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  •   Suharto Wealth Fuels Investigative Frenzy

    By Cindy Shiner
    Special to The Washington Post
    Saturday, June 6, 1998; Page A13

    JAKARTA, Indonesia, June 5—From a noisy green tollbooth on the Winyoto highway, 26-year-old Yanto can pull in the equivalent of his daily salary in less than five minutes, collecting 30 cents a car. After half an hour, he has gathered an amount equal to a month's pay from the outstretched hands of the drivers.

    The toll road, which is owned by former president Suharto's eldest daughter, Siti Harjanti Rukmana, known as Tutut, brings in at least $40,000 a month. Yanto takes home $60.

    "The most important thing to me is to be able to work and make money," said Yanto, explaining why he continues to toil for someone as reviled as Suharto's daughter, and noting how the economic crisis that eventually led to Suharto's downfall has made it difficult for him to afford rice and other basic foods because of price hikes.

    The ever-widening earnings gap between people like Yanto and Tutut has unleashed a frenzy of investigations of Suharto, his children and their cronies, who amassed tens of billions of dollars over the past three decades of corrupt and nepotistic rule. Tutut made much of her money on the toll roads knotted around Jakarta that have come to symbolize the Hydra-like Suharto family empire.

    About 30 students demonstrated today at a toll road, carrying placards saying that paying the toll enriches the Suharto family. Police stood by as the students waved cars past the booths.

    "It's good. It's part of reform," a bus driver said. "We have to support the students and make all the tolls free."

    Economic hardship, sparked by a plunge in the currency last July, has fueled popular passion for retribution. The Indonesian press, attorneys and politicians are clamoring to reveal the financial abuses of the Suharto era while pushing for political and economic reforms that will ensure a future free of favoritism and fraud. Three local magazines ran cover stories this week featuring portraits of Suharto relatives and cronies on bank notes and bearing headlines such as "Family Business."

    Digging up information on the more than 1,000 businesses Suharto and his six children control is a massive undertaking -- one that foreign investors and some Indonesians fear could prevent the country from moving ahead fast enough to prevent social unrest and economic chaos.

    "The fury directed against Suharto, stoked by the almost daily reports uncovering his huge business empire, may run out of control to the degree that people may look to take the law into their own hands," the Jakarta Post said in an editorial Thursday.

    "We cannot afford this kind of frenzy because it would literally affect just about every sector in the economy, since it is being discovered that Surharto's family and cronies are engaged in businesses ranging from satellite communications, power, toll roads and document printing to oil and gas, transportation, food, pharmaceuticals, petrochemicals and plantations, to name just a few," the editorial said.

    The attorney general's office announced this week that it would investigate Suharto's wealth, but few here expect a sincere effort, because the attorney general, Sudjono Atmonegoro, was appointed by Suharto.

    "We are already all too familiar with the utterly poor record of the attorney general's office in pursuing corruption cases," the Jakarta Post said. "It was, after all, subordinated to the wishes of Suharto during his more than 32 years in power."

    Such skepticism has prompted the formation of at least two organizations to conduct inquiries into the Suharto family fortune. Indonesian Corruption Watch and Concerned Citizens for Public Assets are drawing on the expertise of lawyers, accountants and political scientists to peruse thousands of documents that they hope will shed light on how Suharto, his children and their cronies enriched themselves.

    Nor will President B. J. Habibie, who was Suharto's protege, be spared. He and his relatives have engaged in numerous lucrative business dealings over the years.

    "I think if he wants to get rid of this corruption, collusion and nepotism from the business practices, he will have to look into his own problems, his own house, and urge the other ministers to look into their own houses," said Mulya Lubis, a lawyer and chairman of Indonesian Corruption Watch.

    The fervor to dismantle the country's corporate structure has foreign companies worried that the economy, which is already sluggish because of recent political turmoil, will grind to a halt and further delay recovery. The companies, including several American multinationals, will have to readjust their approach to the Indonesian style of business to which they had grown accustomed -- namely, figuring out whom to trust now that Suharto's children and their cronies are under a cloud and how to conclude contracts without veiled payoffs, especially when negotiations hit a snag.

    "That's when you called those guys in, when you had an Indonesian problem," a foreign banker said.

    "Everybody knew how much it cost to get anything done," the banker said. "It was amazing. It was a price which you always put into a project -- 'This is how much my project costs, and this is how much corruption costs' -- so you could make your budget."

    Some Indonesians blame foreign companies for fueling corruption over the years, but fear that forcing them to renegotiate their contracts would drive them away at a time when foreign investment is needed the most.

    Lubis said foreign companies should have the "good faith" to renegotiate contracts to help foster a clean and transparent business atmosphere in Indonesia.

    He said Corruption Watch was setting up a post office box to receive information from the public on financial abuses, and if enough evidence is uncovered, the group will push the Habibie government to try to seize the Suharto family's assets abroad.

    "Succession in Indonesia is not just a matter of changing one person, but a matter of changing a system, an oligarchic system," said George Aditjondro, who teaches the sociology of corruption at Newcastle University in Australia.

    He fled Indonesia four years ago, fearing arrest for his criticism of the Suharto family, and said he hopes to return here soon, with his new passport, to work on exposing financial abuses of the Suharto era.


    © Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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