Letter: Excuses for Suharto

Sir: I share, with Richard Needham ("These riots show why I wanted to sell tanks to Suharto", 19 May), strong links to Indonesia. I lived there for ten years and married a Javanese woman.

Sir Richard says (as if to excuse the Suharto clan's excesses) that Javanese culture is traditionally "paternal". Quite so - but it is also much richer and more complex than that. Cultures - like children - must eventually grow up, and Indonesians (including most Javanese) had tired of the "father knows best" school of politics espoused by Suharto long before the recent economic crisis.

A central cause of Indonesia's current malaise is that so little cultural development has been allowed to match the economic progress of the last thirty years. Political opposition has been killed or co-opted; progressive artists have been jailed and their work banned; even mildly critical newspapers have been closed down. The regime has retained its grip on power partly by a constant appeal to that ossified paternalistic culture to which Sir Richard refers, and to the superstitions and prejudices that go with it. Any meaningful democracy has been rejected as "culturally inappropriate", and if anything goes wrong it is blamed on the ethnic Chinese.

For free marketeers like Sir Richard, abuse of human rights is only a problem when it starts (as recently in Indonesia) to interfere with business. Was he concerned during the 1980s and early 90s, when poor Indonesians were being thrown out of their homes to make way for Pak Suharto's development projects? Perhaps - but he and the government he served kept very quiet about it.


University of Birmingham