Indonesia eyes past in forging a future

Questions over regime's abuses persist, a year after a ruler resigns.

Lasmiati says she's gotten over the events of last summer, but it isn't true.

She still can't watch TV, since it upsets her to see government or military figures. And when her husband describes the day snipers shot their son Heri, she turns her head, eyes pressed shut, as if to block the memory.

Heri died alongside five others when security forces fired on an antigovernment rally at Jakarta's Trisakti University. After months of protests, the Trisakti shootings were the coup de grce for former President Suharto. He resigned nine days later, on May 21, after ruling Indonesia for 32 years.

Today, Lasmiati and her husband want justice, not just for Heri's death, but for the economic and political excesses of Mr. Suharto's regime. They're pinning their hopes on the new government that will emerge after the June 7 election, Indonesia's first democratic vote since 1955.

Indonesia is just the latest country balancing the need to resolve past abuses without destabilizing its fledgling democracy, using a mix of justice, retribution, and mercy. Indonesia's culture emphasizes harmony and forgiveness. But burdened by Suharto's legacy of corruption, its citizens are discussing their own solution.

"Reconciliation is the key issue," says a Western diplomat, who requested anonymity. "Some people here demand justice for human rights violations, and some don't want to push the issue. How do you give satisfaction to those demanding justice - without making the status quo feel threatened and pushed to incite violence?" he asks. "It's a difficult balance to strike."

Suharto - the good and bad

The difficulty is partly due to the mixed feelings many have about Suharto, who, like many Indonesians, uses only one name. He designed a political system that ensured the domination of one political party; led a military accused of frequent human rights abuses; and allowed family members and friends to dominate the economy.

But he was also the architect of Indonesia's strong economic growth over the past 30 years. "If you came here in 1960 you could count the buildings on one hand," says Didiek Soegito, secretary of the Indonesian Christian National Party, one of the 45 new parties that couldn't have existed under Suharto. "Now we have many buildings, but our society has also grown up. We've become critical about social and economic issues."

President B.J. Habibie, a Suharto protg, pledged to tackle corruption when he took power. Investigators questioned Suharto for three hours last December about the charitable trusts he runs, and his youngest son will stand trial on graft charges. But other family members and the family fortune, estimated in the billions, remain untouched. Allegations of the Army's human rights abuses continue, most recently in the northwest province of Aceh, where troops reportedly fired on unarmed women and children.

The government's inaction on economic and political reform is no surprise. Mr. Habibie has close ties to Suharto and relies on Army support. Suharto has also issued a not-so-veiled threat: If the investigation is too aggressive, he will reveal the corruption of others. His patronage made many in government rich, Habibie included, so the threat is something of a disincentive.

"This government will never be able to solve the problem," says Hadi Soesastro, executive director of the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Jakarta. "It's hostage to the past."

Guatemala and South Africa handled former rulers' transgressions using truth commissions, panels that allow victims to tell their stories and sometimes allocate punishment. Indonesia looked at South Africa's approach, but South America might provide a better model for Indonesia, says Marzuki Darusman, chairman of the Indonesian National Commission on Human Rights. "What Chile did openly - shifting Pinochet and the Army out of politics - is happening here informally," he says.

Mr. Darusman believes a Suharto trial would be divisive and damaging. He advocates house arrest instead. "Suharto's stature has been completely diminished. Why do we want to disgrace him?" he asks.

Moving on

Because it might help people get beyond the past, says David Crocker, a professor at the University of Maryland's Institute for Philosophy and Public Policy in College Park. "Truth by itself doesn't seem to be enough to satisfy people. Trial and punishment are important devices," he says. If the past isn't dealt with, it can become a fissure that can widen and split society. But he warns, "If you push too far too fast, you run the risk of prompting a backlash and weakening the democracy."

Some observers say few Indonesians really care about making Suharto accountable. "It's an issue of concern to the urban middle class, but not one the general public has the slightest interest in," says a longtime Indonesia observer who requested anonymity.

He cites the money Suharto distributed to rural areas, as well as cultural reasons. "Suharto is basically the last emperor of Java [the main island of Indonesia], and his behavior has been more or less similar to traditional Javanese rulers," he says.

A Javanese emphasis on harmony and forgiveness may also blunt a push for a Suharto inquiry, says Paul Stange, senior lecturer at Murdoch University in Perth, Australia. "There's a strong tendency to avoid conflict, including reviewing past problems," he says.

He also points to the Islamic Javanese practice of Halal bi Halal, which requires asking forgiveness for everything you've done, consciously or unconsciously, to upset others. "That practice suggests forgiveness is exclusive of the need for inquiry of what the offense was about," Mr. Stange says. "Resolution to the problem doesn't depend on it having dug through."

That won't satisfy Heri's father. "If the government, the military are not held accountable, it will be a disaster," says Syahir Mulyo Utomo. "The next government will feel free to do the same things."

He and Lasmiati sit at either end of a pink brocade couch in their airy living room, a picture of Heri propped up on the cushions between them. Lasmiati wears a pink flowered dress, Syahir is crisp in a beige batik shirt and steely crew cut, a holdover from his army days. Now a civilian, he owns a small taxi service. When asked about the security forces, Syahir simply says, "I told Heri to be careful."

But Heri and other Trisakti students were swept up in the wave of campus protests that spread across Indonesia last year and were determined to do something. In the end, the police held responsible for his death served only three and six months in jail. "I feel cheated," Lasmiati says.

Means to an end

As they talk, someone arrives to paint the living room, preparation for a party they will give May 12, the first anniversary of Heri's death. They wander out into the street, and Lasmiati points out political flags and banners that bedeck the neighborhood. A year ago, this kind of political expression - and choice - would have been a far-fetched fantasy.

"If it turns out the election goes well, if we have a legitimate government that can give us prosperity and a more balanced distribution of wealth," she says, "if that happened, then I could accept the sacrifice of Heri."

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