Jakarta – The government is sending a mixed signal with plans to award former president Suharto national hero status, as law enforcers try to recover the Rp 4.4 trillion ($322 million) in funds misappropriated during the late strongman's lengthy reign, an expert warned on Tuesday.
The Supreme Court in August ruled in favor of the prosecution in a civil case against the now-defunct Supersemar Foundation, controlled by the Suharto family.
The court repealed a 1976 government regulation issued by the former president ordering all state-owned banks to set aside 2.5 percent of their profits for the foundation.
The court ruled that the funds accumulated since the foundation was established, a total sum of $420 million and Rp 185 billion ($13.6 million), were largely embezzled and never used for their stated purpose: education. The court has also ordered the Suharto family to pay $315 million and Rp 185 billion in damages.
But this hasn't stopped many politicians from proposing that Suharto be awarded hero status, arguing that the president has led Indonesia to become Southeast Asia's largest economy during his 32-year-rule which ended in 1998.
Social Affairs Minister Khofifah Indar Parawansa said on Monday that the government will likely award Suharto the status next year, along with Indonesia's fourth president the late Abdurrahman "Gus Dur" Wahid which many considered a champion for religious freedom.
"Instead of busying themselves creating a controversy on the national hero status for Suharto, the administration of president Jokowi and his ministers should focus on executing the Supreme Court ruling so that these massive losses to the state are compensated," state administrative affairs expert Bayu Dwi Anggono of Jember University in East Java told Detik.com on Tuesday.
Bayu said that by awarding the status to Suharto, President Joko Widodo risks violating the 2009 Law on Honorary Titles and Medals which states that a national hero should be someone who has moral integrity and has done service to the nation.
"A national hero is not a status which can be given to just anyone. President Jokowi and his ministers need to remind themselves that they are obliged to execute a 1998 decree on clean government free from corruption, collusion and nepotism," he continued.
Human rights activists have also condemned the plan, saying that the former army general has also been tied to cases of gross human rights violations, which include the 1965 mass killings of between 500,000 to 1 million suspected communist sympathizers, and the forced disappearance and torture of activists towards the end of his rule.
"A hero status for Suharto should only be given after an investigation is made on the many systematic violence and crimes done [during his regime] be it in the field of human rights and corruption," said Setara Institute chairman Hendardi.
Minister Khofifah said the plan to include Suharto on the list of recipients of the national hero status is still being deliberated by an independent Heroes Committee.
"Next year, the social affairs ministry will ask the Heroes Committee again [for their final decision] so we can then issue a presidential decree [on the status]," she said.