Suharto, Indonesia's untouchable but fading strongman

Suharto, Indonesia's untouchable but fading strongman
Posted: 11 January 2008 2331 hrs
JAKARTA - Former Indonesian leader Suharto, who appeared near death in a Jakarta hospital Friday, has shunned the limelight since his downfall a decade ago but his power has lingered.
A stream of high-profile visitors have rushed to his bedside since he was hospitalised on January 4 with a weakening heart and kidneys, low blood pressure and anaemia. By Friday night, he had lost consciousness after multiple organ failure, doctors said.
Vice president Yusuf Kalla rushed to the hospital and was seen comforting members of his family. President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, who was on an official visit to Malaysia, visited earlier in the week.
Yudhoyono's government has vowed to fight the entrenched corruption seen as Suharto's key legacy here, and his government is in the midst of bringing a 1.4 billion-dollar civil lawsuit against him for embezzlement.
Those efforts are continuing despite the abandonment on health grounds of a criminal trial seeking the return of just some of the billions of dollars that Suharto is accused of amassing.
The blatant and crude corruption of Suharto's family and associates was one of the factors that finally pushed the former army general from power in 1998 after 32 years of iron-fisted, often bloody, rule in Indonesia.
As the 1997 Asian economic crisis exposed the devastating impact of their economic meddling, and a plunging rupiah triggered street protests and deadly riots, Suharto had no choice but to step aside.
It was an ignominious end to a career that had once seen him hailed as the nation's father of development for steering this once fractious Asian backwater into a self-sufficient rice producer with a booming economy.
Born into a family of farmers on Indonesia's main island of Java on June 8, 1921, Suharto joined the then-Japanese Indonesian army during World War II.
After independence, he joined the fledgling Indonesian armed forces, and in a career briefly marred by a corruption scandal was posted to Dutch New Guinea before it became a part of Indonesia as Irian Jaya.
Suharto seized power in the wake of a botched and bloody coup blamed on the Indonesian communist party. He presided over a massive blood-letting that left a least half a million communists and supporters killed and millions jailed.
He banned the party, assumed the presidency in 1967 and set about bringing the country out of its economic doldrums, focusing on agricultural improvements as well as boosting exports in manufactured products and textiles to nudge it away from dependency on oil and gas exports.
But Suharto's autocratic rule began to take its toll.
He relied heavily on the army, his intolerance of dissent left hundreds of political prisoners behind bars, and the tentacles of his six children and their businesses reached into every economic sector.
By the time he ran for a seventh five-year term in March 1998 -- as usual, he was the sole candidate -- student dissent was crushed only by abduction and torture, the economy was in rapid decline, and even the armed forces told him it was finally time to go.
Suharto rejected allegations he and his family were sitting on a fortune of between 15 and 35 billion dollars.
Yet, despite the groundswell of opposition and his humiliating departure, the four governments that followed have been criticised for only half-heartedly probing his family's massive wealth.
Last year Suharto was awarded more than 100 million dollars in a libel case against Time magazine, whose lawyers are fighting the decision.
And Suharto's favourite and youngest son Hutomo "Tommy" Mandala Putra, who was jailed for masterminding the murder of a judge who convicted him for graft, was freed after serving just a third of a 15-year sentence.
His wife of 48 years, Siti Suhartinah, died of a heart attack in 1996.
- AFP /ls

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