Former Indonesian President Suharto, a Cold War ally of the United States whose brutal military regime killed hundreds of thousands of left-wing political opponents, died Sunday.
JAKARTA, Indonesia — Former Indonesian President Suharto, a Cold War ally of the United States whose brutal military regime killed hundreds of thousands of left-wing political opponents, died Sunday. He was 86.
Although he oversaw some of the worst bloodshed of the 20th century, Suharto is credited with developing the economy and will be buried with the highest state honors Monday at the family mausoleum.
President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono declared a week of national mourning and called on Indonesians “to pay their last respects to one of Indonesia’s best sons.”
Suharto loyalists, who run the courts, called for forgiveness and a clearing of his name. But survivors want those responsible for atrocities to be held accountable.
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“I cannot understand why I have to forgive Suharto because he never admitted his mistakes,” said Putu Oka Sukanta, who spent a decade in prison because of his left-wing sympathies.
A military aircraft carrying Suharto’s body took off from a Jakarta air force base Monday morning, headed for the city of Solo, 250 miles east of the capital.
“May God bless his soul and forgive his mistakes and sins,” said Agung Laksono, the speaker of Indonesia’s house of representatives, who led a brief ceremony at Suharto’s Jakarta villa early Monday.
Suharto was finally toppled by mass street protests in 1998 at the peak of the 1997-1998 Asian financial crisis.
His departure from office opened the way for democracy in this predominantly Muslim nation of 235 million people, and he withdrew from public life, rarely venturing from his comfortable Jakarta villa.
Suharto ruled with a totalitarian dominance that saw soldiers stationed in every village, instilling a deep fear of authority across this Southeast Asian archipelago that stretches across more than 3,000 miles.
Since being forced from power, Suharto had been in and out of hospitals after strokes caused brain damage and impaired his speech. He died of multiple-organ failure after more than three weeks on life support at a hospital in the capital, Jakarta.
Poor health — and continuing corruption, critics charge — kept him from court after he was chased from office.
The bulk of killings occurred in 1965-1966 when alleged communists were rounded up and slain during his rise to power. Estimates for the death toll range from a government figure of 78,000 to 1 million cited by U.S. historians Barbara Harff and Ted Robert Gurr, who have published books on Indonesia’s history.
During Indonesia’s 1975-1999 occupation of East Timor, up to 183,000 people died due to killings, disappearances, hunger and illness, according to an East Timorese commission sanctioned by the U.N. Similar abuses left more than 100,000 dead in West Papua, according a local human rights group. Another 15,000 died during a 29-year separatist rebellion in Aceh province.
Suharto’s five successors as head of state all vowed to end the graft that took root under his regime, yet it remains endemic at all levels of Indonesian society.
With the court system paralyzed by corruption, the country has not confronted its bloody past. Rather than put on trial those accused of mass murder and multibillion-dollar theft, some members of the political elite consistently called for charges against Suharto to be dropped on humanitarian grounds.
Some noted Suharto also oversaw decades of economic expansion that made Indonesia the envy of the developing world. Today, nearly a quarter of Indonesians live in poverty, and many long for the Suharto era’s stability, when fuel and rice were affordable.
On Sunday, hundreds of mourners — some weeping — flocked to the family home in downtown Jakarta.
“I felt crushed when I heard he had died. We have lost a great man,” said Mamiarti, a 43-year-old housekeeper. “It used to be easy to find jobs. Now it is hard.”
But critics say Suharto squandered Indonesia’s vast natural resources of oil, timber and gold, siphoning the nation’s wealth to benefit his cronies, foreign corporations and family like a mafia don.
Jeffrey Winters, associate professor of political economy at Northwestern University, said the graft effectively robbed “Indonesia of some of the most golden decades, and its best opportunity to move from a poor to a middle class country.”
“When Indonesia does finally go back and redo history, (its people) will realize that Suharto is responsible for some of the worst crimes against humanity in the 20th century,” Winters said.
