January 18, 2008
THE former prime minister Paul Keating urged the Indonesian president, Soeharto, to resign in January 1998, hours before the strongman signed a humbling financial rescue package from the International Monetary Fund.
Soeharto, 86, is gravely ill in Jakarta with multiple organ failure, pneumonia and a blood infection. Despite the appeal for a graceful exit from office, Soeharto clung to power until May 1998, when he was forced out.
Details of the meeting emerge in an SBS documentary about Indonesia by the filmmaker Chris Hilton. In it, Mike Carlton interviews Mr Keating about the extraordinary delivery of the unsolicited advice.
Mr Keating, then no longer prime minister, flew to Jakarta at his own expense to tell Soeharto it was time to stand aside.
"I said, 'Look, they've made mistakes, the IMF and the Americans,' " Mr Keating recounts, believing constraints placed on Indonesia would cripple it for a decade and that Soeharto could not survive under such conditions.
"I said, 'Today you're king again, but you're king for a day only. When you go down to sign this document, you're in charge. And when you're in charge, you should say you're going.' "
Later, as Soeharto signed the accord, the IMF's managing director, Michel Camdessus, hovered stern-faced and folded his arms in a display of body language viewed as an act of humiliation.
Four months later, as accusations of corruption intensified and the financial woes deepened, Soeharto was forced to hand power to B.J. Habibie.
In the three-part documentary, which goes to air from February 5, Mr Keating tells Carlton of a difficult 90-minute meeting. "You can imagine, there's not many other people in history who have actually lined up to someone like Soeharto and told him to resign. It turned out that person was me."