Saturday, January 19, 2008

Suharto's historic role

Jan 16, 2008
Suharto's historic role

THE evil that men do lives after them; the good is oft interred with their bones.' Shakespeare was not being cynical, only realistic, when he noted that. Historians, taking a long view, might be able to arrive at sober judgments of controversial figures. Caught in quotidian headlines, journalists and ordinary people may have difficulty taking the long view. One can observe this dynamic working itself out where former Indonesian president Suharto is concerned. Seriously ill in hospital, the retired five-star general has received visits from Asian statesmen - among them, Singapore's Minister Mentor Lee Kuan Yew - anxious to pay him tribute and take the long view even as his own countrymen are reluctant to honour him.
History is unlikely to place Mr Suharto among the great 20th-century political figures. His name is unlikely to be mentioned in the same breath as Winston Churchill or Franklin Roosevelt, Jawaharlal Nehru or Deng Xiaoping. But though not among the first rank, Mr Suharto will be remembered as a significant figure who had a prodigious - and on the whole, beneficial - effect on his country as well as the region.

Mr Lee, in paying tribute to Mr Suharto, recalled the South-east Asia of 1965. Indonesia, led by the boisterous Sukarno, was then a source of instability. It conducted a campaign of Konfrontasi against Malaysia, its economy was in the pits, communists were running riot. Mr Suharto, having come into power after a bloody fight with communists, slowly changed things. Asean would not have come into being if Indonesia under his charge had sought to be a regional hegemon. Because it chose to be the facilitator, not the dictator, of regional stability; because it focused on economic and social development; because it was stable for more than 30 years, the region as a whole was able to grow. Malaysia, Thailand and Singapore were able to take off economically in some part because of Pak Harto.

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