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Indonesia's Former President Suharto Dies


One of Southeast Asia's longest serving leaders, former president Suharto of Indonesia is dead at the age of 86 VOA's Nancy-Amelia Collins in Jakarta reviews the life of the controversial Indonesian leader.

Former Indonesian president Suharto was regarded by many as the leader who brought his country out of the depths of poverty, creating one of Southeast Asia's most dynamic economies. He is also credited with uniting an ethnically, culturally and geographically diverse population under a common flag and identity.

But to others, Mr. Suharto was seen as a dictatorial leader who flexed his political and military might with impunity to achieve that unity.

In many ways, the enigmatic President Suharto was the product of a classic Javanese upbringing, steeped in both Islam and mysticism.

He was born on June 8, 1921 in Java, the second son of 11 children of a local irrigation official. In keeping with Javanese custom, Suharto used only his given name, without a surname.

As a teenager, the young Suharto joined the Dutch colonial army. But after World War Two, he spent four years as a guerrilla soldier, fighting for Indonesia's independence from the Dutch.

When the Independent Republic of Indonesia was founded in August 1950, the 29 year-old Suharto was a lieutenant colonel. His military career was far from over.

In the early 1960's, Indonesia - under the rule of its first president, Sukarno - was embroiled in an intense power struggle. The military, the communists and an Islamic movement were all competing for political dominance. In September 1965, Suharto - at the time a relatively unknown general - appears to have been instrumental in crushing a communist-backed coup.

Following the failed coup, Mr. Suharto ordered a purge of all communists. That triggered a bloodbath that swept through the military, the media, the government and educational institutions. An estimated half a million Indonesians were killed in what some historians consider to be one of the most brutal examples of systematic killing in the 20th century.

By 1967, General Suharto was the obvious successor when President Sukarno was voted out of power after bringing Indonesia to the verge of bankruptcy.

With political turbulence behind him, President Suharto set out to pull Indonesia out of financial difficulty. And it worked - for almost 30 years. According to World Bank figures, his "New Order" government brought about economic growth rates of seven percent a year. The number of Indonesians below the poverty line was reduced from 70 percent of the population to 11 percent.

During this period, Mr. Suharto cultivated a reputation as a family man. But critics say his devotion went too far. He began awarding his wife and

children lucrative business deals and instituted the practice of cronyism that still plagues the country.

Mr. Suharto himself acknowledged some mistakes along they way.

He said that in transforming Indonesia, there might have been an occasional stumble - but that was something he never tried to hide.

When the national currency, the rupiah, collapsed in August 1997 during the Asian financial crisis, Indonesia's corporate and banking systems collapsed with it. That marked the beginning of the end for President Suharto.

Students took to the streets for months, demanding the president's resignation. Riots broke out after soldiers killed six student protesters. The situation spiraled out of control. In May 1998, Mr. Suharto stepped down.

Appearing on national television, President Suharto acknowledged he could no longer effectively govern.

Transitional leaders ushered in political reform measures. Political prisoners were released, restrictions on the media were lifted, and East Timor was allowed to vote for its independence.

But once Suharto's iron grip on the country was released, separatist movements in some provinces became more active. Sectarian violence broke out between Christians and Muslims in other areas, where tensions remain high.

In 1999, Indonesia's first democratically elected leader, President Abdurrahman Wahid, tried to hold Mr. Suharto accountable for the alleged corruption that marked his administration. But courts ruled Mr. Suharto was too sick by that time to stand trial.

Indonesia struggled for several years after Mr. Suharto left the scene, but in the past few years, there has been steady economic growth. In 2004, the country held its freest elections in decades, and in 2005 brought Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono to office in the country's first direct presidential elections.

Democracy seems to be taking firm root and the military has lost some of the power it held under Mr. Suharto's rule, although his legacy of pervasive corruption remains firmly entrenched.

The country has faced separatist violence in several areas now that Mr. Suharto's iron grip is gone. Mr. Yudhoyono's government successfully negotiated a peace treaty in the northern province of Aceh in August 2005, ending nearly three decades of conflict there. But in the province of Papua, separatist violence continues to grow - an outgrowth of a widely discredited vote to join Indonesia in 1969 by a group handpicked by the Suharto government.

Indonesia is a secular country with the world's largest population of Muslims. Since the downfall of Mr. Suharto and the growth of democracy, the country has also seen the rise of a small but very violent movement of Islamic extremists.

Since 2002, Indonesia has been hit by a series of terrorist bombings blamed on the regional terrorist group Jemaah Islamiyah, including the 2002 Bali bombing that claimed 202 lives.

With the country facing separatist, terrorist and communal violence, some analysts suggest Mr. Suharto's legacy could be the disintegration of the Indonesia he worked so hard to control.

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