Indonesia's Suharto: a complex legacy

The former dictator, who died Sunday, ruled with a strong hand for 32 years.

Aladin Abdel Naby/Reuters/FILE
Suharto: The former Indonesian president boosted the economy.
Irwin Ferdiansyah/AP
An era closes: Jakarta residents watched news Sunday of the death of former President Suharto.

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.

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.

"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."

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.

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