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Last Updated: Sunday, 27 January 2008, 06:36 GMT
The lasting legacy of Suharto
By Jonathan Head
South East Asia correspondent, BBC News

Former Indonesian President Suharto at celebrations for his 86th birthday (08/06/2007)
Suharto gave himself the title Father of Development
If Suharto, who has died at the age of 86, had the kind of pumped-up ego we usually associate with powerful politicians, he never let it show.

In fact he rarely betrayed any emotion.

In stark contrast to his fiery and extrovert predecessor Sukarno, Indonesia's first president, Suharto exuded a sense of calm detachment, his face an enigmatic mask that gave away little.

He kept himself aloof from foreigners and Indonesians alike, almost never granting interviews, only addressing the public sparingly in set-piece speeches which he delivered in a monotone mumble with all the charisma of a junior civil servant.

He left no statues of himself, no parks or roads were named after him, and only on special occasions did you see his face up on billboards, although in the last years of his rule it did appear on the largest-denomination banknote.

Indonesians often found it difficult to pin down what they felt about the man who had towered over their lives for so long.

For most he remained an opaque, distant figure.

They certainly feared him.

He preferred indirect methods to disable his opponents, but was prepared at times to unleash terrifying violence to defend his so-called New Order regime.


The bloodshed which accompanied his rise to power, after a mysterious coup attempt in 1965 which he blamed on Indonesia's then-powerful Communist Party, was on a scale matched only in Cambodia in this region.

Within the space of a few months at least half a million people were slaughtered in anti-communist pogroms that, at the very least, Suharto and the military tacitly encouraged.

Born in Java, June 1921
Comes to power in 1965 after alleged Communist coup attempt
Formally replaces Sukarno as president in March 1967
Modernisation programmes in the 70s and 80s raise living standards
East Timor invaded in late 1975
Asian economic crisis of the 1990s hits Indonesian economy
Spiralling prices and discontent force him to resign in May 1998
Judges rule he is unfit to stand trial for corruption in 2000
Transparency International says he tops the world all-time corruption table in March 2004

The trauma of that period scars Indonesia to this day, and was a key tool in Suharto's armoury.

The spectre of a communist revival was used time and again, right up to the end of his rule, to discredit dissidents, even though the party was completely destroyed in the 1960s.

In the wake of those killings, 200,000 people were detained, half of who remained in prison for more than a decade, most without trial.

They included some of Indonesia's best-known artists and intellectuals.

But it was his ability to manipulate the fear left over from the 1960s which was Suharto's key talent.

He created a network of intelligence agencies whose job it was to sniff out any dissent before it could gain momentum.

Two million people were officially tainted with left wing associations right through to the 1990s - that might just mean having had a grandparent connected in some way with the old Communist Party.

Such a taint could bar you from a government job, or a place at university.

His intelligence agencies proved adept at provoking incidents that gave them a pretext to crush incipient opposition, or at persuading opponents to switch sides.

The student movement was crushed in the 1970s, Islamic activists were either co-opted or jailed in a series of show trials in the 1980s, and independent media outlets were crippled in the mid-1990s.

Economic growth

Suharto had an unrivalled political cunning, an unerring instinct for wrong-footing possible rivals.

But he also carried with him the mindset formed by his small-town upbringing, and believed the mass of the rural poor should be disconnected from politics, and focus only on improving their lives.

His preferred title was revealing - Bapak Pembangunan, meaning "father of development".

His approach to ruling the country was as a stern but benevolent father, who enjoyed dispensing folksy advice and assistance to awe-struck farmers, but would brook no criticism.

It was an approach that delivered impressive stability and development, but at a price.

Hutomo "Tommy" Mandala Putra, the youngest son of Suharto, during a press conference in Jakarta (November 1998)
Suharto's son Tommy was jailed for ordering the killing of a judge

When he took over in 1966 the economy was in ruins, inflation out of control, and abject poverty was everywhere.

For the next three decades he steered Indonesia through a period of almost unbroken economic growth, improving its infrastructure, its agricultural and industrial output, and the living standards of most Indonesians.

But the oppressive political climate stifled intellectual development, and smothered attempts to address Indonesia's many ethnic and religious disputes, which then erupted after Suharto's downfall with great loss of life.

Suharto was also lucky. His accession to power coincided with the escalation of the Vietnam War, when the United States was desperate for reliable allies in the region and willing to turn a blind eye to his human rights record.

It also coincided with the first oil boom, which poured riches into the government's coffers.

This only fuelled the culture of patronage and corruption which was endemic in Suharto's paternalistic style of government.

It was one of his great blind spots, a corrosive drag on his economic achievements he never seemed to recognise.

He was notably weak in confronting the conflicts of interest surrounding his six children, who became spectacularly rich during the boom years of the 1980s and 90s.

Suharto himself lived modestly, but he surrounded himself with people who did not, and who flagrantly abused their access to him to become even richer.

Obscure retirement

Was he a great Asian leader? The many thousands of victims of his brutal purges would surely say no, and yet most Indonesians probably accepted his rule as largely beneficial right up to his last few years in power.

He enjoyed great respect in the rest of the region as a leader who had led Indonesia away from chaos and confrontation with its neighbours.

Had he felt able to step down a few years earlier, his reputation in his country would have been assured.

Student protesters celebrate Suharto's announcement of his retirement (21/05/1998)
Suharto's retirement was a cause for celebration for many

As his New Order began to show its age in the 1990s, there was much fevered speculation over how violent Suharto's departure would be, whether it would be as bad as Indonesia's only other experience of a power transfer in the mid-1960s.

Many saw Indonesia as another Yugoslavia, an unwieldy sprawl of islands and ethnic groups that was doomed to fall apart once Suharto's vice-like hold on power was loosened.

Yet, when finally confronted with overwhelming opposition in May 1998, he did not, as many feared, use the military to defend his regime, but instead accepted his defeat, and stepped back into obscure retirement.

After a shaky few years, Indonesia has developed into one of Asia's most lively democracies, and is enjoying strong economic growth again.

One look at nearby Burma, a country with some striking similarities, is enough to know how bad things could have been in Indonesia under different leadership.

The political career of Suharto

Indonesia ex-leader Suharto dies
27 Jan 08 |  Asia-Pacific
Life in pictures: Indonesia's Suharto
08 Jan 08 |  In Pictures
Suharto condition 'deteriorating'
08 Jan 08 |  Asia-Pacific
Suharto 'will give $67m to poor'
01 Nov 07 |  Asia-Pacific
Time vows to fight Suharto ruling
11 Sep 07 |  Asia-Pacific
Country profile: Indonesia
23 Aug 07 |  Country profiles

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