Suharto & the People

Jan 18th, 2008, in History, Opinion, by

Suharto: Let the People Speak, Please Help Indonesia Matters do an informal poll.

Achmad Sudarsono

Suharto: Let the People Speak, Please Help Indonesia Matters do an informal poll.

Friend,

The alleged near-death of Indonesia's former strongman President Soeharto has dominated the news and Indonesia Matters discussion in the past two weeks.

Was he a bloodthirsty despot or nation builder? Both? Were his economic achievements tarnished by corruption and human rights abuses? Were there any lasting economic achievements to balance against the reported human rights abuses?

Suharto

Is it disrespectful to the memory of alleged victims to the regime to even ask these questions? Some would say so.

I invite you all, (with a nod from Patung), to help with an informal poll of a near-silent voice in all of this: the Indonesian people.

I'm inviting all Indonesia Matters posters and readers to contribute to an informal poll. Here's the idea:

Ask three Indonesian people in your everyday life these questions:

1. Enakkan hidup di Jaman Soeharto atau sekarang? Kenapa? (Was life better under Soeharto or now? Why?)

2. Kalau nilai Soeharto sebagai President bagaimana? (What's your evaluation of Soeharto).

I'd call on people to focus on working class or poor Indonesians. The middle class and articulate have their outlets. The voices of the ordinary people in English language media are all too often drowned out by the ramblings of people such as myself and middle class Western commentators.

This is not a scientific poll, but the Blogosphere is supposed to liberate us from the tyranny of the "mainstream media" so let's use it! We're all busy people, but over the next few days or so, we should at least be able to manage a few questions to the sopir, maid, satpam, shop attendant, bus driver, tukang ojek, penjual sekoteng.

Please, if you'd like to join, try not to indicate an opinion one way or another, or ask leading questions. Just ask. Please also try to get names, ages, and professions, and if you change the name, please also indicate, just for transparency.

I promise to update after lunch.

Merdeka!

Achmad (temporarily returning from retirement).


88 Comments on “Suharto & the People”

  1. avatar Janma says:

    Were there any lasting economic achievements to balance against the reported human rights abuses?

    So…….. is it like… ok to beat my kids as long as I clothe and feed them?

    But, whatever, it’s a good and interesting idea, and Janma intrepid reporter of the unvoiced masses, shall go forth!

  2. avatar Achmad Sudarsono says:

    Good point, Janma: let’s see what the Rakyat say ! Back later with findings.

  3. avatar Janma says:

    Just asked five of my staff….
    “Do you think life and Indonesia were better during the Soeharto regime or now?”

    Two were too young during the Soeharto era to really have an opinion.
    The other three all answered that it was better during the Soeharto era, as was expected, which is why Acme put the question out to them, knowing where his support lay.

    The reasons were mostly about security… not economy.
    They didn’t have motor bikes then, they do now. They felt poorer then actually, but safer.

    Mas Har who is 30 years old from Bondowoso of Maduran stock…. said it was safer for good people and worse for bad people. Now it is safer for bad people. Actually he surprised me by saying that it was ‘lebih bebas’ then.. (more freedom)! But after thinking a bit he said that it was more free for the ordinary law abiding citizen, but now it more free for criminals. And that the atmosphere in the villages was ‘tentram’ (peaceful). He did reminisce about a mosque leader and a bapak RW who both ‘disappeared’ after saying something untoward, one about religion the other about politics.

    Mar Irham 35 years old from Banyuwangi said that Indonesia was stronger then. Countries weren’t laughing at Indonesia. They didn’t swan in and take islands and songs. The military were strong. America respected Indonesia. India is now much more advanced than Indonesia although in the soeharto days, it seemed Indonesia was on a par with India.

    Bu Yoga, Balinese 50 years old said that it was better when it was soeharto’s time, and that most people she knows would say so.

    No surprises there hey? except for the fact that they weren’t focused on economic issues.

  4. avatar Achmad Sudarsono says:

    Janma,

    Many, many thanks for beating me to the punch. I’m just heading out now.

    If I’m “Acme” I’m not looking for any answers, just ask what people think.

    Also, if poss, could we leave commentary – our own opinions – on the answer till the end of the passage, just to focus on the respondent’s answers.

    Back soon.

  5. avatar Achmad Sudarsono says:

    Vox Pop from Achmad

    Roka, Garbage Collector & Recycler from Padang,

    Roka, 47, was rummaging through trash, plastic bags, bits of polysterene, chiselling away at scrap metal, when I met him, squatting by a pavement in Jakarta.

