Military man was Indonesia’s longest-serving leader

  • Nation
  • Monday, 28 Jan 2008

HAJI Mohammed Suharto was the second and longest-serving president of the Republic of Indonesia. 

He was born in 1921 in the impoverished village of Kemusuk near Yogyakarta in Central Java. Differing accounts of his childhood add to a sense of mystique in his early years. 

From a troubled family background, he joined the Dutch military academy. As a youth he bore witness to the Second World War and the Indonesian National Revolution, changing sides repeatedly until he identified with Indonesian nationalists. 

Suharto worked briefly as a bank clerk before joining the Royal Netherlands East Indies Army in 1940. He then studied at a Dutch-administered military academy in Gombong, in a Dutch effort to recruit locals to face the rise of Imperial Japan. 

After Suharto was promoted to sergeant, Japan invaded. Then when the Dutch surrendered, he deserted and joined the Japanese occupation force where he became assistant police inspector. 

He then joined the local Japan-sponsored militia, where he learned the importance of intelligence-gathering that would later prove invaluable in politics. When Japan surrendered, he took on the mantle of nationalist to evict the Japanese. 

Returning Dutch forces and the fledgling Indonesian nationalist movement clashed. Suharto remained with the nationalists where he proved his military capabilities. 

Suharto rose in the ranks, but lacked the education, grasp of Western languages and anti-imperialist background of the civilian elite like nationalist leader Sukarno. Nonetheless, his battles against the Dutch after his tutoring by Japanese officials bolstered his anti-colonial sentiment. 

In the 1950s, Col Suharto’s army unit was based in Java where he befriended leading businessmen. He was implicated in a corruption scandal in 1959 and transferred. 

By 1965, Gen Suharto was based in Jakarta, in the right-wing camp of an Indonesian army that had split between left and right. Several generals were kidnapped and killed, Suharto rose in prominence, while leftists, Sukarno loyalists, Sukarno himself and ethnic Chinese were targeted. 

Up to a million Indonesians were killed on an anti-communist witch-hunt, with a hit list provided by the CIA. Millions of ethnic Chinese were also slaughtered in 1965 as part of a wider anti-Chinese campaign by Suharto. 

A power struggle between generals saw Suharto expanding his reach, while a weakened President Sukarno tried to cling to power. In the confusion, Sukarno declared an emergency in 1966 and transferred most of his powers to Suharto. 

The following year Sukarno lost his remaining power as Suharto was named Acting President. In March 1968, Suharto formally became president. 

By then he had shifted Sukarno’s ties with China towards the West and joined other regional leaders to form Asean.  

Suharto’s Orde Baru (New Order) regime was a centralised, authoritarian system based on the will and whims of one man – himself. 

The new regime was open for business to Western agencies, both economic and political. Foreign investment grew, higher incomes were generated and economic growth followed. 

The opportunities for corruption likewise flourished, with funds channelled to various foundations controlled by Suharto’s cronies. After students protested against corruption in 1970, Suharto banned the protests. 

Then when Portugal abandoned its colony in East Timor in 1975, Indonesian forces and their proxies moved in and killed some 200,000 people.  

The following year Aceh demanded independence, and again Suharto ordered troops to put down the rebellion. 

In 1996, the Indonesian Democratic Party led by Megawati Sukarnoputri, Sukarno’s daughter, became increasingly critical of Suharto. He manoeuvred to remove her from the party, but by then his powers were on the wane. 

The Asian financial crisis the following year heightened pressures within Indonesian society. When the government further angered the poor by raising fuel prices, street demonstrations and IMF conditionalities acted in 1998 to put Suharto out to pasture. 

Removed from power, charges of corruption and human rights violations returned to haunt Suharto. In a 32-year presidency he had embezzled up to an unprecedented US$35bil (RM114bil), according to Transparency International. 

Whenever Suharto was to be hauled to court, his publicists would issue another medical advisory that failing health prevented him from making an appearance. In recent weeks however, reports of his deteriorating health seemed to emerge on their own.  

Suharto had repeatedly been admitted to hospital where doctors said his condition was critical because of multiple organ failure. He died in hospital yesterday after lapsing into a coma. 

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