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Indonesians Debate on Forgiveness, Prosecution for Suharto


The declining health of former Indonesian president Suharto has sparked a debate over whether he and his family should face prosecution for corruption and human rights abuses during his 32-year rule. Chad Bouchard reports from Jakarta.

As Mr. Suharto lies on what might be his deathbed, demonstrators have been urging the government not to drop legal action against him on charges of corruption and human rights abuses.

He is blamed for the anti-Communist massacre in 1967 that claimed more than a half million lives, for executing 8,000 alleged criminals in 1983, and for jailing thousands of political opponents throughout his administration.

In addition, many Indonesians accuse his family and his friends of accumulating huge fortunes through corruption or government favoritism.

But Indonesians' attitudes toward the former president vary dramatically. While many former pro-democracy activists and political prisoners consider him a criminal, others still see him as a grandfatherly figure who modernized the country's economy during his 32-year rule.

Dewi Fortuna Anwar is a political analyst at the Indonesian Institute of Sciences. She says there is good reason for public debate over Suharto's legacy.

"On the one hand there this belief that we cannot go forward without dealing with our past. You know like the idea to establish a truth and reconciliation commission, for example. But others believe that if we dig too much into the past we will not be able move forward. Indonesia has been moving, muddling through without having to deal with the past," she said. "I think the tendency here is to have reconciliation without the truth."

And, she says, some crimes, including the anti-Communist massacre, may be too painful and too many people may be implicated, for them to be safely opened at this point.

The 86-year-old former strongman has been in critical condition since he was rushed to the hospital January 4 with serious heart, lung and kidney problems.

Since then, dozens of government ministers, pop stars and religious leaders have visited him, and there is a growing call among political leaders for forgiveness.

Even key members of the pro-democracy movement who demanded his resignation in the late 1990's have indicated it is too late to obtain justice, and it may be better to forgive and move on.

On Thursday, East Timorese President Jose Ramos Horta asked his countrymen to forgive Mr. Suharto, who ordered the invasion of the former Portuguese colony in 1975. As many as a hundred thousand Timorese died under Indonesian rule before the country gained independence in 1999.

John McGlynn is the founder of the Lontar Foundation, a Jakarta organization dedicated to Indonesian culture and literature. He says growing sympathy for Suharto may merely be a temporary reaction during his illness.

"People feel pity. Even some of the hardest hearts, they think 'gosh, old man, you know - he tried, he made mistakes.' But there are so many mistakes that must be looked at," said McGlynn. "And this country can not and will not ever reach a true level of stability, political stability and maturity until they faced the past."

McGlynn notes that former political prisoners are not so quick to forgive, and says calls for justice may be redoubled after Mr. Suharto's death.

Incumbent President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono told the country's attorney general last week to offer a settlement to the Suharto family, to end a $1.5 billion civil lawsuit for corruption. Attorneys for the family rejected the proposal.

Mr. Yudhoyono has also asked Indonesians to suspend debate over the former dictator's legal battle during his illness.

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