Not-so-benevolent strongmen

The passing of Indonesia's Suharto offers an opening for the country to judge his past.

The passing this week of a former strongman, Suharto of Indonesia, has brought forth more praise than disdain. His 32-year reign over the fourth most populous nation left a mixed legacy, the kind that, unfortunately, inspires leaders who suppress freedom in the name of prosperity.

Suharto's ability to manage an economy in a volatile global market failed him a decade ago. He was forced from power, allowing democracy to be restored to this huge Southeast Asian nation of 235 million people and 17,000 islands.

China now serves as the latest model of a country flouting the Western model that says democracy and economic growth must go hand in hand over the long term. Last year, China's economy grew an astounding 11.4 percent under a regime that tolerates little dissent. For India, a well-established democracy, growth is less than 9 percent.

Under Suharto, Indonesia saw an average gross domestic product growth of nearly 7 percent, a record that his freely elected successors find difficult to match. He's also credited with reducing the level of poverty from 60 to 15 percent of the population.

The strongest praise for this former general has come from ex-Asian leaders who also acted in authoritarian ways, such as Singapore's Lee Kuan Yew. After paying respects to Suharto, Mr. Lee said: "Yes, there was corruption. Yes, he gave favors to his family and his friends. But there was real growth and real progress."

Singapore also enjoyed decades of prosperity under a virtual one-party system (and very little corruption). In many ways, it was a model for China in the late 1970s when communist leaders under Deng Xiao Ping embraced capitalism. And lately, Russia under Vladimir Putin has adopted this "Asian model."

But many Asian countries with little or no democracy, such as Burma, Laos, and North Korea, have not prospered. The idea that an iron fist better supports the free hand of the marketplace is not ironclad.

In contrast, Japan, as well as South Korea and Taiwan since the late 1980s, have had both stable democracy and admirable economic growth. Democracy in nations such as Thailand, Pakistan, and the Philippines, however, has been an on-and-off affair, creating investor uncertainty and weak progress in reducing poverty.

In nations such as Indonesia in which democracy has been restored, prosperity may now rely in part on how people deal with a dictator's past. During the decade Suharto was still alive but out of power, many of the elite that he had helped enrich and put in high positions protected him. Yet his abuses were many, from rampant corruption to the 1965-66 massacres to the occupation of East Timor that left some 200,000 dead. Many Indonesian dissidents languished in jail for years.

Official attempts to probe his "mistakes" (as Suharto's daughter called them) have been thwarted, just as similar efforts for justice were hindered in postapartheid South Africa and post-Pinochet Chile. Yet a nation that does not expose the errors of former regimes and learn from them remains vulnerable to repeating them.

Indonesia can now look at the Suharto legacy with more open eyes. Truth is a mighty corrective.

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