    “There was definitely alot of cruelty in the Suharto era, but it was easier to make a crust (cari makan). That’s what’s important to someone like me. To be honest, I don’t care about his trial, it’s not important.

    It was nicer then, because there was development. For garbage collectors like me, it’s hard now. it’s hard to find food. Back then it was much easier.”

    Pak Pono, Food seller and Grave Digger.

    Pak Pono, used to sell food from a warung under the Soeharto government. Now he helps his friends, hanging out in a grave yard and occassionally, helping them dig.

    He was quite jolly and happy to talk.

    “It was nicer living back then, under Pak ‘Harto. Now there are disasters all the time. Train crash, plane crash, boats sinking, volcanos erupting. In terms of making a living, it was easier back then. Ordinary people didn’t suffer, prices were stable. It was easier to get work. Now there’s no work. We suffer.”

    “I don’t know what to make of his cruelty. I don’t know about that. I’m just a poor man. The elite people (orang atas) know about that. ”

    Kipri, Unemployed Foreman.

    37-year old Kipri was a friend of Pak Pono’s and sitting nearby in a hut in the middle of a graveyard. His friends seemed to respect and defer to his opinion. A ruffled pile of newspapers, including Kompas, lay nearby.

    On Suharto:

    “There’s positive and negative, pro and contra. There hasn’t been a big change in my life. I just about my daily business. ”

    “Every person has good and bad features. I think Soeharto had more bad ones. They say Indonesia’s a rich country, lots of natural resources. I haven’t seen it yet, under Soeharto, under Reformasi, under anyone.”

    Ibu Sinthia

    Ibu Sinthia was a 30-something warung owner in Jakarta. She seemed to be the ‘senior’ in her little corner, as another Ibu and several kids pointed me to her. She was quite proud and dignified and keen to get her views across.

    “Ibu [her] preferred it back then. Nowadays groceries are expensive, back then [Soeharto era] prices were stable. The economy gives me a headache now.”

    “It was more peaceful as well. If there were security problems, say a thief, the officials took care of it straight away. Now the mob does it.”

    [Achmad: what do you mean the mob does it?]

    “Well, they lynch the thief. The mob jumps in. Officials stay out.”

    “I just know about groceries and peace and quiet around here [points to the kampung] I don’t know about politics.”

    Afterthought from Achmad

    I’ve aired my thoughts on this, so some readers could question whether or not I skewed the answers. I tried not to. Humbly offer these reports.

    Patung, any way of getting images up here. I’ve got photos from each person and permission to publish.

  6. avatar WP says:

    * I see only two questions instead of three.

    * ” Enakkan hidup di Jaman Soeharto atau sekarang?” –> “Menurut bapak/ibu apakah hidup bapak/ibu lebih enak di jaman pak Harto dulu, atau lebih enak sekarang?”

    * ” Kalau nilai Soeharto sebagai President bagaimana?” –> “Bagaimana penilaian bapak/ibu terhadap pak Harto semasa menjadi presiden?”

    Achmad, now I know you’re definitely an american 🙂

    I’m not what kind of main hypothesis you try to answer with those questions, but if you try to find this out:

    Was he a bloodthirsty despot or nation builder?

    IMHO those two are wrong questions.

  7. avatar Achmad Sudarsono says:

    WP,

    I think if you’re speaking to people who might not have even a high-school education, it’s best to keep things simple. I just want to ask them was life better under Soeharto or now and why ?

    On the grammar issue — same. Just the way people talk. Not Bahasa Indonesia Yang Baik dan Benar.

    Any chance of a contribution from you in the next week ? All it has to be is pembantu, penjaga, satpam, orang jualan, whoever. The more the better…

    Achmad.

  8. avatar WP says:

    Not Bahasa Indonesia Yang Baik dan Benar.

    Oooh…. ok.

    Any chance of a contribution from you in the next week ? All it has to be is pembantu, penjaga, satpam, orang jualan, whoever.

    Sadly … I have none of those in where i live now.

  9. avatar Pulutan says:

    The questions seem to make sense – but they don’t. Most people will answer that things were better under Suharto. They compare today’s reality not with the reality of 20 years ago, but with what they remember when they were 20 years younger.

    Second, human memory is far from being objective. Actually it’s very selective as we all know. There is a tendency for bad memories to fade more than good memories.

