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General Haji Mohamed Soeharto (commonly spelled Suharto in the English-speaking world) (born June 8, 1921) was an Indonesian leader and military strongman. He was the second President of Indonesia, from 1967 to 1998.

General Suharto
General Suharto

During his three decades as leader of Indonesia, Suharto constructed a strong, centralized national government that maintained stability in the diverse Indonesian archipelago through the suppression of political dissent and regional unrest. His policies led to substantial economic growth, although many of the standard of living gains were reversed by the Asian financial crisis that began in 1997. Amid the growth, Suharto enriched himself and constituents of his inner circle through implementation of state monopolies, subsidies, and other schemes.


Early life & career

Suharto was born in Kemusuk Argamulja, Yogyakarta, in central Java. He joined the Dutch colonial forces and studied in a Dutch-run military academy. During World War II, he became a battalion commander in the Japanese-sponsored local military.

After the Indonesian Declaration of Independence by Sukarno in 1945 Suharto's troops fought against Dutch and Western attempts to re-establish colonial rule during the Indonesian National Revolution. He first became widely known in the military for his surprise attack which seized Yogyakarta on March 1, 1949. Yogyakarta was held for only one day, but this action was widely seen as symbolic of continuing Indonesian resistance against Dutch forces.

During the following years he served in the Indonesian National Army, stationed primarily on Java. In 1959 he was accused of smuggling and transferred to the army Staff College in Bandung, West Java. In 1962 he was promoted to the rank of major general and took command of the Diponegoro division. During the Indonesia-Malaysia confrontation, Suharto was a commander of Kostrad (Strategic Reserve), a sizeable army combat force, which most importantly had significant presence in the Jakarta area. By 1965, the armed forces split into two factions, one left wing and one right wing, with Suharto in the right-wing camp.

Indonesian Civil War

Main article: Indonesian Civil War

On the morning of October 1, 1965, a group of Sukarno's closest guards kidnapped and murdered six of the right-wing anti-Communist generals. Sukarno's guards claimed that they were trying to stop a CIA-backed military coup which was planned to remove Sukarno from power on "Army Day", October 5. One survivor in the right-wing camp was Suharto, at the time a Major General. The two would blame a conspiracy by Sukarno-loyalists and the Communist Party of Indonesia, which they dubbed the 30 September Movement (in bahasa Indonesia, Gerakan 30 September, commonly abbreviated as G30S or Gestapu). The chaos provided the opening for Suharto to rise within the Army, and paved the road for his assumption of power in 1967

At the time of the assassinations of the generals, Major Gen. Suharto and his Kostrad were closest to the capital Jakarta. Thus Suharto became the field general in charge of prosecution of the alleged G30S forces. At the urging of the Defense Minister and the military's Chief-of-Staff Gen. Abdul Haris Nasution, Maj. Gen. Suharto was promoted to Army Chief-of-Staff on October 14, 1965. ("Jakarta Leftist Out As Army Chief." New York Times. Oct 15, 1965)

On October 18, a declaration was read over the army-controlled radio stations, banning the Communist Party of Indonesia. The Army, acting on orders by Suharto and supervised by Nasution, also began a campaign of agitation and incitement to violence among Indonesian civilians aimed not only at Communists but the ethnic-Chinese community and toward President Sukarno himself. The regime was quickly destabilised, with the Army the only force left to maintain order.("Army in Jakarta Imposes a Ban on Communists." New York Times. 1965)

In the following months, as alleged Communists and Sukarno loyalists were killed and captured from the cities and villages, and liquidated from government, the trioka of Pres. Sukarno, Nasution, and Suharto jockeyed for power. Contemporary reports state that Sukarno was politically weak and desperate to keep power in the hands of his presidency by starting a factional struggle between Gen. Nasution and Suharto, while the two were absorbed in personal ambitions. ("Jakarta Cabinet Faces Challenge." New York Times. 1965. pg. 7)

On Feb 1, 1966, Pres. Sukarno promoted Suharto to the rank of Lieutenant General. The same month, Gen. Nasution had been forced out of his position of Defense Minister. By March, Suharto would begin the process of taking power for himself. ("Sukarno Removes His Defense Chief." New York Times. 1966)


Both supporters and critics of Suharto acknowledge that the period of the civil war was marked by human rights abuses. Supporters of Suharto claim that these were justified due to the imminent threat of a PKI-led coup, as was attempted in 1948. Critics of Suharto note that the PKI in 1965 had an inclination that was similar to Eurocommunism and had come to prefer parliamentary electoral politics to armed insurrection; in fact, the PKI placed third in a 1955 presidential election, behind Sukarno's own Partai Nasional Indonesia (PNI) and the Islamist party Masyumi. These critics allege that Suharto purposefully exaggerated PKI involvement in the assassinations of the generals, in order to justify the liquidation of this bloc.

