Back to the future in Southeast Asia

Former Indonesian President Suharto (AAP)

It's been 20 years since the late Indonesian dictator Suharto was forced to resign amid deadly student protests and the country's worst economic crisis.

Former southeast Asian dictators are back in vogue at the moment.

At 92, Mahathir Mohamad became the world's oldest elected leader with a surprise win in the Malaysian elections, ousting Najib Razak from power a fortnight ago.

The pair were once allies but clashed over a graft scandal concerning allegations $6 billion was siphoned from a state fund including $932 million funnelled into Najib's bank account. Najib denies any wrongdoing.

Mahathir had a reputation as an authoritarian ruler during a previous stint in power between 1981-2003.

He's now considered a beacon of hope for democratic reform and anti-corruption after joining an alliance with opposition icon Anwar Ibrahim, who has been pardoned and released from jail, for what many consider a politically motivated sodomy conviction.

There's a lot riding on how the unlikely partners will navigate Malaysia's political transition and a power handover as well as potential legal action against Najib.

If a similar journey in neighbouring Indonesia is anything to go by, the road ahead is unlikely to be smooth.

This week, on May 21, marked 20 years since the late Indonesian dictator Suharto was forced to resign amid deadly student protests and the country's worst economic crisis.

During 32 years in power, he amassed up to $47 billion through corruption and later avoided prosecution because doctors declared him medically unfit to face trial.

His three daughters and three sons built vast commercial empires from nepotism and government patronage.

Former Australian ambassador to Indonesia, Bill Farmer, said the past two decades had seen Indonesia become a democratic leader in southeast Asia, with genuine elections, a much freer press and active civil society.

"Indonesia is not a perfect democracy by any means," Farmer told AAP.

The explosion of conservative Islam since 1998 is shaping Indonesia's democracy before the 2019 presidential elections.

For decades Suharto's rule had banned most expressions of Islam and generally kept a lid on extremists.

But religious tensions are on the rise, exemplified by a family of suicide bombers targeting Christian churches in the second largest city Surabaya last week and the jailing in 2017 of Jakarta's former Christian governor known as Ahok on blasphemy charges.

While democracy had allowed people to exercise their rights to freedom of religious expression, at the other end of the spectrum there is a growth of extremist sentiment, Farmer said.

This includes instances of Islamic vigilantes cracking down on promiscuity and homosexual behaviour and some groups trying to stop shop assistants wearing Santa hats at shopping malls in the lead up to Christmas.

Deakin University professor Damien Kingsbury said repression from the Suharto days had largely lifted.

"While economic conditions aren't necessarily wonderful, people are now free to talk about it, complain about it and protest," he told AAP, adding that the range of media coverage is much broader than 20 years ago.

Suharto had centralised corruption so everyone knew their place in the pecking order, Kingsbury said, but since his political demise corruption hadn't diminished - it had just spread out.

"There's no longer this pyramid with the king at the top, it's really a much flatter structure," he said.

Farmer acknowledged that in some quarters in Indonesia there was still nostalgia for "strong man" leadership and the "good old days" when rice was heavily subsidised for the poor.

There are some frustrations Indonesia's economy is not living up to its potential and the rupiah has recently weakened.

A PricewaterhouseCoopers predicts Indonesia to be the fifth largest economy in the world by 2030.

Farmer believes that estimate is "a bit far-fetched" because of shortages of basic elements such as energy and infrastructure investment have been a handbrake on economic growth.

Kingsbury said there was a perception in Indonesia the presidency of Joko Widodo had not lived up to high expectations.

"He's probably not a shoe-in for re-election," Kingsbury said.

Widodo, a former governor of Jakarta and furniture businessman, was the first Indonesian president not to have hailed from the political elite.

Suharto's youngest son Tommy - a former racing car driver, who served four years in jail for ordering the murder of a supreme court judge - has announced he's running for president.

"I have done my term and according to the laws I now have the same rights as anyone else. I have the right to vote and the right to be elected," Tommy told Al Jazeera TV.

Farmer said the Suharto name has drawbacks linked to some of the excesses of the past - human rights violations and the army's role in disappearances.

"(Tommy) has a history of shady business accomplices and dealings, so I personally wouldn't rate him highly as a prospect for high office," Farmer said.

Kingsbury predicts an even tighter presidential poll next year compared to 2014 when Widodo netted 53 per cent of votes to ex-general Prabowo Subianto's 47 per cent.

Subianto, Suharto's son-in-law, polled well despite a chequered history of alleged human rights abuses in East Timor and Papua.

Former army chief Gatot Nurmantyo, who briefly suspended military ties with Australia last year, is emerging as a potential dark horse candidate.

Kingsbury said written into Indonesia's DNA was a "militaristic and authoritarian tendency".

"There's a theory that countries tend to reflect the stamp that was put on them at the time that they achieve independence," he said.

"The simple fact that (Gatot and Subianto are likely to be) competitive shows that many Indonesians see that as a viable alternative to a more liberal model," Kingsbury said.

Even after 20 years of democracy, it can be hard to shake off the past.

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