Jun. 8, 1921-Jan. 27, 2008
Indonesian president


For a quarter of a century the fifth most populous nation in the world has been ruled by a complex and mystical figure who has been compared, to such diverse figures as Saddam Hussein, Ronald Reagan, and even an ancient Javanese king. After coming to power in Indonesia following the abortive coup against Sukarno in 1965, President Soeharto transformed his nation into a bastion of anti-Communism and a safe and attractive haven for foreign investment. As a leader of the Nonaligned Movement in Southeast Asia (of which he became chairman in 1992), he took advantage of the struggle between the superpowers by exacting financial and technical assistance from the West. In so doing, he developed Indonesia into a major oil producer. Amid the oil boom of the 1970s, Soeharto used the windfall profits to improve agriculture, transportation, and health care in remote parts of the far-flung archipelago and made Indonesia self-sufficient in the production of rice for the first time. When oil revenue began to dry up in the 1980s, he fostered a thriving textile industry and promoted exports other than oil.

Although Soeharto has enriched his country (as well as his family, as his critics have been quick to point out) by his ardent faith in capitalism, he apparently sees little value in Western-style democracy or freedom of expression. In Soeharto's Indonesia, dissent has rarely been tolerated. He has routinely shut down uncooperative newspapers, jailed masses of student protestors, and stamped out political opposition. In his obsessive zeal to destroy the Indonesian Communist movement, he unleashed a reign of terror that resulted in the slaughter of up to half a million of his own people, mostly ethnic Chinese. As recently as 1991, the international watchdog group Amnesty International cited Soeharto for torture and other human rights abuses on East Timor, which he had seized in 1975. Elections in Indonesia, which Soeharto touts in Orwellian Newspeak as "feasts of democracy," are of little value in a system under which the president appoints all the governors and half of the legislature, which in turn elects the president. Soeharto, who has run unopposed in each of his five elections, seems prepared to seek a sixth term in 1993.

Soeharto was born into a devoutly Moslem family on June 8, 1921 in the village of Kemusu, Yogyakarta, on the island of Java, then part of the Dutch East Indies. As is customary in Java, he has just one name. The second son of the eleven children of Kertosudiro, a trader, and his wife, Sukirah, he grew up amid extreme poverty, made worse by the breakup of his parents' marriage. During his presidency Soeharto has lavished the fruits of material progress on his native village, paving its dirt roads, replacing its bamboo huts with dwellings of concrete, and bestowing on his half-brother Witoyo, who still lives there, the village's only satellite dish.

Soeharto attended elementary school in Puluhan Village, junior high school in Wonogiri and Yogyakarta, and senior high school in Semarang. His extracurricular activities included playing on his high school soccer teams. After completing his studies, he found work as a bank clerk but soon had to resign because he ripped his only sarong and could not afford to replace it. In 1940 Soeharto underwent basic training at the Noncommissioned Officers School, the military academy for colonial forces that was run by the Dutch in Gombong, Java. In the following year he was made assistant police chief in Yogyakarta.

Like many Indonesians, Soeharto welcomed the news that the Japanese had set out to liberate his homeland from Dutch colonial rule. Following the Japanese invasion in 1942, he joined the Pembela Tanah-Air, the Indonesian militia established by the new occupiers. In 1943 he was assigned to Wates as a platoon leader in the Volunteer Corps, and in the following year he underwent further training at a company commanders school. Although Soeharto has given credit to the Japanese for instilling in him discipline, military ideals, and a strong sense of Indonesian identity, he eventually came to view them as little better than the Dutch, and by the end of World War II, he had joined the anti-Japanese rebellion on the islands.

When, after the war, the Dutch tried to reclaim the East Indies, Soeharto promptly joined the independence movement under Sukarno, rising through the ranks from battalion commander to regimental commander. He made his most important contribution on March 1, 1949, when he conducted a lightning raid on Yogyakarta, driving the unprepared Dutch forces from that key city. By the time Indonesia had gained its independence, on August 15, 1950, Soeharto had been promoted to lieutenant colonel.

