Mon, 17 Apr 2000

The Soeharto show

The corruption investigation of former president Soeharto has dragged on aimlessly for the last five months that it has become nothing more than a pathetic little public show. The only problem is that we are not sure who is the more pathetic of the two parties in this spectacle: Is it the sick old man who is cunning and still so powerful he does not have to answer to the law? Or is it the government, that seems completely helpless in its attempts to pin something on the man who wreaked havoc on the nation during 32 years of misrule?

After five months, the investigation by Attorney General Marzuki Darusman still has nothing to show since Soeharto was declared a suspect in a multi-trillion scam involving his tax- free charity foundations. Proclaiming ill health, the former tyrant has defied one summons after another.

When Soeharto and his defense team finally agreed to meet with investigators at his residence, on both occasions the questioning was abruptly cut short by doctors because of his deteriorating health. At the rate of one session and one question a week, the investigation is not going anywhere anytime soon. Even the most boring Indonesian or Latin teledrama would have ended or neared its conclusion by now.

The government's decision last week to place Soeharto under city arrest and forbid overseas travel appears to be a desperate measure to revive public support, because the arrest will not change the pace of the investigation. The arrest and travel ban were poorly executed public relation exercises by a government agency that knows it is fast losing its credibility because it has been outwitted by Soeharto and his lawyers.

One can be sure that Soeharto will not leave the country any time soon because Indonesia remains the safest haven on Earth for him. Going by the experience of fellow fallen dictator Augusto Pinochet of Chile -- who was arrested for months in Britain based on extradition documents issued in Spain -- Soeharto would be wise not to leave the country.

At this time, it may be worth pondering the question, "What is the real objective of this investigation?" This is something that the government of President Abdurrahman Wahid never really spelled out since reopening the case in December.

If the goal is to show that justice will be upheld in this country, then surely corruption, as bad as it is, is the least sinful misdeed that Soeharto committed during his 32 years of tyrannical rule. What about the atrocities, from the summary executions of suspected communists to the killing of people in East Timor, Irian Jaya, Aceh and Tanjung Priok? If the government wants to show that justice and the rule of law prevail in this country, then these and the other heinous crimes committed during his reign should be the reasons for the prosecution of Soeharto. Not corruption.

If the goal of the corruption investigation is to recover the money which Soeharto is supposed to have embezzled, surely the government should target his children and cronies who reaped the most benefit from his years in power.

Earlier official and independent investigations determined that 78-year old Soeharto owned very little and that most of the family's wealth was in his children's names. If the government were serious about recovering some of that money, then it should sequester their wealth and property here and abroad. Indonesia could learn a thing or two from the experience of the Philippine government's efforts to recover loot stolen by Ferdinand Marcos.

Furthermore, the government's choice of investigating the activities of Soeharto's charity foundations is not without risk. If it's is not careful, the investigation could turn Soeharto into a hero in this drama, because the charity organizations have spent heavily building hospitals and orphanages and funding other social projects beneficial to the public.

The corruption investigation against Soeharto now seems to have lost all sense of direction. Yet, to a large extent, the credibility of President Abdurrahman's administration hinges on its ability to prosecute the former president. The government needs to redefine its goals now if this investigation is to be taken seriously by the public. This poorly scripted show needs a new writer, or some new players. Most of all, it needs an ending -- a happy one if possible -- and soon.