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Longing for Suharto

Inside Indonesia - July 2013

Andy Fuller – Suharto's portrait is commonly seen on the streets of Yogyakarta – It appears on the back of trucks, motorcycles and, less frequently, on private cars. Some people wear T-shirts with his portrait. Stalls along the iconic Jalan Malioboro sell a great variety of the pro-Suharto T-shirts. The T-shirts are not ironic: many people fondly remember the Suharto era, as, amongst other things, a time when goods and petrol were cheaper. At the same time, many people think the charms of the current reformasi period have long since faded. Corruption is daily news fodder. President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono has disappointed many.

It is in this broad political context that a new Suharto memorial was opened in March this year. The former president's family funds the memorial so its favourable portrayal of him is no surprise. Nonetheless, the memorial, with its small museum of Suharto's greatest presidential moments, presents some insights into the contemporary political context.

The memorial, funded by Probosutedjo, a younger half-brother of Suharto, is in the village of Kemusuk – Suharto's birthplace – about a 20-minute drive west of Yogyakarta – On the way to the memorial, one passes cement fences upon which the national emblem of the Garuda is affixed. There are lists of the five principles of the Pancasila, the national philosophy, and statements of the local kampung values: orderly, healthy and pious. The streets are wide and clean. Houses are set back from the street. The bitumen, unlike many nearby streets in Yogyakarta, is smooth. There are the typical views of paddy fields and distant hills. It's a pleasant provincial Javanese scene.

In the car park, a man with an upright posture and a sophisticated, forceful whistling technique, directs private vehicles and buses into their appropriate places. It's a large car park – no doubt many visitors are expected. There is a house on the corner and part of it is used as a barber shop. A couple with a young daughter sit in a doorway. At the back of the property a woman from Kemusuk sells T-shirts adorned with the late Suharto's face for Rp. 45,000 (about A$5). She doesn't have much to say about the memorial itself. Nonetheless, her T-shirts are popular.

Getting the image right

The entrance to the grounds is broad and there is a low fence. One can see inside easily. Visitors are greeted by a three-metre sculpture of Suharto as a general. He's broad and commanding, serious and refined. Yet, the proportions seem wrong: his legs are too short. He carries a baton under his arm, a tool symbolic of command. To the left is a musholla (prayer room), striking in its transparency. The walls are glass and inside there are green prayer mats. No doubt it is air-conditioned. There are a couple of people praying. Further to the left is a small water feature – a pond with a bronze water buffalo in it. Two bronze boys are climbing over the buffalo, having fun. Simple, village-life pleasures. The memorial's entrance articulates the primary references to Suharto his supporters cultivate: a very Javanese image that is both rural and sophisticated underpinned by a dominant military and a modest role for Islam.

Heavy-set, moustachioed men wearing batik shirts walk around the entrance, not doing much, with their walkie-talkies hanging from their belts. Behind the entrance is a Javanese pendopo (pavilion-style building). The roof is high and the air passes through slowly. Primary school children sit watching historical Indonesian films from the national archives. Mr Gatot Nugroho, who acts as both manager and occasional guide of the memorial, says that these films are from the perspective of the agents of history. These are the 'real' documents, he says, not like Arifin C Noer's film on the aborted communist coup, which so heavily inculcated millions of school children during the New Order era.

Mr Gatot says that on most days around 600 people come to the museum. On busy days, it's as many as 800. School groups come from neighbouring towns and cities. Today there are many children playing around the pendopo while their mothers sit and chat with one other. It's a pleasant atmosphere, seemingly far removed from the intensity of political debates and controversy surrounding Suharto's heritage and New Order politics.

Trip down memory lane

The museum of Suharto's military and political life is on the western side of the pendopo. The museum is in a Javanese wooden house. The entrance of the indoor memorial involves walking through a tunnel in which the visitor is encircled by rolls of films in which Suharto is pictured in various scenes from his private and public life. The visitor walks along a carpeted floor onto which images of a paddy field are projected, emphasising his relatively humble origins. This is a rather hodge-podge mix of Suharto-ness: village-boy-cum-president. Suharto's stiff body language and his scripted manner of speaking, however, sit uneasily with the informality and ruggedness of village life and paddy field labour.

The memorial, although relying heavily on the technology of the supposedly simple photograph, has a couple of exhibits in which digital technology is used. In the chronological display of images, there is a large video screen in which animated images of young men are shown jumping around and waving. This screen – several metres wide and a couple of metres tall – is placed at the end of the corridor, just beyond the sculptures of the murdered generals of 1965, curiously suspended in a plastic box. This exhibit, the guide says, allows the visitor to participate in the protests against the PKI (Indonesian Communist Party). Separately, in the pendopo, one can photograph oneself standing next to Sukarno as he declares Indonesia's independence.

As visitors view the rudimentary, graphic representations of protestors, their images too are shown up on the screen, only looking a little more real, and of course, strangely passive. A group of children walk up to the exhibit thrilled at being shown on a screen. Of course, there is no screen where a visitor can get his or her image beamed into an animated scene of mass killing of suspected communists, or any of the other gruesome alternatives that Suharto's history would offer. The reformasi protests against Suharto, the most intense mass movement over the last 30 years in Indonesia, are also absent.

At the back of the memorial grounds are the remains of the house in which the future president Suharto grew up. The foundations of the house remain amongst the well-cut grass lawn. On this lawn are small signs with quotations of Javanese philosophy. One states, 'actions need to be considered and judged'. Another, 'self-respect is found in one's words and actions'. Mr Gatot says that these are poor translations of the Javanese statements and 'someone in Jakarta' made them. His contempt is evident.

Next to this lawn stands a grand Javanese house, with the typical frontwards sloping roof. Mr Gatot states that the Suharto family stays here when they visit Yogyakarta – On the porch are some elaborately designed chairs and tables. Around these a couple of women sell the increasingly popular T-shirts with the Javanese words, 'piye kabare??... iseh penak jamanku to', roughly translated as 'how are things going? Is my era still wonderful?' The presence of this informal trade in such structured and stilted circumstances is incongruous, but it's all part of the growing Suharto nostalgia. Alongside the Suharto memorabilia, a woman also sells generic Yogyakarta T-shirts, but she doesn't display them as proudly.

An uncomplicated vision

The purpose of the memorial is singular: to celebrate Suharto as an unproblematic general and president who knew and did what was best for the nation. A failure of the reformasi movement has been its inability consistently to show the real and ideological violence of Suharto's New Order government. And now, not only is there growing disenchantment with the progress of reformasi, there is increasing romanticisation of the Suharto era, at least among some people.

A longing for the past is mistaken when the past still remains in the present. New Order era politicians still remain unchallenged in positions of power. This memorial is yet another sign of a willingness and a concerted effort to forget. Mr Gatot states that a Suharto Centre will soon be built at the Hotel Tugu in central Yogyakarta, where lessons will be given in the history of the nation. Lessons of history that will no doubt omit bloody accounts of murders in East Timor, Aceh and Jakarta that should be so central to public memory about the Suharto era.

[Andy Fuller (acsfuller@gmail.com) is a researcher based at Kunci Cultural Studies Center in Yogyakarta.]