    Third, times changed with or without Suharto. There are twice as many people today than a generation ago. There are the effects of globalization, there is pollution, etc. And all that greatly impacts our life today.

    In short: This “survey” (even if it were representative) says absolutely nothing about how good or how bad Suharto was. It’s the wrong approach.

  10. avatar Achmad Sudarsono says:

    Pulutan,

    Not meant to be a scientific survey, just a ‘voices on the street’ to see what such people say. I made it clear it was an ‘informal poll’ without judging the results.

    What’s wrong with asking ordinary people what they think ? That’s all we’re doing, just asking them what they think, then writing it down.

    Any chance of a contribution from you 🙂 ?? Just people in your everyday life….

  11. avatar Achmad Sudarsono says:

    The silence is deafening:

    From:

    Oigal

    Pulutan

    and others.

    The poor it seems, should be invisible. Silent. How dare they disagree with the educated, the rich, graduate degree holders, PHDs, Masters degrees.

    Easy to tap away at the keyboard, spouting opinions. When brought up, nose-to-nose against the gritty reality of ordinary life, the answers of these weekend warriors is…silence.

    Over to you, Oigal. Go for gold, Australia.

  12. avatar David says:

    Achmad, I keep meaning to do this properly like you did, with photos but haven’t yet. I did ask the local security guard, who is about 55.

    Was life better under Soeharto? Why?

    He said ‘yes’ very emphatically. He said because under SBY prices always go up.

    What’s your evaluation of Soeharto

    He was very positive about him, but said Suharto’s children are/were no good.

    More to come.

  13. avatar Pulutan says:

    Achmad,
    you are right, of course. We should all immediately follow your wonderful initiative to give the poor a voice in this blog. They will surely appreciate it. And it will also help them. I for one will cut short my stay abroad to interview as many poor as possible. It will make me feel good, the poor visible, you happy, and the world a better place. I apologize for not having followed you any sooner.

  14. avatar Oigal says:

    Assmad,

    1. As I said its a moot point, He and his cronies will never stand trial, the only thing that saddens me is people like yourself you seem to defend the human cost (but then again to expected I guess, that’s why people like him get away with it).

    2. Questions are wank, gee you could asked those questions in any nation in the word and get the same answer “Why in my day son….”

    3. Janma effectively summed your position up (in about 100,000 less words).

    is it like”¦ ok to beat my kids as long as I clothe and feed them?

    4. In reality, little has changed (you cannot seriously believe the people are being asked to comment on a functioning democracy)..The situation reminds me of the move “ARMY OF DARKNESS (a silly but amusing film) where when a great big Evil F##K#R gets attacked and suddenly breaks up into a a gazillion little Evil F##K#Rs..I leave it to you to figure out who plays what parts in Indonesia

  15. avatar Achmad Sudarsono says:

    Patung,

    Many thanks. But let’s wait and see. Any reaction from readers is an interesting one.

    Oigal,

    I’m not saying anything’s ok or not ok. I just want to record what ordinary people have to say.

    Interesting you think that’s a “wank.” Maybe they shouldn’t be allowed to vote if they give the “wrong” answers.

    In reality, little has changed (you cannot seriously believe the people are being asked to comment on a functioning democracy).

    Nearly all of the people interviewed so far think the situation’s changed. Do you know more about their reality than they do ?

    Any chance of a comments from your neck of the woods?

  16. avatar dewaratugedeanom says:

    No need to ask this questions now in Bali. A little more than 5 years ago any critical opinion vanished in favour of Suharto.
    In Suharto’s days tourism was blooming, bombing of tourist venues (read: livelihood) was something beyond imagination and corruption wasn’t yet democratised.

  17. avatar Achmad Sudarsono says:

    Dewa,

    Are you sure ? Do you speak for the people ? So hard to just ask three close by and see what they say ?

    Dear All,

    If you only talk about it, but don’t get around to writing it down. Mission accomplished.

    Anyone in Aceh, Papua, Lampung, or East Timor, thoughts especially welcome.

  18. avatar WP says:

    Well, I’m not surprised by the symphathy expressed by our “orang2 kecil”. With respect to those questions, interpreted verbatim, I would also answer positively myself.

    What I’m not so sure is if we actually learn anything from this….

  19. avatar Oigal says:

    Nearly all of the people interviewed so far think the situation’s changed. Do you know more about their reality than they do

    Fair point, ok how about for many people it has changed for the worse..but is that because democracy is not working or that the people have yet again been betrayed by corrupt and inept leaders?

