SYDNEY - SUHARTO: A Political Biography
By R.E. Elson
Cambridge University Press, 389pp, $59.95
Let's cut straight to the chase. What does this first academic biography of the man who ruled Indonesia for 32 years say about the two most tantalising mysteries in his career?
Who was ultimately behind the coup attempt of September 30/October 1, 1965, the shots in the Jakarta dark which led to Suharto grabbing effective power from the ailing proklamator of independence, Sukarno, only six months later? Was it Suharto himself, then seen as a steady and overly cautious general but later as a supreme political dalang (puppet master)?
When he finally stepped down in May 1998, in the face of chaotic street protests, a currency collapse and resignation en masse by his ministers, how much wealth did he and his greedy children have socked away in foreign bank accounts and assets?
We still have to wait for the answers. Professor Elson, a historian of Indonesia at Brisbane's Griffith University, doubts we will ever get them, on the first question at least, and his own extensive research didn't yield much in the way of confessional interviews with surviving members of Suharto's inner circle.
His book consequently relies heavily on published sources and archival material, and breaks little new ground in telling the story of the village boy with a troubled family background, turned by military service with the Dutch, the occupying Japanese and the Indonesian revolution into a tough and effective commander.
But for the 1965 coup attempt, his career might have passed in obscurity. Afterwards, notes Elson, "It took the Jakarta elite some time to realise that the cool, restrained, taciturn and ever-smiling Suharto had grown into a devastating, ruthless, manipulative politician who had managed by shrewd calculations of timing, bluff and threat to dethrone the father of Indonesian nationhood and himself attain the highest office in the nation within 30 months of the 1 October affair."
The same talents enabled Suharto to escape the multiple crises of the 1970s - splits in the military, rising dissent, the massive debt run up by the state oil company Pertamina, communist victories in Indo-China - and embark on constructing his vision of a corporate state.
The former military-intelligence fixers such as Ali Murtopo were pushed out of the inner circle, and the bureaucracy wielded by the smooth and discreet military lawyer Sudharmono gained ascendancy over the army.
Elson thinks Suharto was grooming Sudharmono to take over his job when he nominated the long-time cabinet secretary for the vice-presidency in 1988. But the resulting ruckus kicked up by the military, at the instigation of Benny Murdani, a fighting general, put paid to that idea.
Aging and tired, Suharto stayed on as president through the 1990s because he could see no alternative. His mental conditioning from childhood onwards made him retreat into himself, rather than reach out and accommodate the aspirations of a population transformed by the economic and social welfare gains of his regime.
His still-formidable political energies were devoted to putting down incipient challenges: by micromanaging army promotions, trying to unseat the Muslim leader Abdurrahman Wahid, and ousting Sukarno's daughter Megawati from the rump nationalist party. The wider Suharto family and hangers-on ran riot with their various obsessions: B.J.Habibie with his expensive high-tech industries, son-in-law Prabowo Subianto with an enlargement of the notorious Kopassus special forces, the Suharto kids with rent-seeking businesses. The death of his wife, Tien, in 1996 "seems, if anything, to have hardened Suharto's political resolve", Elson says. "He now had little to strive for except to maintain his hold on power, which he ever more deeply believed was essential for his country's future." The end came when the Asian financial crisis of 1997 sent the rupiah tumbling.
However familiar this tale, Elson tells it with great breadth of perspective and grasp of the issues. More valuable than the narrative itself, however, are the short sections of conclusion and analyses with which he ends each chapter.
These and his final chapter on "The Man and his Legacy" are tough and unforgiving. Elson sums Suharto up as an extraordinarily self-centred man who ultimately mistrusted "the people", whom he declared to be his masters, and thought they could only attain their true humanity through strong leadership such as his own. Those who fell under the wrong leadership, such as followers of the Indonesian Communist Party (PKI), deserved to be destroyed.
Power and a sense of destiny emerge as Suharto's main drivers, rather than venality, in this account. Elson sees the money side of his operation, which started early on, as an extension of foraging which got into the big time as Indonesia prospered. Suharto probably had to spend almost as much as he ripped off to stay in power.
In his account of 1965 Elson is too soft, and ignores one theory of the October 1 coup that has considerable plausibility. How is it that the prime movers in the coup attempt - colonels Untung and Abdul Latief and the PKI operative Syam - were all well known to Suharto? Elson thinks the closeness has been "exaggerated" and there was no reason to think Suharto shared their leftish views or keenness to eliminate high-living army generals. But he doesn't consider the possibility Suharto might have cynically egged them on.
Unfortunately, the main player has now lapsed into senility, we are told by his lawyers and doctors, and spends his time watching vapid TV shows. But his writ still runs, and no-one has yet stepped from the shadows to clarify events.
Meanwhile, if we seek Suharto's monument, go to Jakarta and look around. Elson sees a "wasteland of political ideas" resulting from the lack of moral content and forward vision in Suharto's New Order. He agrees with the lawyer Adnan Buyung Nasution that Suharto's worst crime was to make Indonesians "afraid to think".
"The result, now that the New Order has evaporated," says Elson, "is that Indonesia is today a nation adrift, without foundations, without a clear sense of what unites it or what its role and purpose might be ...". No wonder, he says, that "a defensive, exaggerated and easily outraged sense of sovereignty is so dominant."