Flashbacks January 2008

Suharto and Indonesia

Atlantic writings from the '50s through the '80s shed light on Suharto and the unique challenges facing Indonesia

Suharto, Indonesia's former dictator, has died. For thirty-two years, from the time he took power from his predecessor Sukarno in 1967 until 1998 when he was driven from office, he ruled the country with a harsh and corrupt hand. Over the years, a number of Atlantic writings have shed light on the challenges facing Indonesia and on Suharto's role in navigating—and sometimes exacerbating—those challenges.

From the archives:

"Problems the Country Faces" (June 1956)
A leader of the revolution discusses the future.

In 1965 a failed Communist coup (depicted dramatically in an Atlantic Report from the January, 1966, issue) led to bloody reprisals by the military—and to the rise of Suharto, who at the time of the uprising was an obscure general commanding the army's strategic reserve. Backed by student leaders as well as the military, Suharto's "New Order" government began amid high hopes for stability and prosperity which were never realized in full. Only months after Suharto was appointed as acting president, John Hughes wrote, in a "Report on Indonesia" (December, 1967), that "the honeymoon days ... are over."

In "Indonesia: An Effort to Hold Together" (June, 1982) James Fallows outlined the forces that were shaping Indonesia's political system, and described the principal tenet not only of Suharto's long rule, but also his predecessor Sukarno's: "guided democracy." Even in conversations with Indonesians critical of the government, Fallows discovered an acceptance of the military's stewardship as a necessary fact of life.

"We would like more elbow room," a journalist told me. "But not like you. We do not like that kind of disorder. We do not feel comfortable with it." One man highly critical of the regime asked, at the end of his list of complaints, "But what is the alternative?" He said that Indonesia had been through a period of liberal parliamentary democracy, between 1950 and 1958, and that in the ensuing chaos Sukarno had devised the policy of guided democracy. "I am not sure we can stand another one of your 'liberal' experiments."
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