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The fall of Suharto - a perspective from the street

By Roger Smith - posted Wednesday, 21 May 2008

May 21, 2008 marks exactly a decade since the fall of arguably Asia’s most enduring 20th century dictator.

One of the most striking aspects of what occurred in Indonesia at that time is just how wrong Australia’s diplomatic and academic elite were about Suharto and his ability to cling to power. Typical of the commentary in the two years before Suharto’s fall were these comments by former Secretary of the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade Richard Woolcott in an article published in the Jakarta Post on August 31, 1996: “It would be misguided for Australians, despite the recent political rumblings in Jakarta, to expect rapid or radical change or even serious instability in the near future in our large, restless, very different, yet very important northern neighbour.”

Woolcott was not alone in his assessment. Even once the economic crisis began to bite a year later, the smart money, we were told at a briefing by the US Embassy, was still on Indonesia not being too badly affected due to its strong economic “fundamentals”.


So why was it that he fell from power so ignominiously leaving political and economic ruin in his wake? And why did Indonesia chose an imperfect but relatively functional representative democracy after Suharto rather than another military dictatorship, which some cultural relativist experts would have us believe is more suited to Indonesia’s development? Was the end of the New Order regime really so difficult to predict for observers of events in the archipelago in those final years?

Australia National University Indonesia expert Ross McLeod recently released a paper The Soeharto Era: From Beginning to End arguing that Suharto’s New Order regime was inherently unsustainable due to its dependence on a franchise system that necessitated ever increasing corruption and private taxation to pay off elite interests so they would maintain their loyalty to the regime.

As an ordinary Australian living in Jakarta at the time, McLeod’s analysis is instinctively correct. From a more prosaic perspective, though, Suharto’s fall was essentially two-pronged:

  1. a political crisis commencing in 1996; and
  2. an economic one that followed a year later in 1997.

My perspective is not that of an academic, but rather as an interested observer who was living and working in Jakarta at the time and mixing with ordinary Indonesians. This is what I saw.

If there is a single day that marked the beginning of the end of Suharto, it was June 20, 1996. I recall this as a typical dry season Jakarta day with smog-filled horizons during Indonesia’s boom years. A façade of high rise glitter and fancy shopping malls barely concealed the struggle of every day existence in the kampungs where the majority of the population lived. Ironically, it was a day that I had looked forward to for some time since it marked the opening of a new toll road that would finally complete the missing link between the two main ethnic Chinese suburbs of Kelapa Gading and Pluit where I taught English classes thus enabling me to by-pass the shocking muddy slums of the northern reaches of the city.


The magnificent new toll road did open that day, but it was a seemingly inauspicious event 2,000km away in provincial Medan that was to have far more serious ramifications for the future of Indonesia.

The country’s rulers had decided that the daughter of Indonesia’s first President had to be removed as leader of the small Indonesian Democratic Party (PDI), one of two minor political parties permitted to compete in stage-managed general elections held every five years. They did so by coercing PDI officials to convene an extraordinary party congress in Medan to unseat Megawati and replace her with a government stooge named Soerjadi.

However, rather than accept the results of PDI’s Medan Congress, the party faithful fought back. Thousands of supporters, mostly drawn from the urban poor and lower middle classes, flocked to PDI’s national party headquarters in Jakarta vowing to block the newly appointed delegates of the Congress from taking up their positions. Even more worrying for the Government, PDI HQ quickly became a rallying point for pro-democracy activists. Day after day, speakers lined up to deliver speeches criticising Suharto’s regime.

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About the Author

Originally trained as a lawyer, Roger Smith lived in Indonesia and East Timor from 1995 to 2004 where he worked in the justice, human rights and trade union arenas.

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