Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono has declared a national week of mourning after former long-term president Suharto finally died today following a long illness. The 86 year old Suharto was admitted to hospital on 4 January with failing kidneys, hearts and lungs. Doctors prolonged his life through dialysis and a ventilator, but he stopped breathing on his own overnight before slipping into a coma today. He died of multiple organ failure. Suharto dominated Indonesian politics from his accession to power in 1967 until he was forced to resign in 1998. While Indonesia mourns the passing of a respected leader who improved the country’s standing in world affairs, the reaction in the rest of the world is likely to be more mixed reflecting Suharto’s long, brutal and graft-ridden regime.
Suharto grew up in central Java and was trained in the military by the Japanese during their occupation of the Dutch East Indies in World War II. He then fought the Dutch at the end of the war and served in the new national army after independence in 1950. He rose though the ranks to be one of the most senior military leaders by the mid 1960s. In 1965 Suharto began the process of a brutal seizure of power from Indonesia’s first president Sukarno with the help of the CIA after the Americans believed Sukarno’s so-called “guided democracy” was leading the country down a likely Communist path. In the purges that follow, somewhere between 300,000 and million suspected Communist supporters were murdered on Suharto’s orders. Sukarno was finally stripped of power in 1967 and Suharto was elected president a year later.
Suharto ruled with in totalitarian fashion and posted soldiers in every village. On economic matters, he relied on a group of American-educated economists, nicknamed the "Berkeley Mafia," to set policy. Together they succeeded in delivering at least 7 percent annual economic growth for three decades. He initiated a successful family planning program that, unlike China, did not rely on coercion. The Indonesian economy was opened up to foreign investment, and became a darling of the World Bank and at the International Monetary Fund. Yet Suharto and his children also built up assets estimated at $30 billion in 1989.
Suharto was finally undone by the Asian financial crisis of 1997. In early 1998 he was re-elected president seventh time unopposed. This time Jakarta erupted with pro-democracy riots. 2,000 people were killed and 5,000 buildings were destroyed in Java and Sumatra. Troops secured the airport and government offices and schools were closed while 30,000 students occupied the government buildings. Suharto attempted to face down the protesters. However General Wiranto stepped in and urged him to reconsider. Finally the wave of domestic and international pressure told and Suharto reluctantly stood aside. Suharto retired to a family compound in Central Jakarta, making few public appearances.
The Indonesian military has guaranteed the safety of the Suharto family and its ill-gotten gains of tens of billions of dollars. Armed forces commander and then Minister of Defence Wiranto gave the guarantee to the family when Suharto gave up the presidency in 1998 and it has been honoured by all his successors. Despite his departure, the Suharto family continued to lead the predator class along with its corporate and banking cronies. They operated a system of “plunder by corruption” aided and abetted by senior bureaucrats, state industry executives, police, army generals and a “court mafia” of compliant judges, prosecutors and officials.
Under the reformasi program of President Wahid, Suharto’s son Hutomo (known as Tommy) went to jail for ten years for arranging the murder of a judge who sentenced him to eighteen months for his role in a land scam in September 2000. Also in 2000, Suharto himself was placed under house arrest while authorities investigated his regime’s corruption. But Suharto was saved when court-appointed doctors announced that he could not stand trial because of his declining health. State prosecutors tried again in 2002 but then doctors cited an unspecified brain disease. The last few years have been a long slow decline interspersed with continual legal wrangling.