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Thursday, 28 September, 2000, 09:02 GMT 10:02 UK
Rise and fall of strongman Suharto
Suharto resigns
May 1998: End of the line for Suharto, but his legacy lives on
By Asia analyst Alice Donald

The dramatic resignation of President Suharto on 21 May 1998 brought to an end the longest period of one-man rule in modern South-East Asian history.

Troops on the streets: Violent protests marked the end of the Suharto regime
The former general had been in continuous political command of Indonesia for more than 30 years, and a generation had grown up which knew no other leader.

Mr Suharto came to power in the aftermath of an abortive coup in 1965 - the exact circumstances of which have never been fully explained.

The official explanation is that it was a Communist-inspired putsch which failed - a version of events which was used as the justification for the mass-scale slaughter of up to one-million suspected Communist sympathisers.

Having emerged from relative obscurity, General Suharto carefully set about grasping the reigns of power

The anti-Communist message was continuously reinforced throughout the Suharto era as a central plank of his legitimacy.

There are convincing accounts - still not publicly acknowledged in Indonesia - that the coup attempt of 1965 was in fact an internal army affair.

According to this version, one group of officers moved against another, and was in turn put down by a third faction led by a then little-known military figure from central Java, Major-General Suharto.

Myths and rumour

Panic buying
The impact of Asia's economic crisis brought an end to the Suharto regime
Having emerged from relative obscurity, General Suharto carefully set about grasping the reigns of power, and eventually in March 1967 he was installed as president.

Mr Suharto's own role in the events of 1965 is still shrouded in myths and rumour.

Certainly his subsequent actions displayed a political astuteness and pragmatism that became one of the hallmarks of his rule.

Suharto's own role in the events of 1965 is still shrouded in myths and rumour

The confusion also enabled him to camouflage his political manoeuvres and to fashion an image as the "father of the nation".

He readily played on his humble rural roots as a farmer's son and his role in the independence movement against the Dutch, which some historians say he conveniently exaggerated.

Over three decades, President Suharto and his New Order regime transformed Indonesia.

Opposition barred

A pretence of democracy but Suharto ensured there could be no effective opposition
His rule was founded on economic success, bolstered by a political system which displayed some trappings of democracy whilst ensuring that there could be no effective opposition.

During the Suharto era, Indonesia joined the exclusive ranks of oil-producing countries and used the revenue to implement ambitious development plans, crafted by Western-educated technocrats.

Indonesia's industrial base expanded, foreign trade was liberalised, living standards rose, and export-driven growth was virtually unchecked.

The stink of nepotism and corruption around the Suharto government grew as he began promoting avaricious relatives and business cronies to the cabinet

Occasional bouts of anti-government unrest and separatist struggles across the archipelago were successfully crushed and Mr Suharto skilfully managed the faction-ridden armed forces on whose backs he rode to power.

However, challenges to his authoritarian rule gathered pace from the early 1990s.

The younger generation began to lament the stifling of political expression.

Latent rifts in the armed forces became harder to keep in check as the military sought to define its political role.

Muslim intellectuals, resentful at being excluded from the New Order, sought to revive Islam as a political force and began looking for a successor to the ageing president.

1998 protests - Jakarta students get the message across
And the stink of nepotism and corruption around the Suharto government grew as he began promoting avaricious relatives and business cronies to the cabinet.

It was the economic collapse of 1997 which sealed the president's fate.

The devaluation of the baht in Thailand triggered a region-wide economic convulsion which dragged Indonesia down with it.

The social inequalities which had resulted from the decades of economic growth were laid bare.

Fall from grace

On 21 May 1998, President Suharto resigned, just two months after he had been re-elected for a seventh term by the country's rubber-stamp legislature.

Jakarta skyline
Suharto's rule was founded on economic success
Key ministers had deserted him and on the streets outside parliament, student prostesters, who had acted as a lightning rod for change, wept with joy.

The ageing leader appeared baffled to the very end that his people had turned against him.

The Suharto legacy is still deeply embedded in Indonesia.

The current government has accused remnants of the armed forces still loyal to the former general of fomenting bloody unrest around the country.

Playing on anxieties

Indonesia has found it hard to steer away from the deep political grooves worn by the authoritarian Suharto regime and his predecessor, Sukarno.

Suharto's resignation was greeted with optimism but problems remain
In power, President Suharto consistently played on people's anxieties about social unrest, separatism and religious extremism to maintain his own grip on power and the overall domination of Java within the Indonesian archipelago.

Imbued with this philosophy, political leaders of all stripes are still afraid to make any sudden rupture with the past.

To be charged with corruption represented a deep humiliation for the ailing former strongman and his opponents welcomed the dramatic symbol of his fall from grace.

Many argue, though, that Mr Suharto should have been put on trial not for his financial dealings but for the human rights abuses committed under his rule.

But when judges dismissed the corruption case against Suharto after independent doctors pronounced him permanently unfit for trial, it left another period of Indonesia's past yet to be confronted.

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