He was a five-star Army general who took over the country during a bloodbath that cost 600,000 lives. Ruling as the big man of Southeast Asia for 32 years, Indonesians dared not openly talk about former President Suharto except in praise. When student protesters toppled his government in 1998, their rallying cry was, "Suharto is the door."
On Aug. 31 that door may crack open a few more inches, when the elderly, ailing Suharto, now living under "city arrest," has his first trial date on the charge of "enriching himself at the state's expense." The 400-seat Ministry of Agriculture amphitheater will be the convenient broadcast venue for a trial that officials hope is payment on a promise to reverse the corruption and fearful repression that characterized two generations of military rule.
Yet for Wasi Gede, a student leader on the ramparts in '98, who now monitors corruption from a small office across town, the trial is a disappointment. "This is just theater," he says. "There is nothing like the mass support or understanding that would bring meaning to this event for the millions of poor people who are the victims of Suharto."
Indeed, it appears that action against the former president will be something of a show trial - that is, if Mr. Suharto even shows up. The spectacle of Suharto being led to court is an exercise in symbolism designed to show that no one is above the law, experts say. But the charges will not address any human crimes or reach the level of seriousness that could bring a large-scale process of national education and reconciliation that student leaders and many civil authorities hoped for.
Suharto, for example, will not be tried for any violations as president. He will be tried on a relatively low-level corruption charge as the chairman of seven charitable foundations accused of "misusing" $420 million. Under law, Suharto can argue executive privilege for abuses of power while in office.
"There are not grounds for real prosecution," says Loebby Loekman, a legal scholar at Trisakti University in Jakarta. "Suharto can easily say his ministers were following a policy. So what we have is a small corruption case - not the grand trial most people envisioned."
In that sense, experts say, the trial is unlikely to mark a definitive break from the old regime, as happened in the extended Truth and Reconciliation court proceedings after apartheid in South Africa, or with the dispatch of the Marcos family in the Philippines.
There is also the little problem of whether Suharto will show. His lawyers say he is unfit for trial. Outside medical experts examining Suharto disagree.
Still, the first question asked in Indonesian courts by a judge is whether the defendant is "in a state" of health to stand trial. If Suharto does not show after being summoned three times, the trial will close - temporarily, at least. Moreover, Judge Lalu Mariyun has not guaranteed to Attorney General Marzuki Darusman that he will conduct a trial without Suharto, as some news broadcasts reported this week.
That leaves much of the Suharto trial up to the Supreme Court. Whether Suharto can be tried in absentia, and whether he can be brought forcibly to trial if he does not show up - will have to be decided by the high court, Mr. Darusman told the Monitor.
Current Indonesian President Abdurrahman Wahid has said he will pardon Suharto if he is found guilty. Mr. Wahid still works with many Suharto allies, and he knows that for many rural Indonesians, Suharto's name and regime are associated positively with road and school building projects. For the middle class as well, Suharto represented a time of increasing prosperity.
Wahid is solidly committed to the trial of the man whose legal apparatus at one point imprisoned him. The failure of Wahid's predecessor and Suharto deputy, B.J. Habibie, to bring charges against his mentor and friend, in fact, is regarded as a reason Mr. Habibie lost the presidency last year in Indonesia's first free elections.
Estimates of Suharto's wealth accrued while in office range wildly from some $1 billion up to $45 billion. Informed sources say it is unlikely Suharto himself gained nearly as much as some of his children, or as such cronies as business partner Mohammad "Bob" Hasan - who profited during the vaulting growth of Indonesia from an underperforming rural economy to one of the booming Asian "tigers" by the mid-1990s.
Pragmatists here say that any trial of Suharto is important. To have even put together the indictment filed earlier this month is an enormous achievement in a country where Suharto's influence is still great, they say. Moreover, a Suharto conviction would be a "breakthrough," says Mr. Marzuki, that will "let us proceed with indictments against others."
"This is still a feudal society," says one Western diplomat. "A lot of people here still think leadership brings entitlement and that Suharto deserved to profit. In that kind of environment, maybe you try to use the Al Capone approach - get him on tax evasion and worry about manslaughter later."
Marzuki says that two indictments against Mr. Hasan will be filed in court by the end of this month. He also confirmed that investigations against two of the Suharto children are "well under way."
What most people expect is a middle-ground arrangement where Suharto turns over an agreed-to amount of money in exchange for a pardon. Marzuki says that, depending on the size of the settlement, investigations and proceedings against the Suharto family and friends could also "stop."
Wasi Gede agrees that if Suharto comes up with enough money, it would satisfy many of the students' demands for justice. Otherwise, he advocates the kind of "people's court" that found Romanian dictator Ceausescu guilty.
Yet it is just this kind of plea bargaining over corruption charges that dissatisfies critics like leading novelist Pramoedya Ananta Toer. Mr. Pramoedya, a political prisoner for eight years under Suharto (the two once exchanged letters while Pramoedya was in a penal colony on Buru Island) feels that Suharto should be charged with nothing less than full-scale human rights violations. "I think he should be tried in East Timor, where up to a third of the population was eradicated in the '70s and '80s," says Pramoedya. "Many of the witnesses are still alive."
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society