Suharto legacy still divisive 

As Indonesia marks two decades since the end of the dictatorial Suharto era, the largely Muslim archipelago has seen a rise in religious intolerance that threatens to jeopardise democratic progress.

When ageing Indonesian president Muhammad Suharto announced his resignation in a television address in May 1998, many celebrated. He was vacating the position he had seized in a bloody coup and anti-communist purge 32 years ago and marking the beginning of the “reformasi” or reform era.

“Our hope was that Indonesia would be better and more peaceful and prosperous in the future,” said Jakarta resident Donny Baskoro.

Suharto’s resignation followed riots that broke out between May 13 and 14, 1998, in Jakarta and elsewhere. Violence and civil unrest, often targeting the ethnic-Chinese community, triggered by food shortages and unemployment, claimed more than 1,000 lives. The unrest led to Suharto’s departure and the end of his New Order government.

But two decades later, earlier this month, bombs that exploded in Surabaya and Sidoarjo were blamed on the Jamaah Anshorud Daulat, which is allegedly affiliated to so-called Islamist State. 

“Is this the fruit of freedom of expression championed by reformasi?” mused Aloysius Denny of the Maria Tak Bercela Catholic church in Surabaya, which was one of the three bomb targets in Surabaya, Indonesia’s second-largest city. 

For many older citizens, Suharto is fondly remembered as the “father of development” who expanded access to education and health and invested in infrastructure.

He is also credited with starting a successful population-control programme and taking advantage of the oil boom of the 1970s and 1980s that allowed him to use subsidies to keep fuel prices low.

The World Bank reported that under Suharto’s rule, GDP grew from US$7.5 billion in 1968 to US$242 billion in 1996, the year before the Asian financial crisis.

Meanwhile, his friends and family built massive business empires, building toll roads, opening television stations and other profitable ventures. 

Much of the oil wealth is also thought to have been wasted through corruption and Transparency International has accused Suharto of pocketing up to US$35 billion, which would make him one of the world’s most corrupt leaders.

Suharto denied any wrongdoing until his death in 2008 and attempts to put him on trial failed as his case was dropped in 2000 due to ill health.

Amnesty International estimated that around 500,000 people were arrested during his reign and only about 1,000 ever brought faced trial. This does not include the millions of alleged communists slain by death squads at the beginning of his reign. 



Suharto’s rule got off to the bloodiest of starts. Picture credit: YouTube