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Dirty Old Men

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Finally that moment came. Indonesia’s former strongman is no more. And with it, the end of his public suffering and a long awaited closure for the media impatient for a climax to their weary vigil of a dying old man. The man who, even in his death throes still played a big role in shaping the country’s history and influencing the psyche of this nation - and whose controversial legacy will continue to dog us well into the future pages of our history.

No doubt giving rise to a never-ending debate: was he a hero or a criminal? The father of development or the mother of all corruption? Would he be remembered for the glory he brought or for the decay that he sowed?

For the moment however, he was nothing but a sick old man who finally succumbed to that inexorable fate we’re all heir to. Death. And it goes against the grain of our humanity to speak ill of the dead as it is the norm of the surviving kin to request forgiveness. So we pray for the peace of the soul of the departed, we praise his achievements and gloss over his mistakes. No doubt somewhere in between our prayers there is the hope that our own demise would nowhere be as painful, as pitiful and as public as the former leader’s was and preferably also with less unfinished business.

As the country enters a period of mourning already the nation’s collective memory is taking on a rosy tint. And it may not be temporary either. Soeharto ruled for over three decades. For a lot of Indonesians he represented the good old days of certainty and stability when the country was respected by its peers. When the government had a policy, knew where it was going and how to get there. Even though it went the wrong way and got badly hurt along the way, still decisions were made and things got done.

So what are we to make of former critics who become generous with kind words and previous enemies suddenly eager to spout forgiveness? Is it hypocrisy or is the fear of creeping old age and a long and painful death casting a sobering shadow on their conscience? They say it is bad karma to deny a fellow human being a dignified death. In any case it is futile to judge a man who is about to face the judgment of his maker.

Thus after ten years of being publicly shunned we saw thousands filed into his house to pay their last respects and pray for his soul. We saw tears shed, pouring of sympathies and comforting words to those left behind and we took note of the many good deeds and achievements made in his lifetime. The list of successes grew longer with reminiscence and the adjectives sweeter. He was not a dictator as a decision maker. He brought not so much corruption as economic prosperity. Even leaders of our neighbouring countries revere him hence more reason for us to do the same.

But what of the cries for justice and the upholding of the truth? Where are the retributions for past wrongdoings and various violations? The man was no hero, some say, but a criminal to be brought to justice and punished accordingly. Seven days of mourning is too much unless it is to mourn the death of justice for the Indonesian people once and for all. The media has conspired to whip up sympathy and spread amnesia through its endless and morbid coverage of his illness and his funeral. This country will never rid itself of the influence of Soeharto’s power once and for all and become truly democratic.

And yet only through how we respond to historic moments like these can a country can reveal its true identity and its real character – either with wisdom and respect or with conduct unbecoming. After all every response and every action or inaction is brought about through (hopefully) conscious choices. For 32 years we chose to be ruled under President Soeharto. We then chose to oust him. For the next ten consecutive years we chose a handful of leaders whose leadership came nowhere near his. At the same time as we chose to lay all the blames for all our ills at his door we chose not to do anything about it.

Ten years after Soeharto’s downfall our economy is still a shamble and corruption is more widespread than ever. Meanwhile our standing in the world is further and further away from being desired. The least we can do then give our former leader a respectful farewell and a proper funeral. For his glory was once our glory too. And his history our history.

`My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings:

Look on my works, ye mighty, and despair!'

Nothing beside remains. Round the decay

Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare,

The lone and level sands stretch far away.

(Percy Bysshe Shelley)

 

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