A three-cornered court battle over a dead man's fortune has resurrected charges of widespread corruption among Indonesia's ruling military elite.
But for the first time the charges have been made in court and name Indonesia's President Suharto and his controversial wife, Tien.
Among other claims, documents filed in Singapore High Court contend that Suharto received kickbacks on military arms purchases from Israel and West Germany and that the taking of commissions from government contracts was not only common among Indonesian officials, but "lawful."
The charges were spelled out in documents filed by Kartika Ratna Thahir, widow of a former executive of the state-owned Pertamina Oil Co., Haji Achmad Thahir.
Indonesians have always suspected that officials in influential government and military positions supplemented their salaries by taking pungli, an Indonesian acronym for illegal fees. Thahir's death on July 23, 1976 spawned a scramble for his wealth that revealed just how large a fortune could be made in government.
Although his official Pertamina salary amounted to the equivalent of about $9,000 annually, court documents reveal Thahir left behind bank accounts worth $80 million.
Within four days of her husband's death, Mrs. Thahir managed to withdraw all but $35.8 million left in the Singapore branch of Japan's Sumitomo Bank. Two sons of one of Thahir's earlier wives also staked a claim to the money and the dispute went to court.
The Indonesian government entered the court battle in 1977 claiming the money should revert to Pertamina. Pertamina lawyers charged that Thahir amassed his fortune in an "illegal manner" and by "abusing his power over negotiations, the making and implementation of various contracts, loans and projects covering hundreds of millions of dollars."
In court briefs filed in May this year, Pertamina provided evidence that Thahir made most of his money from what it termed "illegal payments" on a $2 billion contract to construct a steel plant. Pertamina claimed the West German firms of Siemens AG and Kloeckner Industries Anlagen GmbH paid Tharir 5 percent of the price of each contract they received for the plant.
Ironically, in entering the legal battle, the Indonesian government publicly admitted that high-level corruption has occurred in Suharto's administration.
Mrs. Thahir's attorneys have attempted to turn that point to her advantage in the most recent court briefs filed this month. They said her late husband took commissions from company contracts with full knowledge of his boss, former Pertamina president and director Ibnu Sutowo, and President Suharto.
"It was at all material times usual and lawful for high-ranking officials of [Pertamina] and its subsidiaries to supplement their very small salaries by remittance deriving from [Pertamina's] contractors," Mrs. Thahir's file said.
Her briefs went on to point out that everybody, including the president, engaged in the practice. Her court document said that in June 1978 she was told by "the chief of Indonesian security Gen. Benny Moerdani that he received respectively 5 percent and 7 percent of the purchase price . . . of arms purchases he [Moerdani] effected on behalf of the Indonesian government in Israel and Germany and remitted such commissions to the president of Indonesia."
The statement did not say how much those commissions amounted to, but they could be damaging to Suharto, who rules a country that has no diplomatic relations with Israel and is 95 percent Moslem.
Other statements filed by Mrs. Thahir in the Singapore High Court contended her husband funneled funds to Suharto's wife for construction of the "beautiful Indonesia in minature" cultural and amusement park on Jakarta's outskirts.
The documents said the late Thahir acted as Madame Tien's personal "treasurer," twice buying her diamond rings in Singapore worth a combined $68,000.
Mrs. Thahir also went on to detail the long-held belief that the Suharto family had close business ties with Jakarta Tycoon Liem Sioe Lions, another potentially damaging claim in view of traditional Indonesia hostility to local Chinese. Liem acted as Suharto's "personal adviser" and would have informed him of the Thahir finances, the court briefs said.
The Indoesian government initially barred news of Mrs. Thahir's charges and banned an issue of the Asian Wall Street Journal that carried two stories about the case.
But a concerned Suharto put his attorney general on national television Sunday night to deny all the charges and announce the government would try to bring Mrs. Thahir, who is believed to be living in Austria, back to Jakarta to face possible charges of slander and insulting the president.
Indonesian journalists interpreted the broadcast as a signal to air the story and put banner headlines on the attorney general's denials, but they rounded out their reports by detailing many of the charges contained in Mrs. Thahirs court documents.
The head of the national security agency apparently felt the newspapers went too far and called in Indonesian editors for a warning Tuesday afternoon.
Mrs. Thahir's court files offered little evidence for her charges except her own knowledge of behind-the-scenes activities in Indonesia's financial circles. The respected Indonesian newsmagazine, Tempo, noted that her late husband could not speak English and that Mrs. Thahir possibly acted as his interpreter in many of his negotiations with foreign companies.
In light of the Singapore court battle, pressure has mounted on the Indonesian government to clear the air surrounding Pertamina. While Thahir was building his fortune, Pertamina went $10.5 billion in debt, nearly bankrupting the country in 1976.
A consortium of foreign banks has helped the State Bank of Indonesia reduce the debt and rebuild Pertamina's finances and reputation. But while Sutowo was ousted as president, he has never been brought to trial for his part in the financial debacle and maintains his luxurious life style in a Jakarta mansion.
Sutowo had denied knowing of Thahir's practice of obtaining commissions on contracts for his bank account, but Mrs. Thahir claimed Sutowo even kept some of the money in a bank in which Sutowo was a major shareholder.
Tempo magazine claimed relations between Sutowa and Thahir were so close they "kept no secrets from each other," and had offices separated only by a revolving door which Thahir passed through when he wanted to use the former bank president's private toilet.
Members of parliament, including some from Suharto's own ruling Solkar faction, have demanded to be allowed to question Sutowo. But the government has not required him to appear.
The head of one parliamentary commission, Soedardji, said if a second-level official like Thahir could build such a huge fortune, he wondered how much was being siphoned off by the heads of other government corporations and agencies.
A parlimentary commission last month also received no response to its call for government to create an independent commission to investigate the Pertamina affair fully and make all its findings public.
"We want to find whether former Pertamina president-director Ibnu Sutowo is a corruptor or a hero," said the speaker of parliment Daryatmo.
The allegations of corruption come at a time of mounting opposition to the Suharto regime. Fifty prominent government and military officials recently signed a petition critical of the president. Dissident Moslems and student groups have also thrown their support behind the petition.
The government retaliated with claims it had uncovered a plot to assassinate Suharto and dozens of his aides and that a terrorist organization affiliatd with the Japanese "Red Army" had been discovered recruiting on university campuses.
The corruption charges may bolster support for movements attempting to rally opposition to reelection of Suharto in 1982.
The court battle over Thahir's fortune only recently became public but has dragged on for nearly four years. The Singapore High Court is expected to hear the case later this year.