The only one that got away ... or not? 0

Admin | 11:06 AM |

Julia Suryakusuma, Jakarta

It is part of the traditional beliefs of Javanese and of Muslims -- and of many other people for that matter -- that there is a judgment day waiting for all of us. There are variations on this theme, depending on the belief to which you subscribe, but basically, the idea is that the end is not the end.

Many Indonesians believe the first stage of punishment is siksa kubur -- literally, "tomb torture". You've probably heard stories about corpses exhumed soon after burial showing signs of torture, including severe beating. The bones of the arms and legs are broken, faces are bruised and swollen, blood trickling out of eyes like tears, expressions distorted with fear and severe pain. Yes, this is the stuff of junky Indonesian and Malay horror movies ... but it helps explain why so many elderly Indonesians suddenly start getting religious as their end draws nigh!

Hmmm ... perhaps that's why the late Soeharto suddenly had his sickbed re-aligned last week to point towards Mecca? Don't know why he bothered though: Given his track record, when Soeharto comes face-to-face with his tormentors in the grave, he'll probably weasel out of retribution again by summoning a pasukan siluman (army of devils) in the form of yet another pack of demonic lawyers!

He'd certainly be used to it. Despite his well-known role in political and business corruption for decades on end, despite the vast amounts of money his family amassed and despite the human rights abuses that stained his 32 years in power, Soeharto has consistently managed to avoid facing trial.

In fact, he has remained a hugely intimidating figure to the end, capable of commanding fear, respect and thus impunity in his dotage and even on his deathbed. Incredible isn't that just about every major office-bearer in our government has gone cap in hand to Pak Harto's sickbed? They certainly weren't there because they liked his sunny personality and charming repartee.

Nope. The elite noticed when he said that if he ever ended up in the witness box he would take everyone else with him. It is a threat that has won him effective immunity from prosecution for years, so maybe now, like the godfather lies dying in a Mafia movie, most of the visitors are there to make sure he really is on the way out at last!

So will Soeharto be thumbing his nose from the grave at those who wanted him to face justice for what he did while he was alive? Many think death will be his last getaway. Certainly, it looks like he will never be made to answer for his role in Indonesia's own home-grown genocide between 1965 and 1966, when some say between 500,000 to perhaps one million people were killed and another million detained and abused. Yes, the figures are vague, perhaps unknowable, and this is part of the problem:
The whole grim episode is still officially shrouded in mystery and uncertainty. Reading government sources, you could be forgiven for wondering whether it ever really happened at all.

As I've written before, everyone knows a family that lost a member back then or knows someone who was a "non-person" for many years because of real or imagined association with Communism. But no one seems to know anyone who did the killing or who locked people away for decades in prisons or in primitive camps on remote islands.

In part this was because the narrative of an attempt by the communists to seize government by force that led to a violent response to protect the Republic, led valiantly by Soeharto and the army, was the essential foundation myth of the New Order. There was a long period when to publicly question it -- or sometimes even to discuss it -- was itself subversive and could see you facing the same fate as the "Communists".

But this public secret -- the greatest mass slaughter in modern Southeast Asian history apart from the Khmer Rouge killing fields -- must be faced up to publicly if Indonesia is to move forward. And it will not be simple, because it involves a whole host of unresolved, multifaceted and potentially explosive social and political problems: The role of Islamic organizations (especially Nahdlatul Ulama) in the massacres, the shocking human rights record of the armed forces, the basic political legitimacy of the New Order and its political heirs today, including Golkar, and whether the left can ever have a role in Indonesian public life again.

That is why the 1965/1966 killings are still the elephant in the room of Indonesian politics. And it's why we need a national truth and reconciliation process like in South Africa, which demonstrated so effectively that public honesty and truth are an essential pre-requisite of real forgiveness, social maturity and meaningful political transition.

But as Soeharto sinks slowly into history, there is faint hope emerging. Yes, Indonesia's great getaway man may escape accountability for the bloodbath that accompanied his rise to power, just as he has escaped trial for corruption, but once he is gone, an obstacle -- perhaps the major obstacle -- to reopening the 1965/1966 killings will be gone too.

His death may be just what is needed to let Indonesia face the dark past he helped create and then hid in open view. If the victims of the violence and their families join with researchers, NGOs, activists, the media and the few genuine reformers still in politics, maybe eventually some government will, one day, be persuaded to properly reinvestigate these atrocities and all the other "off limits" bloodbaths of the New Order, including the Petrus killings, the Tanjung Priok massacre, the Indonesian Democratic Party raid and, of course, the Semanggi shootings.

If that happens, then perhaps Soeharto's final escape from justice may allow millions of others to claim it for themselves, as last -- and I reckon that really would be "siksa kubur" for the old man!

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