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Book review: New biography casts light on Indonesia's 'smiling general'

'Young Soeharto' chronicles strongman's astonishing rise from humble beginnings

David Jenkins' magisterial new book, "Young Soeharto: The Making of a Soldier," details the background to one of Asia's more remarkable and least-known national struggles as well as the story of the man who led the country's remarkable transformation. (Nikkei montage/Source photos by Djawa Baroe/ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute)

BANGKOK -- Strong leadership is a facet of Southeast Asian politics that is fast becoming a historical relic. Democratic processes in the last 20 years have mostly reduced the length of time national leaders stay in power -- either they reach term limits and respect them, get booted out of office by the electorate, or are ousted by military coups as a last resort. Before then, Asia's strongmen had more staying power. One of the most intriguing and least understood was Suharto, the soft-spoken army general who took control of the Indonesian presidency in 1967 and held onto it with an iron grip until he was toppled by a wave of angry popular protests in 1998.

In his exhaustively researched and magnificently written biography of Suharto's early life, Australian journalist David Jenkins reveals his lifelong fascination with a man characterized in an earlier biography written by a German journalist in the 1970s as "The Smiling General." For behind that smile, no one really knew what the man was thinking -- or much about him.

As a journalist covering politics in Indonesia at the height of his power in the late 1980s, I was as perplexed as anyone. Suharto's calm, composed demeanor seemed only part of the story. There was a famous incident in 1989 when, as he was returning from an overseas trip amid tentative army moves to curtail his powers, he smilingly told a group of accompanying journalists that he would "smash" anyone who challenges him.

Over the 30-plus years Suharto ruled Indonesia, few doubted his capacity to crush opponents. Jailed writer Pramoedya Ananta Toer used to call his "New Order" regime a form of colonialism. Here perhaps lies the key to understanding the Smiling General. In the 300 pages that Jenkins spends exploring the future president's childhood, his early years in the Dutch colonial army and later, in the territorial army of the occupying Japanese, the reader gets a sense of a man imbued with an understanding of and a facility for intolerant paternalistic authority.

Jenkins goes to some length to investigate Suharto's family background and upbringing (he was born Soeharto, the spelling of his name later changed to Suharto after Indonesia's independence from Dutch colonial rule).

Top: Lt. Gen. Hein ter Poorten, the Dutch commander- in-chief, surrenders to the Japanese at Kalijati, West Java, on March 9, 1942. Bottom: Lt. Col. Suharto, white shirt, stands alongside an ailing Gen. Sudirman, the supreme commander of the Indonesian Army, at a military parade in Yogyakarta in 1949. The earliest known photographs of Suharto date from 1949. (Ipphos)

What emerges is a picture of a modest village-born Javanese removed early on from his mother's care and moved among various relatives, not a hugely uncommon experience for many Indonesians from this region. He dismisses rumors of noble birth that were current during Suharto's presidency. What emerges is a picture of someone deeply affected by the emotional poverty of his family life, which later translated into a strong regard for the welfare of his own family, who benefited from extraordinary enrichment as Suharto accumulated political power.

David Jenkins (Courtesy of the author)

Classical psychoanalytical biographies of great leaders often place stress on early childhood experiences as a determinant of political character and fortunes. Few Asian leaders have been subject to so rigorous an examination of their early past as Jenkins has done. This has been made possible by rigorous interviews of contemporary sources by Jenkins, who was posted to Indonesia in the mid-1970s and embarked on this project more than 30 years ago when many of those who knew the young Suharto were still alive.

What Jenkins describes so well is the evolving landscape of the late Dutch period in Indonesia. The level of detail is often mesmerizing. In a discussion of Suharto's modest but adequate education, the reader is treated to a broad exposition of the various levels of schooling available under Dutch colonial rule. Jenkins uses this examination to make larger points about the struggle for independence that Suharto eventually joined. He notes that those Indonesians who were unable to benefit from the European stream of education were excluded from the upper echelons of the Indonesian army, and those who spoke Dutch felt superior to those who did not. Suharto was an exception to these conventions.

Suharto pays his respects to his father-in-law K. R. M. T. Soemoharjomo, a member of the Mangkunegaran court. As Suharto accumulated power, his family benefited from extraordinary enrichment. (Deppen)  

Understanding how the young Suharto made his way from the Javanese backwater of his broken childhood to the upper ranks of the Indonesian army is a major achievement of this biography.

It was well known that Suharto embarked on his military career first as a member of the Dutch colonial army known as the KNIL. Later, when Japan invaded the Netherlands Indies in 1942, Suharto first joined the Japanese-run police force and then the auxiliary army, the PETA, which the Japanese formed to defend the islands from an Allied invasion.

Until now, there was only Suharto's account of these formative years in which he presents himself as a model policeman and soldier. In interviews that Jenkins conducted with members of the Japanese occupation force who trained Suharto, they told a different story of a man who was cautious, reserved, and tended to do as he was ordered to get ahead.

Indonesian recruits of the PETA, a volunteer army formed by the Japanese to defend the islands from an Allied invasion. Suharto signed up with the PETA after first joining the Japanese-run police force. (Djawa Baroe)

What is so interesting are the broader points the author makes about this period of the Japanese occupation and its impact on the formation of Indonesia. The Japanese sought to instill their own culture of a demanding and aggressive fighting spirit in the young Indonesians they recruited for the PETA. The training was harsh and often brutal. Jenkins points out that some of this casual violence and brutality continued to be practiced by those officers who later rose through the ranks of the Indonesian army.

Suharto, then a lieutenant general, pictured in 1966. (Getty Images)

Perhaps more significantly, it was Japan's decision to train the Indonesians rather late in the war that helped instilled a strong sense of motivation that was to carry them through the revolutionary struggle against the returning Dutch forces, who were initially supported by well-equipped British troops. "The belief in voluntarism, the idea that a highly motivated force can overcome a better-equipped enemy, would prove of critical importance," Jenkins argues. "It came to underpin the Indonesian concept of 'semangat' or revolutionary ardor."

This book is only the first of a planned three-volume biography and it ends just as the revolution is about to start in 1945. The author's forensic analysis and attention to detail may not be an easy read for the general reader, but the scope of this magisterial work goes far beyond the life of Suharto, who lived out the rest of his days after he was deposed quietly tending to pet birds and saying very little until he died in 2008. It details the background to one of Asia's more remarkable and least-known national struggles as well as the story of a man who fought for and then led his country to a level of prosperity few imagined a poorly educated kid from a backwater Java village could accomplish -- despite all his faults.

"Young Soeharto: The Making of a Soldier, 1921-1945," by David Jenkins (ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute, 2021)

Michael Vatikiotis was a former correspondent in Indonesia for the Far Eastern Economic Review and published a political biography, "Indonesia Under Suharto," in 1991.

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