Soeharto's part in his own downfall

The Fall of Soeharto
October 22, 1999

To many observers, the downfall of long-time Indonesian president Soeharto in May 1998 seemed unsurprising and explicable. An ageing, ailing dictator notorious for his brutality, greed and nepotistic tendencies, a debilitating economic crisis, and popular protests in the streets of the national capital: a scenario that fits well within the pattern of transitions from "sultanistic" or (neo-)patrimonial regimes. Small wonder that Soeharto went the way of Batista, the Shah, Somoza, Duvalier, Marcos, and Mobutu. It was only a question of time.

However, with the benefit of more than a year's hindsight and a reading of Geoff Forrester and R. J. May's volume, The Fall of Soeharto , the timing, process and outcome of Indonesia's transition appear less self-evident and far more puzzling than such a caricature or typology might suggest. Soeharto had dealt with previous economic crises quite successfully through decisive liberalisation measures. Yet in early 1998 he publicly endorsed a jihad against "hoarders and speculators", encouraged anti-Chinese riots, attacked the newly signed accord with the IMF and chose an economic nationalist as his new vice-president and a new cabinet, that included his favourite daughter, several of her minions and a notorious crony as trade and industry minister.

As the essays in this volume suggest, the events culminating in Soeharto's resignation in May 1998 have yet to be properly documented and understood. The government's sudden reduction of fuel subsidies on May 4 brought about student protests for the first time, yet the IMF had not forced Soeharto's hand on this issue. He departed for Cairo for several days, even as street protests grew and riots erupted in Medan. Rioting in Jakarta led to an exodus of ethnic-Chinese residents and foreigners, further undermining the regime. Yet subsequent investigations have unearthed evidence that Soeharto's son-in-law, Lt Gen. Prabowo Subianto (then a commander of an army garrison in Jakarta) instigated the "disorder" to advance his ambitions and, avowedly, to help Soeharto justify a harsh crackdown.

Against this backdrop of threats of "anarchy" on the one hand, and army intervention on the other, the orderly, civilian-led process of transition surprised many observers. In May, leaders of the previous parliament called for the president to step down, 14 cabinet ministers tendered their resignations, and on May 21 Soeharto surrendered executive authority to vice-president B. J. Habibie, his close associate and long-time minister of research and technology.

Thus Soeharto departed gracefully for his family home on Cendana Street in central Jakarta. The student-led protests subsided, Prabowo was sidelined and dismissed, and Habibie soon established himself in an uneasy duumvirate with the armed-forces commander and defence minister, General Wiranto (Soeharto's former aide-de-camp and loyal underling). Compared with the ignominious fates of other dictators before him, Soeharto's downfall seemed anti-climactic, an outcome far short of reformasi and demokrasi , but perhaps reassuring to those fearing mayhem in the streets or restlessness in the barracks.

Readers intrigued by the puzzling features of Soeharto's downfall will find ample food for thought in The Fall of Soeharto . Compiled in July 1998,these essays were written immediately after the dramatic events in Jakarta,and they retain a strong sense of the momentous complexity of the processes that toppled a president who had ruled for over 30 years. Former Australian diplomat Forrester's "Jakarta diary" provides a fast-clipped account of the regime's demise, while veteran journalist and Indonesia watcher Michael Vatikiotis offers a thoughtful and timely re-evaluation of the armed forces. Of the more scholarly contributions, Ed Aspinall's treatment of Soeharto's fall in the light of "transition" literature stands out as especially insightful.

Yet the limitations of the volume are also readily apparent. The short interval between the events of May 1998 and publication clearly privileged timeliness at the expense of careful documentation and analysis. More importantly, the tendency of many contributors to focus on ruling personalities and events obscures the broader role that social forces and deeper internal tensions had in determining the outcomes of the transition process.

For example, the last decade of Soeharto's rule saw a shift towards greater civilian power within the regime. Habibie, as high-tech industrial policy czar and head of the new Islamic association, Icmi, provided patronage and policy influence to ascendant Muslim middle-class elements. By 1997, members of the Soeharto family had entrenched themselves in business and in the state, and seemed poised to seize control of Golkar (the regime's electoral machine), the cabinet, and, in Prabowo's case, the armed forces. In many ways, it was this setting rather than the economic crisis that led to the unravelling of the regime. Soeharto's nepotism and narrowing social base conditioned his response to the crisis and left him vulnerable to popular opposition, from marginalised Christian and non-devout Muslim elements and also from disaffected modernist Muslims, like the popular Muhammadiyah leader (and Icmi member) Amien Rais. In this context, the strategic location of Habibie as vice-president, and of his allies in parliament, in Golkar, the cabinet, and even the armed forces, undermined Soeharto's position from within the regime and enabled a new, civilian-led regime to consolidate its power.

In short, Forrester and May's volume provides a useful point of departure for further investigation into the forces and political dynamics behind Soeharto's downfall. Yet, as the authors acknowledge, a fuller understanding of the events in Jakarta and their implications will require more in-depth research and rigorous analysis, from established specialists on Indonesian politics as well as a younger generation of scholars.

John Sidel is lecturer in Southeast Asian politics, School of Oriental and African Studies, London.

The Fall of Soeharto

Editor - Geoff Forrester and R. J. May
ISBN - 1 85065 529 4
Publisher - Hurst
Price - £14.95
Pages - 261

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