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Half-truths and organic rice

No longer does Indonesia’s national news service print (or not print) what the government tells it to. So what does it mean when a book praising former dictator President Suharto is publicly launched in the same building where his once not-free press used to operate without interference? Beau Donelly went along to find out.

The fire stairs between level 19 and 20 are well worn. There is an elevator that climbs to the 20th floor, but it is rarely used. In the building where a dictator’s censored media printed propaganda for three decades while the rest of the world turned their back, the lone lift scales the building only every once in a while.

Every now and then someone stands there, waiting. Not willing to walk down the flight of stairs that lead to six more elevators servicing the floor beneath. Maybe they don’t know about the lifts, as I didn’t on my first day. But most do, and those that wait are content doing so.

To watch the journalists, many who have worked for the news wire service since its dictator days, it’s not difficult to imagine the ghost of a man still admired by some, disliked by many, feared by more.

What would he do? Would he stand patiently, as Indonesians do, waiting for the one elevator that services the 20th floor? Something tells me he would. There’s no way Suharto took the stairs.

But we did. We were late. Had my self-appointed guide not been horizontally challenged we might have ran all the way down to level two – the promise of free food had him torn. Instead, we took the industrial route, barging through the emergency door into the foyer below, catching an elevator and leaving behind a ricochet of feet slapping cement.

The event we’re going to is the official launch of the newly released book: One Thousand Reasons To Love Suharto. It’s also my second day in to a four-week journalism internship at Indonesia’s national news agency, Antara.

My guide is excited. ‘The food at these things… it’s so very, very good. That’s why I go. You will like this,’ he said.

A few unreciprocated introductions and blatantly ignored waves remind me of the first day at a new school after being taken under the wing of the least popular kid. Of course I’m grateful now, but a relationship forged from desperation is bound to have its hurdles. Perturbed, I scan the room for the cool kids as I take my seat.

The uninterpretable chatter of 200 or so guests is muted when an entourage of Indonesia’s elites enter the room with their casual, confident strut. Dressed in designer suits, fine batiks, and military uniforms reeking of rank and topped off with a hint of Western style, they silence the oval room without so much as a word.

These guys are the cool kids.

Mannered smiles expose a hierarchy of power. A series of mini-waves that the well known give to the unknown tame the commoner’s gaze as the pride procession edges towards one of the circular dining tables at the front of the hall. In an Oscar awards type gathering the elite are embraced by familiar, already-seated guests in a Sopranos-meets-Yum-Cha-style-reunion.

I seek an explanation from my star-stricken best friend.

‘That man, see him? He is Suharto’s brother. He just got out of jail. He’s only a half brother though. His mother had them to different men,’ he said.

Go back.

‘Suharto’s brother? Why was he in jail?’

‘He killed a journalist. Not himself though. He got someone to do it. Like a hit man,’ he said.

An iron deficiency, 30 centimetres and a hunch says I can’t disguise being the only Westerner in the room. Shuffling forward in my seat, I unpack my complimentary purple pre-dinner box that consists of mini stir-fry, sticky coconut rice and cake.

Suharto’s brother stands. He takes the mic. He’s MC for the evening.

I listen to Suharto’s brother speak for close to an hour and understand only conjunctions and numbers. And I consider the absurdity of a book that praises the man who dictated Indonesia for three decades after overthrowing his predecessor with Western backing. A tribute to the person responsible for a national debt still unmatched by any other country in the world. A document regretting to mention the 500,000-1,000,000 Indonesians who were massacred by his army and the genocide of one third of East Timor’s population that occurred under his rule. And I consider the irony of such a scenario taking place in the same building where his once not-free press is now said to operate without interference. And where his relatives and cronies now sit, celebrating his memory and living well.

Upon further research I discover Suharto’s brother was not the monster my guide would have me believe. It turns out he is merely a school teacher turned tycoon, jailed for embezzling reforestation funds – to the tune of about $AUD13 million – and buying his way out of incarceration after bribing Supreme Court judges and court officials, subsequently landing him in hot water with the Corruption Eradication Commission (KPK).

It was Suharto’s youngest son, Hutomo ‘Tommy’ Mandala Putra who spent four years behind bars for ordering the murder of the judge who had sent him there after being convicted of graft. Somewhere along the line my au fait guide got his wires crossed.

To his disappointment, I escape during the interval. Near the elevator, a young woman hands me a gift bag that contains a copy of the new release as well as other light reading on the former president’s ‘achievements’. I dig deeper and retrieve one kilogram of organic rice.

I leave my new workplace and walk home through Jakarta’s impatient streets to the smell of satay and smoke and the sound of two-stroke engines and car horns. And I wonder what the next four weeks will hold as I endeavour to report news in a country undergoing a transition from dictatorship to democracy.

On the way home I give the rice to a local man and his family. After examining the bag the father throws it to the floor and points to the words printed beneath the ‘80s logo of a globe, stencilled in black on the bottom of the packaging.

It reads: Diproduksi Olen: Pak Harto Centre. The father translates: ‘Made by the Suharto Foundation’ and tells me to throw it away.

Beau Donelly is a freelance journalist and executive producer of SYN Radio’s flagship news and current affairs program, Panorama.

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