Indonesia's Suharto: a complex legacy
The former dictator, who died Sunday, ruled with a strong hand for 32 years.
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"He had a very no-nonsense approach to crises. He just got on and got the job done," says Mohammad Sadli, a former energy minister under Suharto. "At least, he did in the beginning."Skip to next paragraph
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Poverty fell from 60 percent in 1966 to 15 percent in 1990. Indonesia achieved self-sufficiency in rice production and achieved near-universal enrollment of primary school children. Life expectancy, say demographers, rose by some 20 percent from 1968 to 1990.
Turning his back on the anti-Westernism of his predecessor Sukarno, Suharto welcomed Western capital and liberalized investment rules. He built a highly centralized state, focusing power in the hands of trusted allies, the military, and most of all, himself. He tolerated little dissent, jailing critics, and often allowed the military a free hand to brutally suppress separatists in provinces such as Aceh, Papua, and East Timor, which broke away in 1999.
According to Robert Elson, an Australian biographer of Suharto, "He was deeply involved in the creation of modern Indonesia ... but he was ruthless, and on occasion, murderous."
Suharto's attitudes toward leadership, says Mr. Elson, were formed in a military career that included service under the colonial Dutch and Japanese armies. Suharto organized militias, did intelligence work, and fought the Dutch in the war of independence from 1945-49.
His rise to power was opaque, decisive, and bloody. He put down a botched putsch in 1965 by mid-level officers that was blamed on the Beijing-backed Communist Party, which then counted some 3 million members. It was crushed in reprisal attacks led by Army-assisted civilian militias.
Between 300,000 and 1 million died in what the CIA called "one of the worst mass murders of the 20th century." Many more were jailed for years without trial and their families tainted by association. Ethnic Chinese also suffered as ties with Beijing were cut; Chinese-language materials were outlawed.
Suharto then eased aside his predecessor, the left-leaning Sukarno, and declared a "New Order" that demonized Communism. Within a few years, Indonesia rejoined the UN that Sukarno had exited in anger in 1965 and became a founding member of the anticommunist Association of Southeast Asian Nations. His reward was corporate investment and US military aid that became a bedrock of the regime.
Many of Indonesia's powerful figures once owed favors to the man who ruled for so long. Some floated the idea of putting him on trial and then pardoning him afterward. Few observers are likely to have been surprised that after 10 years, he evaded the courts to the end.
•Simon Montlake contributed to this report.