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Hard times in Indonesia foster nostalgia for dictator

Despite his brutality, Suharto's rule, mainly the economic stability, is taking on a rosy tint for those who can barely eke out a living.

September 16, 2007|Anthony Deutsch | Associated Press

BEKASI, INDONESIA — The downfall of Indonesian dictator Suharto, one of the most corrupt and brutal rulers of the last century, swept in an era of political freedom and hope.

But nearly a decade later, many in this nation of 235 million remain desperately poor. And in dozens of interviews with laborers, traders, hotel owners and entrepreneurs, Indonesians expressed what was once unthinkable: nostalgia for the economic stability of his U.S.-backed authoritarian regime.

"What people want, what I want, is a return to Suharto's time," said Boan, a peasant who struggles to feed his three children. "Life is bitter now compared to then."

He can barely pay for food and fuel, which once were subsidized, said Boan, who, like many Indonesians, uses a single name.

"This government doesn't care about us," Boan said, sitting outside his dirt-floored home in Bekasi, near Jakarta, the capital, his worn feet caked with mud from the rice paddy.

The new sentiment on Suharto, who is now 86, reflects how difficult the transition to democracy has been in the world's most-populous Muslim nation. Indonesia, a vast country of more than 17,000 islands, endured centuries of colonization by the Portuguese, British and Dutch and was occupied by the Japanese during World War II. And now, with decentralization, it finds itself grappling with corruption, limited foreign investment and Islamic militancy.

Much of the current malaise is financial. Although some people interviewed still oppose Suharto because of the rights abuses during his rule, especially in suppressing separatists, almost all said that they had been better off financially 10 years ago.

Elected three years ago, President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono has yet to make good on promises to cut poverty. About half of the people still live on less than $2 a day.

Indonesia's recovery from the 1997-98 Asian financial crisis was slower than that of its neighbors. The nation was thrust into a recession described as "the most dramatic economic collapse anywhere in 50 years."

The economy has rebounded after shrinking 13%. But the disparity between rich and poor is growing, with a fifth of the rural population living below the government's poverty line. The inflation rate is up, and so is unemployment, now at 10%.

The public perception is that the average Indonesian hasn't benefited from the recovery, said International Monetary Fund country director Stephen Schwartz.

"There needs to be a system in place to protect the most vulnerable groups," he said. "Otherwise there will be resistance to keep the economy open."

Yudhoyono's government recognizes that widespread poverty can lead to instability, and is struggling to fund education, medical care and infrastructure. This year, $5.5 billion was allocated for poverty relief, including clean water supplies, electricity and housing.

It is "the most important problem" facing the government today, said Defense Minister Juwono Sudarsono, whose budget recently was cut to finance rural development and compensate victims of natural disasters.

But for many in the countryside, it's not enough.

"If you go to the village level, they prefer a dictatorship to what they see, at times, as a chaotic democratic system," said Dewi Fortuna Anwar, of the Habibie Center, a political think tank.

The economy has been further hurt by terrorism, which has severely damaged Indonesia's tourism sector.

Suicide bombers killed more than 240 people on the resort island of Bali and in Jakarta, many of them Western tourists. Suharto, by contrast, cracked down on Islamic militants in the 1980s.

These days, Suharto lives a secluded life in a Jakarta mansion. In June, supporters unraveled banners on his birthday at the Hotel Indonesia traffic circle, where a decade ago thousands chanted for his resignation.

The army general seized power in a 1965 coup that left as many as half a million people dead. He ruled the country with an iron fist for 32 years, killing or imprisoning hundreds of thousands of political opponents. Suharto and his family amassed as much as $35 billion by exploiting the country's mineral wealth.

Yet he also oversaw decades of nearly uninterrupted economic growth, halving the poverty rate, expanding medical care, roads and schools, and ending a dependence on rice imports.

Suharto's rule ended in 1998 after the financial crash caused the prices of staples to skyrocket, triggering nationwide riots and massive pro-democracy rallies. He has evaded prosecution on corruption charges, with lawyers arguing that he is too ill to stand trial. Efforts to punish him for killings also have foundered, in part because his family and supporters still have a grip on politics or decision-making.

In the province of Aceh, where his military tortured dissidents and killed thousands in a war against separatists, many people have bitter memories.

"Today we no longer fear the soldiers," said Maisarah, 35, a homemaker. "Back then it may have been safer, more stable, but that was only because the leader was ruling with an iron fist."

Amad, 31, who makes $1.60 a day trading used plastic and cardboard, is more worried about feeding his pregnant wife than bringing Suharto to trial.

"Now we cannot afford anything," he said. "It was better then than now."

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