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Suharto, Former Indonesian Dictator, Dies at 86

Suharto, Former Indonesian Dictator, Dies at 86

Suharto of Indonesia, whose 32-year dictatorship was one of the most brutal and corrupt of the 20th century, died Sunday in Jakarta. He was 86.

Mr. Suharto had been hospitalized on Jan. 4 with heart, lung and kidney problems, according to medical officials of Pertamina Hospital in Jakarta. His condition worsened dramatically over the weekend and he lost consciousness and stopped breathing on his own, they said.

A statement issued by the chief presidential doctor, Marjo Subiandono, said he was declared dead at 1:10 p.m. The cause of death was given as multi-organ failure.

Mr. Suharto was driven from office in 1998 by widespread rioting, economic paralysis and political chaos. His rule was not without accomplishment; he led Indonesia to stability and nurtured economic growth. But these successes were ultimately overshadowed by his pervasive and large-scale corruption; repressive, militarized rule; and a convulsion of mass bloodletting when he seized power in the late 1960s that took at least 500,000 lives.

As the leader of one of the world’s most populous countries, Mr. Suharto and his family became notorious for controlling state enterprises and taking kickbacks for government contracts, for siphoning money from state charities and for committing gross violations of human rights.

Yet Mr. Suharto remained virtually untouchable to the end, even as his successors in a new democratic system repudiated his rule. He was never charged with the killings committed under his command, and managed to escape criminal prosecution for embezzling millions of dollars, possibly billions, by having himself declared mentally incapable to stand trial. A civil suit against him was pending at his death.

After he was forced from office, he tried to give the appearance of a frail and humiliated former potentate, but he could be seen jogging and swinging a golf club at his home in the center of Jakarta. His health deteriorated in his final years and he became something of a recluse.

In his last days, a parade of the country’s power elite visited the hospital to pay their respects.

Mr. Suharto — who like many Indonesians used only one name — stepped down on May 21, 1998, just two months after arranging to have himself elected to a seventh five-year term. He departed with an apology to the nation. “I am sorry for my mistakes,” he said. But his quiet statement came only after the deaths of 500 student protesters, an event that shocked the people into a consensus that the president must go.

When demonstrators occupied the Parliament building, once-docile legislators finally called on the president to resign.

Like his predecessor, Sukarno, Mr. Suharto worked to forge national unity in a fractious country of 200 million people comprising 300 ethnic groups speaking 250 languages and inhabiting more than 17,000 islands spread over a 3,500-mile archipelago.

Sukarno had also fallen from power in a wave of violence, one that swept the country in 1965 after an attack that was officially portrayed as an abortive leftist coup. Mr. Suharto, one of the few senior military officers to escape execution on the first day of that uprising, moved decisively against the insurgents and effectively took control of the country.

Mr. Suharto dealt gingerly with Sukarno, a founding father of the nation who still had support within the army. Sukarno was kept as a figurehead while Mr. Suharto, a relatively little known major general, waited three years to officially succeed him, in 1968.

In the following years, governing through consensus, traditional mysticism, military repression and authoritarian control, President Suharto restored order to the country and presided over an era of substantial development. Many Indonesians benefited from his programs, but none more so than members of his family, who became billionaires many times over. Last year, he topped a new list of world leaders who had stolen from state coffers. The list, by the United Nations and the World Bank, cited an estimate that he had embezzled $15 billion to $35 billion.

Enigmatic and Magical

Mr. Suharto was an unlikely character to play such a major role in his country’s destiny. He was a private person, and although he wielded complete power, he spoke in gentle tones, smiled sweetly to friend and foe and presented himself as a man of humble origins, shy, retiring and enigmatic. Short and thick set, he almost invariably dressed in a Western business suit or a safari jacket once he gave up his military uniform, and a black songkok, the flat traditional Indonesian cap.

He rarely took a public stand on any issue. Instead, by waiting to allow a consensus to form, he was usually able to make events evolve the way he wished. He can be better understood in the context of the old forms of Javanese kingship in which the ruler was surrounded by courtiers who tried to divine the royal mind.

Although he was a Muslim, Mr. Suharto seemed imbued with Indonesian traditions of animism and mysticism overlaid with Hindu and Buddhist teachings. In a country given to superstition, where ancient patterns of belief coexist with more modern ideas, he consulted gurus and dukuns, spiritual advisers and soothsayers who were believed to be in touch with natural forces.

Whether it was those forces or his timing, good fortune came to him. Just as the United States was becoming embroiled in Vietnam, he stood as a bulwark against Communism in Asia. The United States rewarded him with a foreign aid program that eventually amounted to more than $4 billion a year. In addition, a consortium of Western countries and Japan established an aid program that in 1994 alone totaled almost $5 billion.

