Suharto: Twilight of the God

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Maya Vidon / AFP / Getty

The modern-day visitor to the thousand-year-old temple complex of Prambanan in central Java may be surprised by sculptures with a familiar face or, rather, a familiar smile. And suddenly comes the revelation: the slightly bemused yet severely serene expression on every face of the antique gods of Java, the heart of what has become Indonesia, was perfected by a 20th century general who would rule the country for more than 30 years, as if he himself were a god with the right to parcel out prosperity and peace, a heaven-sent arbiter of life and death. Even after he was forced to relinquish power, Suharto dwelt among his countrymen as if invulnerable to mortal retribution, as if Indonesia could not act against the man who was once its infallible, singular autocrat. When he died on Sunday, January 27 in Jakarta, at the age of 86, the islands of Indonesia shuddered.

The years since a popular uprising forced him to resign the presidency have not brought Indonesia quiet. The predominantly Muslim country's Islamic extremists, long repressed by Suharto's military, came roaring to life, some finding common cause with al-Qaeda, fomenting attacks not once but twice on Indonesia's paradaisical enclave of Bali — the last refuge of the islands' old Hindu gods.

Stability had been Suharto's gift to his country. He had come to power at the head of a junta of generals in 1965, overthrowing the country's flamboyant and charismatic first president, Sukarno, whose friendship with Beijing and predeliction for Communists in the government had brought the country to the brink of economic collapse and civil war. Ensconced in power, Suharto proceeded to purge the country of Communism and anyone suspected of Communist sympathy. No one knows how many died. One estimate has it at 500,000 — among them many Indonesians of Chinese descent. The Communist Party was outlawed and Indonesian citizens banned from having Chinese names.

The result was a cowed and pacified country ruled by a new President —Suharto — with a practiced beatific smile, anti-Communist credentials which a Cold War–obsessed America would reward, a secular philosophy that tamped down religious extremism, and a military that no one could question. He brought an end to the hyperinflation of Sukarno's reign and eradicated the country's widespread hunger by establishing Indonesian self-sufficiency in rice. Stability attracted billions of dollars in foreign investment. "Suharto built Indonesia and we have him to thank for modern buildings, ports and harbors," says Kuntoro Mangkusubroto, a former mines and energy minister under Suharto. "He has made mistakes, and there were consequences for many, but he used that centralistic form of government to build things as fast as possible."

But the new Indonesia also made it possible for a small group of Suharto family members and cronies to earn billions of dollars from monopolies on everything from cars to cloves. Foundations set set up during the New Order regime, as his reign was known, are alleged by anti-corruption watchdogs to have amassed billions of dollars. The Suharto family's wealth was estimated by TIME in 1999 at $15 billion. Transparency International, a group monitoring government corruption around the world, reported his personal wealth at closer to $35 billion.

Meanwhile, the regime brooked no opposition. Behind the President's smile were very sharp teeth. Student activists would vanish, dissident writers and journalists jailed. Thousands were killed in Aceh, where a separatist rebellion simmered for 29 years; and more than 200,000 are believed to have perished in East Timor after Indonesia invaded the tiny Portuguese enclave in 1975. (East Timor has since established its independence from Indonesia.)

But economic cataclysm struck in 1997 and, in spite of all of Suharto's soldiers and all of his money, Indonesia was inundated by the Asian financial crisis. Currency speculation had led to the collapse of Thailand's currency, which started a chain of events that swamped Indonesia's rupiah. The devaluation sent company profits dramatically downward; Jakarta's stock market crashed. Food prices spiked upwards, leading to rioting in the streets and the death of perhaps hundreds of people clamoring for food in the capital. The country's divisions re-emerged: Muslims vs. non-Muslims; Malay-Indonesians vs. Chinese-Indonesians; secular Muslims vs. orthodox Muslims. The ghosts of the old Indonesia that Suharto thought he had exorcised had returned to haunt the country.

Instability now led the repressed opposition to gain an audience not just with the besieged middle class but among the military and Suharto's own ruling Golkar party as well. He exacerbated the crisis by hubristically reminding the country of his mandate, running for reelection in March 1998 — unopposed, as was his practice. The country would have none of it. Once street demonstrations and riots started, Suharto could not stay in power without causing bloody chaos. He resigned in May 1998.

After the overthrow, Suharto spent most of his time living at home with his family in an upscale neighborhood in central Jakarta even as allegations of ill-gotten wealth percolated through the press. Citing declining health and diminished mental capacity, Suharto managed to stay out of court despite a 1998 legislative decree ordering an investigation in all corruption, collusion and nepotism charges involving Suharto. He was constantly in and out of hospitals after suffering strokes and undergoing kidney dialysis.

When it became clear that he would not survive the latest hospitalization, the new rulers of the archipelago came to pay homage and to pray for his recovery. The Golkar party, which Suharto founded and retains the largest bloc in parliament, called for all pending graft charges —pending for a decade now — be dropped. As the ex-strongman lay dying, the health minister instructed all hospitals to provide their best equipment to Pertamina hospital, where Suharto was being treated. But after three weeks, he died of multiple organ failure. He will be buried next to his wife in the central Java city of Solo. It is not clear what will happen to the civil suit brought against him by Indonesia's attorney general for allegedly siphoning off more than $1.4 billion from one of the many foundations set up during his rule.

An era of democracy has now replaced Suharto's despotic rule. And yet, he leaves behind an edifice as sturdy as that millennium-old temple in Prambanan. The way things are done in Indonesia is the system of patronage he set up and it remains firmly in place to this day.
With Howard Chua-Eoan/New York