Sun, 08 Jun 2003

Mr. Soeharto, count your blessings on your birthday

Kornelius Purba, The Jakarta Post, Jakarta

When Soeharto wakes up this morning, all his grandchildren will no doubt rush to kiss his hand and say, "Happy 82nd birthday eyang (grandpa)".

And then the former president can sit back and smile broadly when he thinks about what his friends are telling him: More and more Indonesian people are saying positive things about his 32- year-long dictatorship.

Soeharto is luckier than the country's other former presidents. Sukarno, the father of our current leader, died in disgrace in 1970 after being toppled by Soeharto. B.J. Habibie seems pretty much forgotten by the public and appears happier to live most of the time in Germany.

Abdurrahman "Gus Dur" Wahid? Who really listens to this kyai (Muslim cleric) now?

It's only five years since Soeharto's fall from power amid widespread anarchy in 1998, yet he has undergone a pleasant (for him) reversal of fortune.

Many people recall only the good things about economic development under his leadership. Of course, there was rampant corruption at that time, but there was also rapid development, while today there is only corruption. There were gross violations of human rights, but now some people ridiculously explain these away as a "side effect" of development.

You have to admire him. Who else could make people forget all the corruption he and his cronies reportedly committed in such a short space of time? The hunt for the reported Soeharto billions was all the rage when he made his exit, but ask the attorney general today, and he will no doubt say, "There is no proof that Soeharto stole one cent from the state".

Technically, it's true, as we do not have a one-cent coin.

If I could get through the tight security ringing his compound on Jl. Cendana in Central Jakarta today, I would congratulate the widower on still going strong as an octogenarian, even though the doctors tell us that he will never fully recover from his various ailments (they don't know that anything is possible with God ... and Soeharto).

I would also tell him that, with all those people looking back to the good old days of his authoritarian rule, he would be a strong contender for the presidency if he chose to run next year. Who knows, he might be so happy at my praise that he would promise me a Cabinet position. It would be an easy job, as no legislators would dare to criticize a Soeharto minister.

I know him very well, but I must admit he does not know me at all. In the early 1990s, I had the chance to shake hands with him, along with hundreds of other people. There was one thing I didn't like about Soeharto. When you shook hands with him, he offered his hand in such a way that you had to bow slightly, like you were paying homage to him.

But it made for a good photo. I put it in a strategic position in my home so that all the visitors would know I was "close" to the president.

It worked like a charm -- one time a tax official ran away and gave up his plan to extort money from me.

Only one day after Soeharto stepped down, I hid the photo because I did not want to be identified as a Soehartoist. As I needed a replacement for the space on the wall, and I also love to be photographed with presidents, I bribed presidential photographers to take my photo with Habibie and, when I had to take down his photo, Abdurrahman, during functions at the palace.

The tax man still showed a bit of respect for Habibie and he only asked me for "understanding money" so I would not have to fill in the tax form.

But there was no such luck when it came to Gus Dur's photograph.

"Do you think I care if you say you are the president's close friend?" It was time to settle my obligations to the state.

On this special day, it's unlikely that the still-proud Soeharto will spare a thought for those people who opposed him. Most of the time he would punish or jail anybody who dared to defy him, but there is one person who remained steadfast in her opposition.

No, it wasn't Megawati. If you asked Soeharto, he would reluctantly crook a finger (after all, his doctors say he cannot speak) in the direction of an old house on his street.

There lives Miss Johan, an older, Chinese-Indonesian woman who, people say, once worked for an oil firm. She has held out against Soeharto and his son, Tommy, who reportedly dreamed of building a swimming pool on the site of her home.

"No," she replied firmly every time she was asked by the Soeharto family to move.

There are other people who, like Soeharto's cronies, were sad to see him go.

Every time Andi, who has sold bakso (meatballs) near Soeharto's home for more than 30 years, is asked about the man, he cannot help blaming the students, prodemocracy activists and anyone else who helped topple him.

You see, Soeharto promised to pay for his haj pilgrimage in 1999, and his wife even hosted a big party in their village to celebrate. The plan came to nothing when Soeharto stepped down.

"He should not have quit before my haj pilgrimage," Andi always complains.

Perhaps I have upset you by praising Soeharto so much. But would I really pray for a Soeharto "comeback"?

Let me put it this way; I often dream of being able to meet my late father again. But if he actually appeared before my eyes, I would probably run away, screaming, "Help, there's a zombie in the house".

Now, is that how we would react to a "revived" Soeharto?

-- Kornelius Purba