Indonesia's Suharto: a complex legacy
The former dictator, who died Sunday, ruled with a strong hand for 32 years.
Indonesia will never see former President Suharto, who died Sunday, face a courtroom and receive the crisp judgment of the law. Instead, Indonesians must decide how history will judge the complex legacy of the man who ruled them for 32 years.Skip to next paragraph
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Suharto held sway over this multiethnic archipelago through guile, cunning, patronage, and cruelty from 1966 to 1998, leaving mixed emotions among Indonesia's 230 million people and a legacy of virulent anticommunism that had a major impact on the region and fostered close ties with the US.
"He was 50 percent good and 50 percent bad," says Thee Kian Wie, a historian.
Some point to Suharto's economic achievements, saying he built roads, schools, and health clinics in thousands of poor villages, and lifted millions out of poverty. "Life was better then, peaceful, easier to make a crust," said Sintha Wati, who sells goods alongside a fetid canal in Jakarta.
Others remember a military-backed strongman who enriched his friends and family and left Indonesia in chaos amid the Asian financial crisis in 1998. "Rice was cheap, streets were peaceful, but people were scared," said Bembenk, a young clerk.
Even former victims have talked of forgiving Suharto, whom corruption watchdog Transparency International accuses of siphoning off $15 billion of state funds. "As a man, I forgive him," said A.M. Fatwa, an Islamic leader imprisoned under Suharto's government, to reporters, "but not his system of power."
To the West and the United States, Suharto's fierce anticommunism made him a reliable ally. The US had close military ties to Indonesia in the 1970s and 1980s. The US and Australian governments were aware of Suharto's plans to invade and occupy East Timor in 1975. The US only broke off ties with Indonesia after a massacre at a cemetery in East Timor in 1991. Full military ties were restored in 2005.
President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono declared a week of mourning for Suharto ahead of a large state funeral. For weeks, former leaders such as Lee Kuan Yew of Singapore and Mahatir Mohamad of Malaysia have lined up to pay respects.
Criminal charges against Suharto on corruption for embezzling more than $600 million were dropped last year on the grounds of poor health. On Jan. 8, four days after he was hospitalized, the civil case continued in a court in central Jakarta. The attorney general charged Suharto with embezzling more than a billion dollars in charity funds through his foundations. A civil case against his family over alleged involvement may go ahead.
Economists credit Suharto with engineering an economic turnaround in the mid-1960s, which yielded an average of 7 percent economic growth until the mid-1990s. Suharto deployed a team of US-trained economists, the "Berkeley Mafia," to contain inflation of more than 600 percent.