Over the next fifteen years, Soeharto rose steadily through the military ranks, proving himself to be a reliable officer with a reputation for resourcefulness and distinguishing himself at the Army Staff and Command College. During the early years of independence, when federal funds were scarce, military units were expected to be economically self-sufficient, so to keep his men well-nourished, Soeharto regularly smuggled sugar to Singapore in exchange for rice. As a regimental commander, Lieutenant Colonel Soeharto conducted military operations against Moslem rebels in central Java throughout the 1950s. In recognition of his achievements, in 1957 he was promoted to full colonel and named to the faculty of the National Military Academy.

Three years later Soeharto reached the rank of brigadier general as well as that of deputy chief of staff of the army. On December 19, 1961 President Sukarno placed Soeharto in command of the Trikora operation to wrest the western half of New Guinea from the Dutch. Formally known as the People's Triple Command for the Liberation of West Irian, as the Indonesians called that part of New Guinea, the Trikora assignment gave Soeharto responsibility for an anticipated air, land, and sea assault on New Guinea. Although a few skirmishes took place, Soeharto never was called upon to launch a full-scale invasion, for in August 1962 the Dutch agreed to relinquish West Irian in the following year. Soeharto was rewarded on May 1, 1963 with a promotion to commander in chief of the Army Strategic Command, a Jakarta-based strike force on twenty-four-hour alert for national emergencies.

By that time President Sukarno's support among the military had begun to erode, as a consequence of his attempt to check the rise of Islamic fundamentalism and Western influence by cooperating increasingly with Communists at the expense of economic progress. On October 1, 1965 an anti-Sukarno faction staged a coup, in which a number of senior officers were killed. Soeharto, who was not on the hit list, moved swiftly that night, leading a countercoup that ended in the arrest of the rebel leaders.

Although Sukarno retained the presidency, Soeharto steadily usurped his authority over the next few years as he systematically and ruthlessly purged the country of Communists, whom he blamed for the coup. In a six-month reign of terror, Soeharto, as chief of staff of the army, oversaw the killing of as many as half a million suspected Communists, most of them ethnic Chinese, who had long been resented for their economic success in Indonesia. Their bodies were left to clog waterways as a grim reminder of the state's power and iron resolve, while another 1.5 million alleged troublemakers were banished to remote islands. In 1966 Soeharto took on added responsibility as deputy prime minister for defense and security and was promoted to full general. On March 11, 1966 he assumed emergency powers from Sukarno, and a year later he became acting president.

On March 27, 1968 Soeharto was unanimously elected president of Indonesia. Under the Indonesian Constitution, four hundred seats of the House of Representatives are up for election; one hundred seats are selected by the military; and another five hundred regional representatives, politicians, military officers, and others are appointed by the president. Together those one thousand officials constitute the People's Consultative Assembly, which in turn elects the president. That conveniently incestuous arrangement has enabled Soeharto to win unanimous reelection every five years, most recently in 1988.

Soeharto's dethronement of Sukarno marked a turning point in the history of Indonesia. Although the two men shared a taste for dictatorship, their policies were radically different. Richard Nixon described the significance of the change in Indonesian government in his book 1999: Victory Without War (1988). "President Sukarno," Nixon wrote, "had elaborate dreams for the future of his newly independent country. But his irresponsible policies and personal corruption turned into a nightmare for Indonesia. His successor, President Soeharto, has slowly brought the nation back from the chaos of Sukarno's last years. Indonesia could well become a giant in the twenty-first century. It is rich in natural resources. It has enormous strategic importance."

Soeharto abandoned his predecessor's flirtation with Communism and extreme nationalism. Although Indonesia remained a member of the Nonaligned Movement under Soeharto's rule, his anti-Communist fervor earned him Western support in the form of loans and technical assistance. He replaced Sukarno's Guided Democracy policy, which resulted in a large foreign debt to the Soviet Union and other Communist governments, with the so-called New Order, which emphasized stability and economic growth. In one of his first official acts as president, he rejoined the United Nations, from which Sukarno had withdrawn when Indonesia's chief rival, Malaysia, was named to one of the rotating seats on the Security Council. In 1970 Soeharto concluded a new treaty of friendship with Malaysia.

