01/22/2008, 00.00
INDONESIA
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Democracy is in peril if Indonesia does not confront the Suharto legacy

The former dictator, who is hospitalised in critical condition, is at the centre of a controversial wave of "compassion". From various sides, political leaders are asking the president to "pardon" the aged leader, who faces weighty accusations of corruption. But some say that simply shelving Suharto's three-decade dictatorship means leaving the country prey to a new despot.

Jakarta (AsiaNews) - Indonesia risks falling prey to a new dictator, if it does not have the courage to face squarely the legacy left by Suharto. This is what many Indonesian analysts are saying about the unexpected wave of "compassion" that is enveloping the controversial former president. Accused of corruption and held responsible for countless violations of human rights, Suharto has been hospitalised for weeks in Jakarta, in critical condition. Experts say that the requests for pardon, for humanitarian reasons, that have arrived from various directions in recent days demonstrate the existence of a strong desire among the country's leaders not to have to confront a past that may still be uncomfortably relevant.

The Prosperous Justice Party (PKS) announced yesterday that it wants to ask president Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono to "pardon" the former dictator. The initiative seems to have arisen from the intention to promote "national reconciliation", to put Indonesia on the path toward a "better future". The move surprised many, since the PKS made the fight against corruption one of the key points of its electoral campaign. The same request has been made by the Golkar party, by vice-president Jusuf Kalla. The party, formed by the dictator's former collaborators, is aiming for a "suspension" of all of the legal procedures pending against the former head of state. The president of East Timor, Ramos Horta - once an enemy of Suharto in the fight for the island's independence - has also advocated a pardon.

During the decades when he was Indonesia's leader (1967-1998), the former president exploited the country's economic growth in order to enrich his family and collaborators through a series of state monopolies, subsidies, and illicit mechanisms. According to unofficial estimates, his family's fortune is somewhere between 15 and 35 billion dollars. In 2000, two years after he was forced to resign, he was put under investigation for allegedly embezzling 600 million dollars in state funds, but the proceedings against him were suspended on account of his poor health. Nor has he ever been tried for the many violations of human rights committed in the country while he was in power.

Precisely because no definitive condemnation has ever been issued against Suharto, the government remains neutral, explaining that there is no possibility of pardon where there is no condemnation. But outside of Pertamina Hospital, where the leader is hospitalised, a crowd of activists is calling for justice. Mukhtar Pakpahan, who was arrested for insulting Suharto during the "New Order" regime, shouts: "Let's pray for [his] recovery, so that he can stand trial".

Indonesian experts are convinced of the need to come to terms with the Suharto legacy, in order to guarantee the future of democracy in the archipelago. Although the current  government wants to demonstrate that it is different, they explain, the situation is still the same as it was ten years ago: widespread corruption; the power of the military, which after leaving the government has continued to protect its own interests even though it does not control any civilian office; political interference in the judicial system, and the resulting failure of this system in protecting the rights of ordinary citizens. "Until it decisively repudiates the Suharto legacy", one analyst maintains, "Indonesia remains easy prey for the next aspirant, whether a populist neo-Sukarno, another brass hat or a charismatic mullah".

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