In doing so, the United States, along with much of the rest of the world, showed a willingness to overlook the corruption, favoritism and violations of human rights, including the disappearance of opposition politicians, that came to characterize Mr. Suharto’s rule.

Many Indonesians, too, supported him, at least while the economy was buoyant. But the Asian economic turmoil in 1997 exposed Indonesia’s economy as on the brink of collapse.

The currency lost 30 percent of its value in 1996, a drought made rice scarce, unemployment rose and the widening income gap led to rioting and violence. Mr. Suharto turned to the International Monetary Fund, which agreed to a $43 billion bailout if Indonesia would abide by its terms.

His signing of those terms was seen as a humiliating capitulation, but he equivocated when it came to instituting them. Many saw his hesitation as an effort to protect the fortunes of his family and friends, money widely believed to have been stashed in foreign banks.

Mr. Suharto called for belt-tightening. He raised fuel prices, then revoked the order. He promised bank reform and ended tax breaks, then reversed himself or left wide loopholes.

His failure to come to grips with economic problems brought a wave of student unrest. In May 1998, student rallies spilled from the campuses into the streets and across the archipelago. Hundreds died in fires and clashes with security forces.

Apparently unable to grasp the seriousness of the situation, Mr. Suharto left on a trip to Cairo, but was forced to cut it short in an effort to restore order. The economic crisis was a challenge that he did not seem to know how to handle.

“This is something he cannot shoot, he cannot put in jail, he cannot close down, like our newspaper,” said Jusuf Wanandi, a senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Jakarta, an Indonesian policy institute.

Anti-Communist Purges

In the 1960s, during the turbulent months following his rise to power, few would have predicted that Mr. Suharto, a peasant turned soldier, would be able to weather crisis after crisis, as he did for 32 years.

The first of those was touched off by long-smoldering resentments between Communists, conservative Muslims and ethnic Chinese that exploded into one of the bloodiest massacres in modern history.

His precise role in the violence is not clear; he managed to keep his name from being directly attached to it. What is clear is that in many areas the army, which he controlled, supplied weapons to and whipped up an aroused population to mutilate and murder people suspected of being Communists, many of them of Chinese ancestry. Estimates of the number of dead have ranged from 500,000 to as many as one million.

Contemporary dispatches reported that the general sent crack troops of the army’s Strategic Reserve Command to organize the liquidation of the Communists. Hamish McDonald, a journalist with wide experience in Asia, wrote in his book “Suharto’s Indonesia” that General Suharto later dispatched Col. Sarwo Edhi Wibowo with a force of commandos “to encourage the anti-Communist civilians to help with the job.” The colonel said, “We gave them two or three days’ training, then sent them out to kill the Communists.”

Along with presumed Communists, entire families were wiped out and personal scores settled with ethnic Chinese, longtime residents of the country.

Mr. Suharto had blamed the Indonesian Communist Party for what he described as an abortive coup in 1965, though the Communists’ exact role in it remains unclear. In that uprising, six senior anti-Communist generals were killed in one evening, and questions have lingered about why Mr. Suharto was one of the few senior officers not marked for assassination. In any event, he became the chief beneficiary of the subsequent crackdown as he moved quickly to consolidate his control.

When Mr. Suharto took over from Sukarno, the country was bankrupt. Inflation was rampant and hunger was commonplace in a country rich in natural resources.

Mr. Suharto ended Sukarno’s policy of confrontation with Malaysia and became a force for regional stability by helping to establish the Association of Southeast Asian Nations. Indonesia rejoined the United Nations, from which it had withdrawn in 1965.

With the help of American-trained economists, Indonesia moved from being the world’s largest rice-importing nation to a rice exporter. During the 1970s, oil was a major export and a significant source of foreign exchange. High oil prices allowed considerable economic development, but when Pertamina, the national oil company, was shaken by scandal in the late ’70s, the country again neared bankruptcy.

Mr. Suharto brought what became known as the New Order to Indonesia, but at the price of repression. Scholars have estimated that as many as 750,000 people were arrested in the military crackdown after the killing of the generals, and that 55,000 to 100,000 people accused of being Communists may have been held without trial for as long as 14 years.

In the early ’80s, 4,000 to 9,000 people were killed by death squads organized by army Special Forces to deal with petty criminals and some political operatives. And, according to Benedict Richard O’Gorman Anderson, a professor emeritus of government at Cornell, 200,000 people of a population of 700,000 died in East Timor in the civil war and famine after Indonesia’s invasion and annexation in 1975.