With his government coffers fattened by the oil boom of the 1970s, Soeharto was able to bring roads, bridges, irrigation systems, electricity, and medical clinics to some of the most backward areas of Indonesia. By the middle of that decade, however, the growing resentment over the escalating prosperity of the nation's Chinese and Japanese minorities, as well as that of Soeharto's own family, had erupted into riots by the Moslem majority. But the nation's attention was diverted from such problems in December 1975, when Soeharto invaded the former Portuguese colony of East Timor, which he later formally annexed. The United States was especially upset because the Indonesian armed forces had used American weapons during the invasion, in violation of the terms under which the arms had been acquired. In consolidating his grip on East Timor, Soeharto permitted the systematic torture and abuse of its inhabitants, according to Amnesty International, though such charges were difficult to confirm because foreigners were barred from the territory. Estimates of the number of dead have run as high as two hundred thousand, or one-third of the local population. When Iraq seized Kuwait in a similar fashion in 1990, cries on behalf of East Timor once again arose, but Soeharto ignored them. His only concession to world opinion was his disciplining of a few officers charged with the massacre of dozens of East Timor residents in November 1991.

Meanwhile, Soeharto dealt with continued opposition at home just as cavalierly, if not as violently. Moslem critics of his government were permitted to form the Development Unity party, while the small Christian minority coalesced around the Democratic party. Although those groups were able to compete with the ruling Golkar party for the open parliamentary seats, only candidates approved by the Indonesian secret police were permitted to run, and only issues deemed by the government to be worthy of discussion could be mentioned in campaign speeches. Following the 1977 elections, in which the Moslems picked up a few seats, the Soeharto government responded to their demands for greater Islamic influence and for an end to corruption by arresting some eight hundred Moslem youths. Similarly, in 1978, when students staged protests in Banduk, Soeharto closed down campuses and even some newspapers that had dared to report the unrest. In linking foreign aid to human rights, President Jimmy Carter was credited with having helped to persuade Soeharto to release tens of thousands of political prisoners between 1977 and 1980.

In the run-up to the 1982 elections, Soeharto again cracked down on political and social unrest. With police on orders to shoot on sight anyone caught damaging property, dozens of people were reported killed in street clashes during the campaign; hundreds of others were arrested. Still, even his detractors conceded that Soeharto's economic program had provided many Indonesians with some measure of security. Inflation, which under Sukarno had raged at 650 percent, had, by the early 1980s, been lowered to 10 percent. And despite pockets of lingering poverty and disquieting underemployment, per capita wealth in Indonesia was rising steadily. Soeharto also has won high marks for transforming Jakarta into a modern Asian capital with a communications and transportation system that is the envy of the Third World.

The area in which Soeharto has won the most admiration is population control. Setting as his goal a growth rate of 1.7 percent, he made his people aware of the importance of birth control by establishing the National Family Planning Coordinating Board, which disseminates birth control information and distributes free contraceptives nationwide. By 1988 he had succeeded in reducing the growth rate to 2.1 percent, the lowest of any country of comparable wealth. For that achievement, he was awarded the Population Institute's first annual Global Statesman Award in December 1988. In making the presentation, the institute's president, Werner Fornos, announced that in future years it was to be known as the Soeharto award—"a fitting tribute," Fornos said, as quoted in the Humanist (May/June 1989), "to a leader who recognizes the significance of population stabilization not only for the development of his country but for the development of all countries in the Third World."

The oil glut of the 1980s and the concomitant drop in oil prices inflicted a special hardship on Indonesia, which under Soeharto had grown to become the eighth-largest oil producer in the world. To compensate for the lost revenue, he resisted the easy solution of printing more money and risking another round of virulent inflation. Instead, he installed a bright economic team to trim fat from the Indonesian bureaucracy and to promote the growth of non-oil exports, especially textiles.

In the mid-1980s Indonesia once again began flexing its muscles as a regional power. Soeharto had joined in trying to mediate an end to the civil war in Cambodia, and more important, he sought rapprochement with China, a country with which he had severed diplomatic relations because of its complicity in the abortive 1965 coup. In 1984 he signaled an era of better relations by signing a commercial pact with China. Then he quietly dropped his long-standing demand for a formal apology from China for the coup of 1965. Finally, in February 1989, he agreed to renew formal diplomatic ties.