    Whilst on common comments, how about things we better in those days because there was only one king corrupter..instead of democrary now the people have lots of little nasty corruptors..

    By the way, as it seems to be all about economics..whats the going ratio for dead people per percentage of national growth in GDP.. It seems to be a central theme to point just wondering if its subjective or not.

  20. avatar Achmad Sudarsono says:

    Pak Oigal,

    Is this what they said ?

    hings we better in those days because there was only one king corrupter..instead of democrary now the people have lots of little nasty corruptors..

    If so, then fair enough. Questions were supposed to be open-ended ie “was life better” and “how would you rate Soeharto?”

    Ratio of people murdered by the state/per GDP point or GDP per capita. That’s a good idea as well. Maybe suggest it to the Economist’s economics page and pitch it to the UN to tack on to their human development index.

    WP: What do we learn ?

    Yes, I agree – the two questions are a blunt instrument.

    1. just a gauge of what ordinary people have to say. Indonesia has a big internet divide and such opinions only usually get into the blogosphere 3rd or 4th hand. Questions have to be simple if you’re talking to pemulung who didn’t finish high school.

    2. They’re the majority of voters. Want a democracy ? Get politicians, who need to get re-elected. But let’s wait ’till Friday and see if we get any more comments before weighing it up.

  21. avatar WP says:

    Achmad:
    But let’s wait ’till Friday and see if we get any more comments before weighing it up.

    I doubt you’ll get much variation from the oppinions you already have. They pretty much sum up how our ‘common folk’ feel.

    Achmad: They’re the majority of voters. Want a democracy ?

    That’s not a right question!! We are (supposedly) the better educated group. On us lies the responsibility to provide advices and leadership according to our wisdom. That is our role. If we do not think what the majority of the common folk think/feel is constructive, we should tell them so. Of course in the end it is democracy all right; so they have their right to choose whom they want to listen to.

  22. avatar Achmad Sudarsono says:

    WP,

    On us lies the responsibility to provide advices and leadership according to our wisdom. That is our role. If we do not think what the majority of the common folk think/feel is constructive, we should tell them so.

    Cute, WP, Cute. And who’s the more powerful group ?

    Also

    – Who’s to say they’re representative ? You apparently, as we’re part of the “more educated group.” Also,
    – It’s not a matter of the “right” question. Politicians must have a sense of the way the ‘rakyat’ feel. Maybe that’s part of the equation as to why they don’t want to see Soeharto in the dock.

  23. avatar WP says:

    Achmad: And who’s the more powerful group ?

    I don’t know. Ideally that should not be an issue. The two groups complement each other. They should learn to work together rather than competing with each other.

    Achmad:

    – It’s not a matter of the “right” question. Politicians must have a sense of the way the ‘rakyat’ feel.

    Well, you were the one that suggested, between the lines, that ignoring people’s opinion would be undemocratic. While that was obviously true, I merely pointed out that there are more to it. Anyway, I agree wholeheartedly that politicians should be acutely aware of people’s sentiment. But let me again caution that being “aware” and providing “leadership” are not the same thing.

    Maybe that’s part of the equation as to why they don’t want to see Soeharto in the dock.

    Well I don’t know about that. My position regarding Soeharto is that as long as we have nothing solid then we simply have no case. Given the historical context in which all those bad things happen, I also find it too cheesy to put all the blame on him. We, as the people, also have our share of sins and responsibility. Afterall it is the people who let him make all the calls. When things went good (e.g. in 70s and 80s) we simply didn’t care. We (or rather, my parents :D, I was still a kid playing with mud) saw signs that things were not going the right way, yet we looked the other way.

    Oh well, sorry for ranting 😀

  24. avatar Achmad Sudarsono says:

    WP –

    Rants, that’s what Blogs are for ?

    Whether or not there’s a case against Soeharto is for the AG’s to decide.

    TW are you Indonesian ?

    Given the historical context in which all those bad things happen, I also find it too cheesy to put all the blame on him. We, as the people, also have our share of sins and responsibility. Afterall it is the people who let him make all the calls. When things went good (e.g. in 70s and 80s) we simply didn’t care. We (or rather, my parents :D, I was still a kid playing with mud) saw signs that things were not going the right way, yet we looked the other way.

    Oigal, see this above ? Is WP “wrong” ? What should he be thinking ? Is he defending a despot, or is it just that realities are as dark as those nights of terror in ’65-’66.

  25. avatar Arema says:

    Well, since I’m a middle-class and poor Indonesian, I’d like to participate in Achmad’s survey.

