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Prabowo's victory: Indonesian youths pine for Suharto era, others warn about his dark history

South China Morning Post - February 23, 2024

Resty Woro Yuniar – The conclusion of Indonesia's general election has prompted an unusual trend among the country's youth – nostalgia for the "good life" during former president Suharto's 32 years of dictatorship.

On TikTok, videos reminiscing about Suharto and his family have become common, with some getting millions of views. While some of them date back to a few years ago, these videos have surged in popularity after Prabowo Subianto, the dictator's former son-in-law, became the projected winner of the February 14 election, based on unofficial quick count results.

One such video, published on February 16, depicts Suharto taking a stroll in Germany alongside his family members, including Prabowo. The footage – taken while the Indonesian leader was abroad seeking medical care in 1996 – also features his daughter Titiek, who was married to Prabowo at the time, and the couple's son Didit.

"I want to experience life in the Suharto era because they say life in that era was good," TikTok user priskahelda commented on the video. "I hope Suharto becomes our president again," user Leorzafiksa wrote.

Those comments may seem odd to those familiar with the corruption and authoritarian oppression that are often characterised by historians to describe Suharto's rule.

Berlin-based anti-corruption organisation Transparency International dubbed Suharto "one of the most corrupt leaders in modern history," for allegedly embezzling US$15 billion to US$35 billion in state money during his rule, enabled by systemic corruption and nepotism that benefited his family and cronies.

Suharto was a senior army officer who took advantage of a failed coup attempt in 1965 to seize control of Jakarta and suppress the Indonesian Communist Party. He then launched a massive anti-communist purge that targeted perceived leftists, including students, labourers, and Chinese Indonesians, which is estimated to have led to the deaths of at least 500,000.

He eventually sidelined the country's first president Sukarno and assumed full power in 1967, becoming the leader of the New Order regime that ruled Indonesia for more than three decades. During that period, freedom of speech and expression were severely repressed and many political dissidents were jailed or disappeared.

Suharto, who died in 2008, never faced trial for his alleged acts of corruption and human rights violations. Many of the former military generals who were in his inner circle remain politically powerful to this day.

Prabowo, who was also one of Suharto's top military leaders as head of the Army Strategic Reserve Command (Kostrad), went on to become a political party leader, defence minister and now, president-elect of Indonesia.

Election effect

Eve Warburton, a researcher of Indonesian politics at the Australian National University, said that the online trend does not necessarily mean that a majority of Indonesians pine for the days of Suharto's New Order.

"It's very hard to understand the depth and the spread of those ideas among young Indonesians. If you ask people directly in surveys, there doesn't seem to be a great deal of explicit authoritarian nostalgia," Warburton said.

A survey by Jakarta-based pollster Indikator, released in 2021, found that 59.7 per cent of 1,200 respondents did not agree that Indonesia should return to a dictatorship like the New Order, while 19.4 per cent agreed.

However, Prabowo's strong connection to Suharto's family and regime was not an impediment to him winning over the country's young voters. Exit polls conducted by Kompas newspaper's research arm found that 65.9 per cent of Gen Z voters under the age of 26 voted for Prabowo. By comparison, 43.1 per cent of baby boomers aged 56-74 cast their ballots for him.

The exit polls indicated that young people had helped Prabowo cross the 50 per cent mark needed to win, Warburton said.

"We don't know if they supported him because they had different ideas about what the New Order represented and what life was like [in that era], or if they had no ideas about the New Order at all. They may simply be attracted to his mix of militant nationalism and sophisticated online campaigning," she added.

Prabowo, who was married to Titiek for 15 years before they divorced in 1998, invoked the memory of his former father-in-law during a victory rally at an indoor stadium in Jakarta on the day of the election. He said he knew Suharto very well, "as I often had lunch with him", the mention eliciting cheers from his jubilant supporters. When the stadium's camera shifted to Titiek, Prabowo's supporters roared again, shouting "get back together".

Prabowo has a chequered history of his own. He has admitted to being involved in the kidnapping of pro-democracy activists in 1998, for which he was dismissed from the military.

In 1999, Prabowo's father Sumitro Djojohadikusumo told the investigative news magazine Tempo that his son "kidnapped nine" activists after following orders from his bosses, including Suharto.

"In Indonesia, people don't have a critical set of educational tools with which to assess life under the New Order. Civic education about the repressive aspects of the New Order has always been weak, and that's in part because there has been little political will to go back and investigate a regime that many contemporary elites were part of in some way," Warburton said.

Bucking the trend

Not all Indonesians, however, are nostalgic for Suharto, and some have taken to social media to remind their fellow citizens of what life was really like under his regime.

Among them is Tito Ambyo, a journalism lecturer who wrote a viral thread on X about him owning a book on Marxism during the New Order era. Such books were banned due to the government's fervent attempts to stamp out communism and they remain illegal in Indonesia to this day.

Tito, who is now 43 and teaches at the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology, wrote that his teachers at his high school in Bandung decided one day to do a random bag search, and he was getting "cold sweats" from thinking about his likely punishment.

He said that he managed to get away with it after one of the teachers pretended not to see the book in his bag.

"[On February 16] I woke up in the morning and wondered, 'if Prabowo becomes president, will we go back to the Suharto era again?' I just remembered what it was like during that era, so I wrote [the thread on X] because I wanted to share. I heard that many young people voted for Prabowo. I just wanted to let them know what it was like in the Suharto era," Tito told This Week in Asia.

Another X user, Amelia Martira, also wrote about her experience as a university student in Jakarta towards the end of Suharto's rule.

"Every day when I go to campus, the streets are full of military equipment on the road. Thinking of taking to the street to protest? You should be afraid of snipers. Initially, the students only dared to give speeches and protest on campus. Even then, they were guarded by soldiers. However, the protests continued to escalate, and Trisakti students were shot. We were stunned," Amelia wrote.

She was referring to the deaths of four student democracy activists at Trisakti University on May 12, 1998 at the hands of Indonesian army personnel, which sparked a wave of violence and riots across Jakarta the next day.

Tito argues that "intergenerational trauma" is to blame for the current nostalgia for Suharto, but he said he still harbours hope that the power of storytelling from the older generation, either on social media or in campuses, can shed light on the darker side of the strongman's totalitarian regime.

"Since Suharto ascended, in the 1960s, my parents' generation, and my grandfather's, didn't want to talk about [past tragedies] at all, and this continues to this day. The problem is we still don't have the courage to look at history with two eyes wide open," he said.

Source: https://www.scmp.com/week-asia/politics/article/3252862/prabowos-victory-indonesian-youths-pine-suharto-era-others-warn-about-his-dark-histor