IF current events are making you feel clammy about what the future might hold for the country under President Duterte, it is best not to read on. Historical precedents and parallels, I find, might be good at providing much needed perspective, but totally rubbish at quelling the rising queasiness in the pit of one’s stomach.
Indonesia shares with the Philippines an unfortunate toleration for extra-judicial killings by vigilante death squads. Soon after the 1965-1966 coup that propelled General Suharto to power, anti-Communist killing squads zealously went about slaughtering an estimated 500,000 Indonesians. But death squad activity is rarely confined to the political-ideological type. Remarkably malleable in terms of purpose and motive, death squads can be whipped up as and when needed. In the 1980s, new death squads, known as “Petrus,” an acronym for penembak misterius, or mysterious killers, murdered up to 10,000 people in Suharto’s crackdown on crime.
Sometime in early 1983, the Suharto government decided to do something about the country’s massive poverty, crowded cities, urban crime, and other “destabilizing” problems. While talk about rising crime rates had been going on for some time, and government ministers had moaned about there being “just too many people” living in cities, nobody, much less the press, was quite sure what new policies would be trotted out by the government. Then, disturbingly, corpses started turning up in highly conspicuous public places—by roadsides and market areas, on bridges, and in ponds and rivers. The bodies showed signs of torture; some were found dumped in groups and stuffed in sacks, some had been hacked to pieces, many had their limbs tied together. As the year wore on, an estimated 4,000 “suspected criminals” were murdered. Terrified eyewitnesses recounted seeing group stabbings by men in military uniform and of frenzied mobs incited to club suspects to death. Alleged criminals who attempted to resist were left riddled with bullets. Petrus squads, it soon became clear, operated by intimidation and sowing fear. The Dutch sociologist Justus M. van der Kroef called the pattern of killings “prophylactic murder”.
Researching in Indonesia, Van der Kroef found that “ex-convicts, ne’er do wells, and recidivists” were not the only victims. The wave of killings presented the perfect cover and opportunity to settle political and personal scores with absolute impunity. Petrus, Van der Kroef confirmed, were made up of military and police personnel, as well as members of para-commando units, who were getting paid about 50,000 rupiah, or $42, per victim. Lists of names for extermination were distributed and shared among squad members, along with photos and personal details of the suspects.
The Vatican, the United States, and human rights advocates sounded international alarm bells, which Suharto and his spokesmen blithely ignored. “Foreigners are entitled to think what they want,” was one official’s stony response. Amnesty International was derided as a “fuss maker”. Efforts to combat crime should be appreciated, one minister glibly remarked. A speaker of parliament saw no problem in “sacrificing hundreds of bandits to give a feeling of tranquility” to the rest of the Indonesian population. One reflective official likened the killings to a “surgical operation to save the life of the patient”. In sum, while no authoritative admission from the government was forthcoming, tacit approvals, justifications, and apologia abounded. General Ali Murtopo, more confident than most, had no patience for coyness. As former information minister, major political power broker, and close Suharto confidant, he could say that the killings would stop “when those who have the authority decide that the mission is over”—which is exactly what happened. By 1985, Petrus activity had fizzled out.
At the time, Filipinos were too busy with their own dictator to worry about what was going on in Indonesia. Had we looked over at our neighbor, we would have seen a similar strain of ruthlessness in Suharto and the efficient way he and his goons retained power by cynically manipulating a largely passive and pious population. We were on the brink of deposing our dictator. It would take another decade or so, and more killings, for Indonesians to call time on theirs.
Suharto’s repressive, authoritarian militaristic regime pushed for economic development and industrial growth. Under his New Order, an educated, urban middle class with disposable income came into being, and ordinary Indonesians felt some improvement in their living conditions, schooling, and health care. A little progress in the human condition can be lulling and support for Suharto remained high. There was probably also some measure of hardened apathy and credulity. It helped that Suharto portrayed himself as an honest, humble man who never forgot his impoverished background. “The hardships of life I experienced, the family traditions…the teachings of our ancestors…all helped to shape my character,” he wrote. He refused to live in the presidential palace, saying he preferred to remain in his own modest home in Jakarta.
The jolt came in 1997 when it was revealed that the country’s economy was at the point of collapse. Students across the country took to the streets in protest. Hundreds died in clashes with the police, activists were jailed. Only then, when it was perceived that he had lost control of the economy, was Suharto forced from power. In 2000 he faced charges of embezzlement. He, his wife, and six children had amassed about $35 billion stashed in overseas bank accounts, corporate assets, real estate and artworks, none of which have ever been retrieved. Throughout his 32-year dictatorship, corruption, cronyism and nepotism were rampant, with the President’s friends, relatives, and military aides directly benefiting from monopolies and concessions.
Attempts to take Suharto to court for human rights violations and plunder failed. Lawsuits were dropped after he suffered a stroke and, it was said, he had brain damage and found it difficult to speak. He escaped prosecution for genocide and corruption, and died in 2008, denying the accusations to the end. A few years ago, there were moves to re-brand Suharto a national hero and to forget the atrocities and barbarism that went on in the past.