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Suharto’s death ends another chapter for Asia’s strongmen

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 In this handout photo released by President Office, Indonesia’s President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, center, stands by the body of former Indonesian President Suharto at his house in Jakarta, Sunday, Jan 27, 2008. Former dictator Suharto, an army general who crushed Indonesia’s communist movement and pushed aside the country’s founding father to usher in 32 years of tough rule that saw up to a million political opponents killed, died Sunday. He was 86. (AP Photo/President Office, Anung, HO)01/27/2008
By Aubrey Belford
Agence France-Presse
JAKARTA — With the death of Indonesia’s Suharto, Asia has lost another of its so-called “strongmen”the authoritarian and mostly pro-Western rulers who dominated for much of the late 20th century. From his seizure of power in 1966 until his downfall in 1998, Suharto ruled Indonesia according to a model favoring market-driven economic growth ringed by repressive social control.It was an approach common elsewhere in Asia too, justified by a notion that “you need a strong ruler to keep order and bring countries into a modern age, an industrialized age,” according to Greg Fealy, an academic at the Australian National University.The politics of the Cold War era, with the constant specter of a communist threat, also “favored strong states and strong leaders,” he said, even if it came at the inevitable expense of civil rights.Some, like Ferdinand Marcos in the Philippines, ostentatiously amassed huge wealth for themselves and cronies. Others, like South Korea’s Park Chung-hee, were more personally austere while their countries prospered.Suharto’s contemporaries were not cut entirely from the same cloth either.Singapore’s Lee Kuan Yew and Malaysia’s Mahathir Mohamad were doubtlessly authoritarian, but not to the extent of iron-willed autocrats such as General Ne Win of Myanmar, whose isolationist rule meant that, unlike the others, he was no darling of the West.Keeping a tough guy image was optional for such strongmen.After a speech in 1974 by Park was interrupted by an assassination attempt that missed him but killed his wife, the South Korean leader returned to the podium and finished his speech.Lee, by contrast, famously shed public tears over his fledgling country’s forced separation from Malaysia in 1965, a counter-point to the schoolmasterly authoritarianism with which he micromanaged Singaporean life.Some of Asia’s authoritarian old school have remained close. Mahathir and Lee — both now in their eighties — flew to the Indonesian capital Jakarta to visit Suharto as he lay dying in hospital.The common thread connecting Asia’s autocrats was a conviction that Western liberal democracy would not work at home and would even be dangerous, Harold Crouch, an Australian Indonesia expert, told Agence France-Presse.Their argument was that “Asian values” and the special circumstances of an emerging but fragile region necessitated “an elite to run the country,” Crouch said.But hostility to democracy did not stop Western support for many of Asia’s authoritarian leaders, whose anti-communism and acceptance of foreign capital led to varying degrees of closeness.“The Americans certainly welcomed Suharto coming to power because he killed a lot of communists in doing so,” Crouch said, referring to a crackdown on the Indonesian Communist Party that killed upwards of half a million.Still, Suharto had his own style.While other leaders such as Mahathir adopted a stern persona, Suharto kept his ruthlessness hidden behind a personable and self-effacing exterior, said Bima Sugiarto, a lecturer at Indonesia’s Paramadina University.“He was known as a smiling general. He was very gentle, very polite but on the other hand he had an extreme skill in controlling all political scenarios behind the scenes,” he said.But while many authoritarian rulers were notorious for their corruption — the Marcos family being an extreme example — none matched Suharto for the way he institutionalized graft throughout government, Sugiarto added.

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Written by Kolbot Khmer

February 17, 2008 at 7:27 pm

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