Indonesia's Despotic 'Father of Development'

Suharto, one of the world's longest-serving leaders, was born on June 8, 1921, and became the second president of Indonesia after independence.
By Ellen Nakashima
Washington Post Foreign Service
Monday, January 28, 2008

Former Indonesian president Suharto, who in 32 years of brutal authoritarian rule turned one of Asia's largest and poorest countries into a fast-growing economic tiger, died Sunday of multiple organ failure. He was 86.

Thousands of people wept in the street outside his home, news reports said, mourning a man credited with holding together a sprawling, diverse country while overseeing its rapid development. But many Indonesians expressed outrage at the rampant cronyism that marked his rule and the deaths of hundreds of thousands of people in military crackdowns.

"My father passed away peacefully," said his eldest daughter, Tutut. "May God bless him and forgive all of his mistakes."

President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono declared a week of national mourning and called on Indonesians "to pay their last respects to one of Indonesia's best sons," according to news reports. His funeral was planned for Monday at the family mausoleum in Central Java, the province where he was born.

Suharto rose from poor farmer's son to five-star army general, then president, a man of quiet determination who came to believe in his own indispensability, historians say. His strong anti-communism made him a close U.S. ally for much of his rule.

He was forced from office in 1998 when military officers and political allies abandoned him in the face of massive street protests over corruption, repression and a financial panic that stalled the country's advance toward affluence.

During his long rule, Indonesians rarely saw him or heard him speak, knowing him mainly as the face in portraits that hung in offices throughout the country.

He died without being held formally to account for the deaths of hundreds of thousands of Indonesians during anti-communist purges of 1965-66. His claims of ill health, backed by a Supreme Court ruling, shielded him from prosecution on charges of embezzling almost $600 million during his presidency.

Economists generally credit him with cutting poverty from almost 60 percent to 15 percent by 1990 in his huge country, an amalgamation of 17,500 islands and hundreds of ethnic groups, which today has a population of 235 million, the world's fourth-largest.

"He led Indonesia out of a period of economic chaos into relative prosperity," said Robert Cribb, a historian at Australian National University. On the other hand, Cribb said, he "crippled Indonesia's public life."

Suharto was born June 8, 1921, in a poor village in central Java, then part of the Dutch East Indies. He was the only child of a farming couple who divorced shortly after he was born.

In 1940, he joined the colonial Royal Netherlands East Indies Army and studied at a Dutch-run military academy. In the military, biographers say, he found the camaraderie, stability and opportunity that he had lacked as a youth.

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