    1. Enakkan hidup di Jaman Soeharto atau sekarang? Kenapa? (Was life better under Soeharto or now? Why?)

    The simple answer to this question is: Suharto’s era is much better. Why? People were more united, less conflict, less disasters (this one is beyond anyone’s control), easier to get a decent income (because expenses were relatively low), more stability (both economically and politically), Indonesia is still relatively secure, etc.

    But having said that, we must also not forget that conditions back then and now has changed so much. The world did not seem so small back then (globalization was still in beginning stage). Internet was not commonly available until the end of babe Harto’s era, restricting information transfer to only newspapers and phonecalls (even handphones was not so common back then). And generally Indonesian people was “satisfied” with Suharto’s achievement in the government (except the final few years, of course) so they don’t scrutinize the government as much as now.

    So my point is, it is an unfair comparison. All elected governments after Suharto ruled the country “under a magnifying glass”, and every mistake made was scrutinized, publicized quickly and oppositions took advantage of it to destabilize the government. Economic decisions had also become more and more tricky to made because of increased competition from global market and Indonesia’s own shaky foundation. If I mention the array of major natural disasters and alarming increase of terrorism and inter-SARA (Suku, Agama, Ras, Antar golongan = tribe, religion, race, group) conflicts that the recent government faced, plus the fact that the recent government are actually struggling to “fix the boat” that was wrecked by Suharto’s corruption, you know how unfair the question (and the resulting answer) is.

    2. Kalau nilai Soeharto sebagai President bagaimana? (What’s your evaluation of Soeharto).

    Well, it’s strange, but before he become ex-president I actually liked him! I feel that he got a leader’s charisma and he did came up with some good policies, like Padat Karya for example. Of course Padat Karya (liberally translated as massive employment) is a laughable manufacturing technique in today’s lean and mean industry, but Padat Karya industry is needed to reduce unemployment rate in Indonesia, and it can’t be done without government encouragement, because it is simply not the most effective (and profitable) manufacturing method. And somehow throughout the years he managed to give some sense of pride to all Indonesians for being an Indonesian, probably because all we heard were only the good news (through media filtering).

    But when Ibu Tien Soeharto suddenly passed away without official explanation, a lot of people sniffed the fishy smell, and Soeharto slipped from hero to zero from that point onwards, in the eye of Indonesians.

  26. avatar Pulutan says:

    AL JAZEERA: “THE LEGACY OF A DICTATOR” (17.1.08):

    PART 1 : http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9AlgoDlaUsU
    PART 2 : http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JHwEd9aQGi4

  27. avatar WP says:

    Achmad: TW are you Indonesian ?

    Depend on how you define “indonesian” 😀 But yea, i would call myself very indonesian.

  28. avatar dewaratugedeanom says:

    I asked 5 different people, most of them rakyat kecil. Three of them became evasive, which is also an indicator, but for a different subject. The other two, one of them a middle class small entrepreneur, the other an artist painter with less means, both of them married with 2 small children below SMP, definitely agreed that life was better under Suharto, economically and security wise. As to Suharto’s personality they were less outspoken, but they agreed that in his days people didn’t dare to speak their minds. They kept their opinion for themselves but this didn’t bother them a lot. They all agreed that after Suharto corruption became more visible.

  29. avatar Achmad Sudarsono says:

    Ok Folks,

    Well approaching a week. We’ve had nearly a 100 % response along the following lines.

    * Life was better in economic terms under Soeharto.

    * Economic terms are mainly what counts to the respondees (cari makan).

    * Security was also better under Soeharto than under reformasi. People feel ‘safer’ now.

    * Soeharto is perceived as someone cruel who got the job done.

    That seems to be pretty consistent across the board from a number of respondees.

    Any thoughts, folks ?

    Achmad.

  30. avatar WP says:

    Quite unfortunately we don’t have similar enquete *during* Soeharto’s time, so that we can compare responses.

    From my own personal experience witnessing events in 1997-1998, there was a sudden and rapidly growing feeling/awareness of (suffering from) repression and unfairness among the population. This sentiment was crucial in tipping the balance, as the population eventually chosed to side with the Reformation.

    But I suppose people now already forget that.

    The way I see it, the opinions from Achmad respondents reflect the unspoken regret for opening the Box of Pandora back in 1998. The devils are out now, and there is no going back. It is understandable that people now long for stability and prosperity. And of course they will think back to Soeharto time.

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