanted to move forward with the peace process in Cambodia and was ready to push for Asean reconciliation with Vietnam before that country pulled its troops out of Cambodia. At the height of the Cambodian conflict, Indonesia highlighted the Chinese threat and influence in the region. Thailand and the rest of Asean disagreed and eventually garnered China's assistance, which proved to be crucial before the Paris peace agreement was concluded in 1991.
Indonesia is moving towards a consolidated democracy after nearly a decade of trial and error with three elected presidents. Over the past four years, President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono has pushed the country to the next level. Indonesia has been touted as a model for democratic development in developing countries, especially in the Muslim world. Now Indonesia can look to forward to building a better future without worrying about "the old man". Indonesians have started a new chapter in their history; a chapter led by the people.