My up close and personal with Soeharto as a journalist

Kornelius Purba The Jakarta Post Jakarta

As a reporter, I had the chance to intensively cover Soeharto, including his overseas trips, for about 13 years until his fall as the country's second president on May 21, 1998.

Along with other journalists, I flew with him to Cairo just days before he resigned from his post as president. I experienced the most frightening moment in my life when Reuters misquoted a report I wrote in this newspaper saying Soeharto was ready to step down. CNN repeatedly carried the Reuters report.

I could not stand up from my seat for 30 minutes after one of Soeharto's most trusted aides, his photographer, told me the former president was very angry with the repot and I was not allowed to fly home with him.

My passport was in a state official's hands. Then Indonesian Ambassador to Egypt Hassan Wirayuda, who now serves as foreign minister, was very busy at the time receiving faxes from Jakarta about the report. I was cleared, but the memory of the fear I felt at that time will last for a long time.

The night before Soeharto's resignation, journalists gathered at his private residence before being asked by the presidential security guard to wait at the State Secretariat.

Soeharto's driver told me one of the most difficult problems the former president faced after his resignation was having to wait at traffic lights and sit in traffic jams. When he was president he was always able to avoid traffic congestion and restrictions.

During Soeharto's 32 years at the top, very few journalists were allowed to cover the presidential palace.

The selection process, I guess, had nothing to do with a reporter's intellectual capacity or talent. It was based merely on the military intelligence assessment that each reporter had to pass to ensure they were not a threat to the government.

I could boast that I knew Soeharto very well, but to be honest, I am sure he did not know me at all.

He always kept journalists at a distance. Journalists were rarely, if ever, given the opportunity to have conversations with him. We were allowed to shake hands with him every June 8 to mark his birthday, a few days after each Idul Fitri and whenever we traveled abroad with him.

His wife Tien Soeharto was more attentive to journalists. She often sent out food for us while we were waiting at their private residence. She was very influential, but after her death in 1995, Soeharto often lost his cool. Soeharto's children also became more spoilt after their mother's death.

Soeharto used to hold his hand out in such a way that people had to bow down in front of him whenever they shook his hand.

Pictures of people shaking hands with Soeharto were believed to have "magical" power. Many businesspeople were happy to pay large sums of money to be photographed shaking hands with Soeharto, because such photographs were very effective in terms of intimidating other people.

On the way home from his overseas tours, he used to hold press conferences on the airplane to explain the results he had achieved. He explained in detail his economic policies and he always very accurately cited data and statistics.

Journalists were permitted to ask the former president questions, but we knew to raise questions that would not provoke his anger. Journalists who asked "wrong" questions knew the consequences they might have to face.

Once Soeharto proudly explained his plan to build houses in North Jakarta for veterans of the independence struggle. A reporter asked him where the funding to build the houses would be coming from. Soeharto angrily responded, "Dari mbahmu" (from your grandfather).

Nearly all ministers, senior government officials or visiting guests would talk to journalists after meeting with Soeharto at the Bina Graha presidential palace or at his private residence on Jalan Cendana, Central Jakarta.

And most of his Indonesian guests, especially ministers or military generals, rarely forgot to say, "Menurut petunjuk Bapak President" (according to the president's directive).

Soeharto often issued vague instructions to his officials, such as "settle the problem in accordance with the prevailing regulations". Former minister of information Harmoko followed similar instructions when he banned three publications, including Tempo news weekly, in 1994.

Soeharto used to make sure rivals were against each other in his cabinet. When General Benny Moerdani was Indonesian Armed Forces (ABRI) chief in the 1980s, he posted Sudharmono as state secretary. They were foes.

As foreign minister, Ali Alatas had to accept the fact Soeharto also had "another" foreign minister -- then state secretary Moerdiono. Moerdiono often vetoed Alatas' decisions in public. The strategy was a very important way Soeharto balanced power among those in his inner circles.

Soeharto would not hesitate to introduce drastic economic policies -- including devaluation and fuel price hikes -- when he believed he had no other alternative. He could do that because the media was tightly controlled and any opposition movements were harshly crushed.

Members of the international community and institutions such as the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund were fond of him. They changed their stance toward Indonesia just few months before his fall.

Soeharto's biggest problem was with his six children and grandchildren. When his children were yet to be active in business, his cronies and close relatives, such as Liem Sioe Liong and Sudwikatmono, were very close to him.

In the 1990s, his children often spoke with top executives from international companies to discuss their mega project contracts. The contracts were guaranteed and ministers would immediately praise the projects as being vital for the country.

It was very clear that many projects could be categorized as KKN (corruption, collusion and nepotism). However, it was ironic that many of the companies involved demanded Soeharto's successors honor the questionable contracts after his fall.

After Soeharto's resignation, journalists had very little contact with him. Now many people say good things about the former president.

For me Soeharto is like my father who died in 1991. I often miss my father and I often dream that he will come back to this world. But if my father ever does rise from the dead, I will shout, "Help, help -- there's a zombie."

The writer can be reached at purba@thejakartapost.com


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