Professor Anderson called Mr. Suharto a “malign dictator with blood on his hands — over the years anywhere from half a million to a million people.”

The repressiveness of the Suharto era broke into the headlines during President Ronald Reagan’s trip to Asia in 1986, a trip meant to highlight the “winds of freedom” in the region. Just before Mr. Reagan’s arrival in Bali, the government expelled a correspondent for The New York Times and barred two Australian journalists after unfavorable reports about the great wealth accumulated by the general and his family.

When he came to power, he refused at first to move into the presidential palace, saying he preferred to live in his own modest house in Jakarta. During his years as president, however, his homes became palatial.

The Family Business

While he occupied himself with affairs of state or relaxed with a round of golf or a day of fishing, his wife, Siti Hartinah Suharto, known as Madame Tien, handled the family’s business affairs. She became the object of quiet criticism, with her detractors calling her “Madame Tien Percent,” a reference to what were said to be commissions she received on business deals.

But Madame Tien, who died in 1996, was restrained compared with the six Suharto children. They used their connections to amass as much as $35 billion from their business interests, according to an estimate by Transparency International, a private anticorruption organization. Cartels and monopolies extended the family’s reach to paper, cement, plywood, cloves, toll roads, power plants, automobiles and banks.

One daughter, Siti Hadijanti Rukmana, led a corporate group that collected many of the tolls on new highways. A son, Bambang Trihatmodjo, became chairman of a conglomerate of some 90 companies with interests in everything from shipping and insurance to cocoa and timber, hotels, television, automobiles, even condoms. Another son was connected to the state oil monopoly.

Whatever favors were not given to the Suharto family went to friends. A respected Indonesian scholar was quoted by The Times as saying: “At least 80 percent of major government projects go in some form to the president’s children or friends.”

The family has denied that it benefited unfairly from tax breaks and other favors and said government contracts had been subject to competitive bidding, a widely disputed assertion.

Impoverished Childhood

Mr. Suharto was born on June 8, 1921, in Kemusu Argamulja, a village west of Yogyakarta in central Java. He was the only child from his father’s second marriage, but he had 11 half-brothers and sisters. His father was a village irrigation official, with control over the water for rice growers.

His parents divorced, and he moved from his mother’s home to an aunt’s, to his father’s, to his stepfather’s. At one point he was transferred to the household of Daryatmo, a noted guru and dukun, who remained an adviser to Mr. Suharto in his later years.

He was so poor that he once had to change schools because he could not afford the shorts and shoes that were the required uniform. His education ended with junior high school. He found a job in the bank in his village, but resigned after he tore his only set of work clothes in a bicycle accident.

Indonesia was a Dutch colony and with the outbreak of war in 1940, he joined the Royal Netherlands Indies Army, which surrendered to the Japanese three months after Pearl Harbor. Indonesian nationalists began cooperating with the Japanese as a step toward independence, and he joined the Japanese-sponsored Volunteer Army, reaching the rank of commander.

After the Japanese surrender he joined the independence forces, emerging as a lieutenant colonel, steeped in anticolonialism and anti-Communism.

In 1947 he married Siti Hartinah; they had six children, Siti Hardiyanti Hastuti, Sigit Harjojudanto, Bambang Trihatmodjo, Siti Hediati, Hutomo Mandala Putra and Siti Hutami Endang Adiningsih, who survive, along with 11 grandchildren and a great-grandchild.

After attending the army staff and command school, he was made a brigadier general and placed in charge of intelligence. He rose to command the army’s new Strategic Reserve Force, the position he held when the six generals were killed in 1965. On that night, he was visiting his youngest child in a hospital, and it was said that that was how he escaped assassination.

Despite the allegations of human-rights abuses and corruption, Mr. Suharto escaped prosecution, evidence of the influence he retained long after he was forced from power. In 2000, the government charged him with having embezzled more than $600 million, but later dropped the charges because he was in ill health. After Time magazine reported that he had stolen up to $15 billion, he sued for defamation, and lost twice in lower courts before the Supreme Court ruled in his favor last year.

In July, prosecutors filed a civil suit, which is still pending, seeking $1.1 billion in damages for embezzling. And in December, an investigation was announced into six cases of human-rights abuses, including the killing of more than half a million people in the ’60s.

Because of a stroke and other ailments, he was said to have brain damage and trouble communicating. But in November, after obtaining the verdict against Time, he gave a rare interview to an Indonesian news magazine. Asked about the accusations of corruption, he laughed. “It’s all empty talk,” he said. “Let them accuse me. The fact is I have never committed corruption.”

Seth Mydans contributed reporting from Solo, Indonesia.
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