Those who profited from Suharto’s rule made sure he was never portrayed in a harsh light at home, Winters said, so even though he was an “iron-fisted, brutal, cold-blooded dictator,” he was able to stay in his native country.
Like many Indonesians, Suharto used only one name. He was born on June 8, 1921, to a family of rice farmers in the village of Godean in the dominant Indonesian province of Central Java.
When Indonesia gained independence from the Dutch in 1949, Suharto quickly rose through the ranks of the military to become a staff officer.
His career nearly foundered in the late 1950s, when the army’s then-commander, Gen. Abdul Haris Nasution, accused him of corruption in awarding army contracts.
Absolute power came in September 1965 when the army’s six top generals were murdered under mysterious circumstances, and their bodies dumped in an abandoned well in an apparent coup attempt against Sukarno, Indonesia’s founding father who helped win independence from the Dutch. Suharto, next in line for command, quickly asserted authority over the armed forces.
What followed was a nationwide purge of suspected leftists, a campaign that stood as the region’s bloodiest event since World War II until the Khmer Rouge established its gruesome regime in Cambodia a decade later.
Over the next year, Suharto eased out Sukarno, who died under house arrest in 1970. The legislature rubber-stamped Suharto’s presidency and he was re-elected unopposed six times.
During the Cold War, Suharto was considered a reliable friend of Washington, which did not oppose his violent occupation of Papua in 1969 and the bloody 1974 invasion of East Timor. The latter, a former Portuguese colony, became Asia’s youngest country with a U.N.-sponsored plebiscite in 1999.
President Bush sent his regrets over Suharto’s death. “President Bush expresses his condolences to the people of Indonesia on the loss of their former president,” said Gordon Johndroe, spokesman for the White House’s National Security Council.
Even Suharto’s critics agree his hard-line policies kept a lid on Indonesia’s extremists and held together the ethnically diverse and geographically vast nation. He jailed without trial hundreds of suspected Islamic militants, some of whom later carried out deadly suicide bombings with the al-Qaida-linked terror network Jemaah Islamiyah after the attacks on the U.S. of Sept. 11, 2001.
Meanwhile, the ruling clique that formed around Suharto — nicknamed the “Berkeley mafia” after the U.S. school they attended, the University of California, Berkeley — transformed Indonesia’s economy and attracted billions of dollars in foreign investment.
By the late 1980s, Suharto was describing himself as Indonesia’s “father of development,” taking credit for slowly reducing the number of abjectly poor and modernizing parts of the nation.
But the government also became notorious for unfettered nepotism, and Indonesia was regularly ranked as one of the world’s most corrupt nations as Suharto’s inner circle amassed fabulous wealth. The World Bank estimates 20 percent to 30 percent of Indonesia’s development budget was embezzled during his rule.
Even today, Suharto’s children and aging associates have considerable sway over the country’s business, politics and courts. Efforts to recover the money have been fruitless.
Suharto’s youngest son, Hutomo “Tommy” Mandala Putra, was released from prison in 2006 after serving a third of a 15-year sentence for ordering the assassination of a Supreme Court judge. Another son, Bambang Trihatmodjo, joined the Forbes list of wealthiest Indonesians in 2007, with $200 million from his stake in the conglomerate Mediacom.
State prosecutors accused Suharto of embezzling about $600 million via a complex web of foundations under his control, but he never saw the inside of a courtroom. In September 2000, judges ruled he was too ill to stand trial, though many people believed the decision stemmed from the lingering influence of the former dictator and his family.
In 2007, Suharto won a $106 million defamation lawsuit against Time magazine for accusing the family of acquiring $15 billion in stolen state funds.
The former dictator told the news magazine Gatra in a rare interview in November 2007 that he would donate the bulk of any legal windfall to the needy, while he dismissed corruption accusations as “empty talk.”
Suharto’s wife of 49 years, Indonesian royal Siti Hartinah, died in 1996. The couple had three sons and three daughters.