Cashing In on Years in Power
By Keith B. Richburg
A large part of Suharto's mixed legacy to his country is a massive, far-flung business empire, sometimes referred to as "Suharto, Inc.," controlled by his six children, a half brother, and a host of other relatives, friends, associates and assorted hangers-on.
The Suharto children are all reputed to have become multimillionaires by trading on their direct line to the presidential palace, involved in everything from clove cigarettes to toll roads, from petrochemical plants to automobile manufacturing. So pervasive is the first family's reach into the Indonesian economy that a long-running joke here is that the corruption begins as soon as you arrive at Jakarta's international airport: You can buy a pack of cigarettes, hop in a taxi, take the toll road to the city and check into a hotel, putting money into a Suharto family member's pocket with each step.
Several family members head their own business conglomerates. Son Bambang Trihatmodjo is at the top of the Bimantara group, which produces the Cakra automobile, owns newspapers and broadcast outlets and is involved in petrochemicals, a gas pipeline and the major stake in the Grand Hyatt Hotel.
A younger son, Hutomo Mandala Putra, or "Tommy," runs the Humpuss Group, with involvement in communications, the clove monopoly and a competitor local car, the Timor. Daughter Siti Harjanti Rukmana has the Citra Lantoro Gung group, which has built toll roads and other facilities, and is involved in power stations and transportation projects.
And the children aren't the only ones. Suharto's half brother, Sudwikatmono, is into banking, monopolizes movies here through his control of the import of films and all the theater chains, and has a variety of restaurants, supermarkets and hotels. Even a Suharto grandson, Ari Sigit, is getting into the act, with retail outlets, a share in a water distribution company in Jakarta, a share of tax collection on alcohol sales, and the lucrative monopoly for the export of birds' nests, which are used in Chinese food dishes around the region.
The blatant use of the family connection to win a commanding slice of the national economy has made the Suharto relatives the object of widespread hatred more so, it seems, than Suharto himself. During the violent outbreak in the capital on May 14, rioters targeted the most recognizable symbols of the first family's wealth, including offices of Bambang's Bimantara company and Tommy Suharto's Timor showrooms. Golden Truly grocery stores owned by Sudwikatmono were also looted and burned.
Suharto himself has always lived modestly, largely shunning Indonesia's official presidential palace, Merdeka, and remaining at his comfortable house in the Cendana district. He has never been known to dress in fancy clothes or wear expensive jewelry. Still, he is reported to be one of the world's wealthiest individuals, with Forbes magazine calculating that he is the sixth-wealthiest person in the world, with a net worth of $16 billion. The Suharto family was listed as worth a total of $30 billion.
Much of Suharto's own wealth is generated through an extensive network of charitable foundations he heads. Money raised by the charities has been used to support the political operations of the ruling Golkar party. Critics have called for investigations into whether Suharto has transferred his wealth to secret bank accounts in Europe.
For the young protesters whose bold "people power" movement toppled Suharto's carefully constructed New Order regime, seizing at least some of the first family's wealth and returning it to the nation's cash-strapped treasury is now the unfinished part of their revolution.
"I don't agree with this [resignation]," said Benny, 19, a technical school student from Trisakti University, who was standing apart from the other cheering young people at the parliament grounds celebrating the news of Suharto's departure. "His children are still the heads of businesses. They must be charged, brought to court."
Arief Nurbani, 25, an economics student, noted that "first and foremost, the wealth must be nationalized. That wealth belongs to the people."
In the minutes after Suharto announced his resignation and B.J. Habibie was sworn in as Indonesia's third president, the commander of the powerful armed forces delivered his own terse message: "The military will protect Suharto and his family."
But with Suharto now out of power, many here say that whatever impunity his children enjoyed may have evaporated.
Yet experience elsewhere in the world where other strongmen have fallen after amassing huge fortunes shows that toppling a longtime autocrat is sometimes easier, and faster, than retrieving his hidden wealth.
In the Philippines, for example, the late dictator Ferdinand E. Marcos was overthrown in the region's first "people power" revolution 12 years ago, but the global efforts to track down and seize the estimated billions of dollars he looted from the national treasury still have not come to a conclusion. The Philippines' new president-elect, Joseph Estrada, has said that when he takes over at the end of June, he will shut down the hunt, probably by seeking settlements for the amounts still in dispute.
Corazon Aquino, who took over from Marcos, created a government body called the Presidential Commission on Good Government to track the wealth of Marcos and his cronies. Danilo Daniel, the commission's finance director, said the panel so far has recovered about $1 billion in surrendered assets, and properties worth nearly a half-billion dollars more.
In addition, the Philippines in 1991 was the first country to win a court case against Swiss banks allowing it to seize secret accounts, but only after the Marcos family is finally convicted of fraud. The money in Swiss banks is now $540 million, with interest, and is being kept in escrow pending the outcome of various legal wranglings.
Daniel said he thinks the effort is worth the expense of costly legal fees because the amount recovered so far has given the Philippine government a budget surplus for the last few years.
In Indonesia, retrieving the wealth of the Suharto children may prove even more difficult. One problem here is that much of their money is invested in companies that are publicly listed on the Jakarta Stock Exchange. "Do you destroy these companies just to get at the kids?" a diplomat asked. "And what about the rest of the shareholders?"
Some financial analysts said that even if a future Indonesian government decided to seize the children's assets in publicly listed companies, minority shareholders likely would be unaffected.
One view is that if left alone, the Suharto children will fall victim to market forces. And even after the crisis eases, they will have lost their connection to the presidential palace, and thus their ability to make new money.
"Firstly, they won't get any new contracts," said Australian academic Harold Crouch, an Indonesia expert. "Many of their businesses are virtually bankrupt now. Their only asset is their father. What foreign investor will go into business with them now?"
© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company