Backgrounder on Suharto
Suharto, who ruled Indonesia from 1966 until he was ousted in 1998, decisively shaped the post 1965 political and economic trajectory of Indonesia. His supporters credited him with maintaining Indonesia’s stability and setting it on the path to stable economic development. Suharto’s more numerous critics condemn his decades-long pattern of authoritarianism, human rights violations, corruption, and political stagnation, a legacy from which Indonesia is still trying to recover.
Suharto was born in 1921 in central Java near Yogyakarta. He joined the Royal Netherlands’ Indies Army, KNIL with relatively little education at the age of nineteen. His rise to power occurred entirely within the Indonesian military, particularly during Indonesia’s war for independence from the Dutch (1945-49). In 1962 Indonesian President Sukarno appointed Suharto to head the Mandala command for the “liberation” of West Irian (West Papua) (1962-1963), and later the Trikora command responsible for the military confrontation with Malaysia (1963-1965). While not a particularly skilled military leader, Suharto used his commands to build patronage networks and secure the loyalty of his soldiers, skills he later used to consolidate his own power. In 1964 Suharto, now a Major-General was named commander of KOSTRAD, the Army’s Strategic Reserve Command.
It was as KOSTRAD commander that Suharto took control of the Indonesian Army following the alleged Untung coup attempt of September 30, 1965. Using the September 30th Movement as a pretext for mass murder, in the words of historian John Roosa, from October 1965 to March 1966 he oversaw the extermination of the Indonesian Communist Party (PKI), the murder of between 400,000 and one million alleged PKI members and the imprisonment of hundreds of thousands more. He finally forced Sukarno to transfer authority to him on March 11, 1966.
Suharto’s first task, in addition to overseeing the mass killings of alleged PKI members, was salvaging Indonesia’s shattered economy and gaining the confidence of foreign investors and Western governments who controlled the aid and capital that Indonesia desperately needed. Lacking expertise of his own, he turned the task over to a group of predominantly US-trained economic advisers, who developed a major foreign investment law welcoming Western capital back to Indonesia on enviable terms.
Suharto assumed the Presidency in 1967, and in 1968 becoming supreme commander of the army as well. He was reelected to the presidency in tightly scripted elections in 1973, 1978, 1983, 1988, 1993, and 1998. Throughout his rule successive U.S. administrations provided extensive political, military and economic support, considering Suharto a valuable anti-Communist ally and a bastion of stability in a strategically vital and unstable region.
Suharto’s New Order could best be described as a military bureaucratic regime, with a military administration running parallel to the civilian administration down to the village level. This politico-military administration proved adept at maintaining order, often through the brutal repression of political dissent. Lacking an independent mass base, the regime adopted a political organization, Golkar, comprised of functional groups including peasants, workers, business, and the armed forces, in order to mobilize political support.
Through the New Order period Indonesia experienced steady absolute economic growth, fueled in part by increases in oil revenues. While the World Bank and other regime supporters pointed to such figures as validation of their support, the numbers were seriously misleading, often invented out of whole cloth to mask rapidly increasing inequality. Suharto’s family and their allies, using a vast network of military and state controlled businesses and foundations, diverted a substantial fraction of that growth to themselves, stealing $15-30 billion in the process and making Suharto, according to the United Nations and the anti-corruption group Transparency International, one of the world’s richest men and perhaps the most corrupt of recent history.
This corruption and unaccountability extended to the realm of foreign policy. In 1969 Indonesia annexed the territory of West Papua in a fraudulent UN-sponsored “Act of Free Choice,” with subsequent military action against a deeply rooted independence movement leading to the deaths of tens of thousands. Similar repression in Aceh, where the armed forces killed tens of thousands of civilians in a savage counterinsurgency war beginning in the late 1970s, and elsewhere in the archipelago cemented Suharto’s position as one of the most brutal leaders of the postwar era.
In December 1975 Suharto authorized the invasion of the former Portuguese colony of East Timor. Nearly a third of East Timor’s population died as a result of Indonesia’s invasion and occupation. Yet despite substantial U.S. military and diplomatic support, Indonesia never fully consolidated its rule in East Timor, and the territory eventually regained its freedom in an UN-sponsored referendum in August 1999, after which Indonesian troops burnt East Timor to the ground and displaced virtually the entire population.
By the 1990s mounting social and economic inequality and the regimes heavy-handed repression of dissent had fatally undermined Suharto’s domestic legitimacy, which was based on the promise of political order and steady economic growth. The regime’s enormous corruption and lack of transparency likewise undermined economic stability, with currency stability and the expectations of foreign investors built upon largely fictional assumptions.
The Asian economic crisis of 1997, which hit Indonesia’s economy particularly hard, detonated the tinder of nascent opposition to Suharto’s rule. A mass movement of students, street vendors and the urban poor emerged, demanding Suharto’s ouster. The withdrawal of Western – particularly U.S. – support from Suharto and the splintering of Army unity in the face of widespread and growing protest forced his resignation from power after 32 years in May 1998. Since his ouster Suharto has successfully fended off attempts by Indonesian civil society and pro-democracy organizations to hold him accountable for corruption and human rights abuses.
Prepared for ETAN by Brad Simpson, a historian of U.S.-Indonesian relations at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County.