Indonesia's Despotic 'Father of Development'
U.S. Ally, in Power for 3 Decades, Oversaw Bloody Purges as Well as Nation's Rise to Prosperity

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.

In 1942, after Japanese forces invaded and overturned Dutch rule, Suharto joined a Japanese police force and militia. The occupiers' nationalist and militarist Bushido philosophy would deeply influence him.

Two days after the Japanese surrender in 1945, nationalist leaders Sukarno and Mohammad Hatta declared independence for Indonesia. Hostilities broke out between Indonesian fighters and Dutch forces seeking to reassert colonial control. Suharto gained acclaim for his efforts in fighting the Dutch.

The Dutch left in 1949, and Suharto began a long rise in the armed forces of the newly independent state, which Sukarno ran as president. By 1965, as Sukarno's health was failing, Suharto found himself at the head of the army's elite Strategic Reserve Command.

The general's ascent to the presidency began Sept. 30, 1965, the date of a still mysterious alleged coup against Sukarno.

In the official version of events that day, promoted by Suharto and until recently the only version taught to Indonesian schoolchildren, junior army officers with ties to the Communist Party of Indonesia kidnapped and killed six top generals. That was said to be the first stage of a larger plot in which most of the party's 3 million members would rise up to seize power and kill their opponents.

Opposing theories variously attribute the generals' killings to Suharto, Sukarno and the CIA. But many historians say the most plausible explanation is that officers allied with the Communist Party kidnapped the politically conservative generals in an effort to shift Sukarno's government further toward the communists, but did not expect the resistance the prisoners put up and ended up killing them.

Whatever the facts, national turmoil ensued, and Suharto assumed command of the army. In the following months, hundreds of thousands of communists and putative sympathizers were killed by soldiers, militias and civilians in one of the worst political massacres of the 20th century. Some estimates put the death toll as high as 1 million. Class-based divisions stoked by a land redistribution policy embraced by Sukarno brought out ethnic and sectarian tensions. Muslims killed non-Muslims, plantation owners killed labor union members, and landholders killed peasants.

Though no evidence has surfaced that Suharto directly ordered the killings, he is known to have sent the army into some regions where killings took place on a large scale. "He also made it clear that those who killed communists would not be punished," Cribb said. "So suddenly, people who hated communists for some reason realized they had impunity."

As the violence continued, inflation reached 600 percent. Farm production was disrupted and people in some areas began to starve. Indonesia, once described by Sukarno as a "nation of coolies and a coolie among nations," reached a nadir.

Suharto assumed formal power in March 1966. Signaling a break from Sukarno's policies, he called his rule the New Order. With the violence diminishing, he embarked on an ambitious program to reverse Indonesia's economic decline.

Relying on five U.S.-trained economists -- three of them earned doctorates at the University of California -- he imposed new policies aimed at attracting foreign investment. The "Berkeley mafia," as it was known, advocated a balanced budget, market-driven economics and a limited government role.

Suharto channeled burgeoning revenue from Indonesian oil fields into roads, bridges and airports. Growth averaged 7 and 8 percent a year. A family planning program built around the slogan "two is enough" sent the birth rate plummeting.

By 1985 Suharto, whose face appeared on billboards with the title "Father of Development," was able to declare that Indonesia was self-sufficient in rice, its main staple. Near-universal enrollment for primary school grades was achieved by 1990. In that year, only 15 percent of Indonesians were living below official poverty lines, compared with 60 percent in 1970.

But with rising wealth came a vast parallel economy of patronage and undeclared assets. Though the technocrats were able to institute market reforms, they were unable to rein in the six Suharto children and their father's business cronies.

Just as Imelda Marcos and her shoe collection came to symbolize the greed of the Ferdinand Marcos years in the Philippines, the Suharto children became symbols of the New Order's excesses. Rare was the road project or petrochemical plant deal that did not have a Suharto son or daughter as the local agent.

His wife, Tien, was commonly known as "Madame Ten Percent," for the cut she allegedly demanded from new projects. Bribes often flowed in the form of donations to charitable foundations controlled by the Suharto family.

Economist Adam Schwarz called the New Order's corruption a symptom of an "institutional vacuum." Courts were not independent. Strict curbs on the news media silenced most critics. All but three political parties were outlawed, and large political gatherings were banned.

And above it all presided Suharto. He came to see himself as the figurative father of the country, said Indonesian historian Taufik Abdullah. He was no Sukarno, a charismatic ladies' man whose speeches stirred passion. Suharto, Abdullah noted, was "like an uncle." Javanese in character, he stressed correct behavior, worked hard and avoided dramatic displays of emotion.

Across a country spanning more than 3,000 miles east to west, Suharto imposed a highly centralized government, backed by a powerful military. He created new towns and engineered vast internal migrations aimed at easing overpopulation but that also contributed to social strife, Abdullah noted. In 1975, his armed forces invaded East Timor, a former Portuguese colony, which Indonesia annexed several months later, setting off a long guerrilla war.

Suharto's anti-communist rhetoric and clear turn away from Sukarno's polices made him a useful ally to the United States during the Cold War. The United States maintained close relations with the Indonesian military from the 1970s to the early 1990s, engaging its officers in training and support programs, despite allegations of human rights abuses by the military in provinces such as East Timor and Papua. It was only after the Santa Cruz massacre of 1991 in East Timor that the United States cut most military ties. Full ties were not restored until November 2005.

The technocrats' economic program was also welcome in Washington, which responded with large amounts of aid.

To maintain a veneer of democracy, Suharto ran for election before an electoral college every five years. His Golkar party was foreordained to win.

What ultimately brought Suharto down was the weakness of the political system he created and his hubris -- "a grossly inflated sense of his own popularity," Schwarz wrote in his book, "A Nation in Waiting."

The financial panic that swept Indonesia and other Asian countries in 1997 exposed long-brewing tensions. Students, workers and members of the middle class, many of them educated and prosperous thanks to Suharto's innovations, began to protest rising prices, corruption and lack of civil liberties.

By early 1998, the Indonesian currency, the rupiah, was in free fall. In May of that year, security forces shot and killed four student protesters at a Jakarta university, sparking the worst rioting ever seen in the capital. More than 1,000 people were killed.

Shortly before midnight on May 20, 1998, a lone adviser gave Suharto the news that no one, save the adviser, was willing to serve in Suharto's cabinet. The economic ministers, the politicians, even the generals had deserted him.

"Well, that's it, then," Suharto replied, according to "A Nation in Waiting." The next morning, he announced his resignation.

Suharto lived out his days in relative isolation in a house in an upscale Jakarta neighborhood. He is survived by his six children. His wife died in 1996.

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