Although Communism no longer posed a threat to his government, the rise of Islamic fundamentalism in Iran and elsewhere deeply disturbed Soeharto, for Indonesia's population is roughly 90 percent Moslem. To inoculate his government against fanaticism, Soeharto, in 1985, required all social and political organizations to adhere to the Pancasila, the five principles of the state secular ideology: belief in God, humanitarianism, nationalism, democracy, and social justice, as defined by the Soeharto government.

As one repressive regime after another began to fall like dominoes around the world in the late 1980s, Indonesian dissidents again grew restive, many faulting the United States for refusing to pressure Soeharto into reform. "American aid has kept this government in the saddle for twenty years," Slamet Bratanata, a former government minister, complained to Barbara Crossette in an interview for the New York Times (January 28, 1987). "Part of the American people are trying to play their role as natural democrats in South Africa, in the Philippines—why not here? The least you can do is not praise the Indonesian government so loudly and so often." Despite such criticism, the ruling Golkar party managed to improve its overwhelming majority in parliament in the 1987 elections by winning 73 percent of the vote and, for the first time, carrying all twenty-seven provinces.

In March 1988 Soeharto crushed a feeble challenge to his handpicked vice-president, the state secretary Sudharmono, a former general and Soeharto's chief of staff for fifteen years, though the challenge was in itself regarded as a sign of an emboldened opposition. Soeharto's greatest threat continues to lie in the potential wrath of the Moslem majority. To appease those who want to give Islam a more prominent role in society, Soeharto repealed a ban on the wearing of the hijab, or female head scarf, in public schools, ruled that Islamic court decisions are no longer subject to review by the civil judiciary, and, in June 1991, made his first pilgrimage to Mecca.

Basking in the afterglow of a favorable report from the World Bank, which pronounced the Indonesian economy capable of "sustained and relatively rapid growth" in the 1990s, and secure in his reputation as the "father of Indonesian development," Soeharto felt confident enough to relax government restrictions slightly. He ended censorship of foreign publications and released a prominent dissident from jail. One thing that the aging leader does not seem prepared to do is to step down voluntarily. To the chagrin of many of his compatriots, he seems intent on seeking a sixth five-year term in 1993. "This president could have gone down in our history as a demigod," Bratanata was quoted as saying in Barbara Crossette's article in the New York Times. "Instead we have the tragedy of a man becoming a hostage to power."

Soeharto stands five feet, six inches tall and has brown eyes. The wavy black hair of his youth has turned gray. By all accounts, he is shy, wary of the media, and extremely mystical, depending, as he has always done, on advice from gurus in both public and private matters. His practice of Islam, moreover, is heavily influenced by the mysticism of his native Java. Soeharto typically arises around five in the morning, and he enjoys an occasional round at the Jakarta Golf Club. He speaks Dutch and English as well as his native tongue, Bahasa Indonesia.

His small circle of friends and intimates is dominated by the so-called Berkeley Mafia, Indonesian technocrats who were trained at the University of California. In 1947 Soeharto married Siti Hartinah, who is known as Madame Tien, or, to critics of the family's acquired wealth, "Madame Tien Percent." They have six grown children, three sons and three daughters, who also have enriched themselves. In 1977 the oldest son, Sigit, purchased a mansion outside Jakarta for $3.3 million. The middle son, Bambang, runs a multibillion-dollar conglomerate called Bimantara. The oldest daughter has vast television and petrochemical holdings, and the youngest daughter, Siti, operates three different businesses.

Sofjan Wanandi, an Indonesian businessman, told Margaret Scott for a New York Times Magazine (June 2, 1991) article, "[Soeharto] is giving so much economic favor to his children and it has made him vulnerable. It has gotten to the point where it is impossible to do business without including them. All the big projects have to go through them. The business community is very upset. But there is nothing we can do. We are dependent on Soeharto." For his part, Soeharto continues to be extremely sensitive to charges that his family has profited at the expense of Indonesia. When the Sydney Morning Herald ran a series of articles on the family's holdings, estimating its combined net worth at $2 billion to $3 billion, Soeharto retaliated by barring Australian journalists from the country. He also denied Australian airplanes refueling privileges at Indonesian airports and made it more difficult for Australian tourists to enter the country.

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