The change in regime from Sukarno to Suharto, though brutal, brought a shift in policy that allowed for USAID and other relief agencies to operate within the country. Suharto would open Indonesia's economy by divesting state owned companies, and Western nations in particular were encouraged to invest and take control of many of the mining and construction interests in Indonesia. The result was the alleviation of famine conditions due to shortfalls in rice supply and Sukarno's reluctance to take Western aid, and stabilisation of the economy.

The "New Order"

For more details on this topic, see New Order (Indonesia)

On March 11, 1966 the ailing Sukarno wrote a letter (the Surat Perintah Sebelas Maret or "Supersemar") that formally granted Suharto emergency powers over the nation.[1] Through this, Suharto established what he called the New Order (Orde Baru). He permanently banned the Communist Party of Indonesia and its alleged front groups, purging the parliament and cabinet of Sukarno-loyalists, eliminating labor unions and instituting press censorship.

Internationally, Suharto put Indonesia on a course toward improved relations with Western nations, while ending its friendly relations with the People's Republic of China. He dispatched his foreign minister, Adam Malik to mend strained relations with the United States, United Nations, and Malaysia and end the Confrontation.

Institutionalisation of the New Order

On March 12, 1967 Suharto was named President by Indonesia's Provisional Parliament. On March 21 he was formally elected for the first of his five-year terms as President. He directly appointed 20% of the House of Representatives. The Golkar Party became the favored party and the only acceptable one for government officials. Indonesia also became one of the founding members of ASEAN.

To maintain order, Suharto greatly expanded the funding and powers of the Indonesian state apparatus. He established two intelligence agencies—the Operational Command for the Restoration of Security and Order (KOPKAMTIB) and the State Intelligence Coordination Agency (BAKIN)—to deal with threats to the regime. Suharto also established the Bureau of Logistics (BULOG) to distribute rice and other staple commodities granted by USAID. These new government bodies were put under the military regional command structure, that under Suharto was given a "dual function" as both a defense force and as civilian administrators.

On economic matters, Pres. Suharto relied on a group of American-educated economists, nicknamed the "Berkeley Mafia," to set policy. Soon after coming to power, he passed a number of reforms meant to establish Indonesia as a center of foreign investment. These included the privatization of its natural resources to promote their exploitation by industrialized nations, labour laws favorable to multinational corporations, and soliciting funds for development from institutions including the World Bank, Western banks, and friendly governments. ("Indonesia Economic" 2005)

As unchecked forces in Indonesian society under New Order, however, members of the military and Golkar Party were heavily involved as intermediaries between businesses (foreign and domestic) and the Indonesian government. This lead to a great deal of corruption in the form of bribery, racketeering, and embezzlement. Funds from these practices often flowed to foundations (yayasan) controlled by the Suharto family. The system became so pervasive that Berlin-based NGO Transparency International named Suharto as the most corrupt politician, and so entrenched that Indonesia has been consistently rated among the most corrupt nations.

Unitary state and regional unrest

From his assumption of office until his resignation, Suharto continued the policy of his predecessor Sukarno in asserting the Republic of Indonesia's sovereignty. He acted zealously to stake and enforce territorial claims over much of the region, through both diplomacy and military action.

In 1969, Suharto moved to end the longtime controversy over the last Dutch territory in the East Indies, western New Guinea. Working with the United States and United Nations, an agreement was made to hold a referendum on self-determination, in which participants could choose to remain part of the Netherlands, to integrate with the Republic of Indonesia, or to become independent. Though originally phrased to be a nationwide vote of all adult Papuans, the "Act of Free Choice" was held JulyAugust 1969 allowed only 1022 "chiefs" to vote. The unanimous vote was for integration with the Republic of Indonesia, leading to doubts of the validity of the vote. (Simpson)

In 1975, after Portugal withdrew from its colony of East Timor and the Fretilin movement momentarily took power, Suharto ordered troops to invade the country. Later the puppet government installed by Indonesia requested the area be annexed to the country. It was estimated that 100,000 people, roughly a third of the local population, were killed by the Indonesian forces or affiliated proxy forces. On July 15, 1976 East Timor became the province of Timor Timur until it was transferred to the United Nations in 1999.

In 1976, the regime was challenged in the province of Aceh by the formation of the Free Aceh Movement, or GAM, who demanded independence from the unitary state. Suharto quickly authorized troops to put down the rebellion, forcing several of its leaders into exile in Sweden. Prolonged fighting between GAM and the Indonesian military and police led Suharto to declare martial law in the province, by naming Aceh a "military operational area" (DOM) in 1990.

Underpinning Suharto's territorial ambitions was the rapid development of Indonesia's traditional urban centers. The rapid pace of this development had vastly increased their population density. In response, Suharto pursued the policy of transmigration to promote movement from crowded cities to rural regions of the archipelago where natural resources had not yet been exploited.

Suharto with William Cohen
Suharto with William Cohen

Politics and dissent

In 1970, corruption prompted student protests and an investigation by a government commission. Suharto responded by banning student protest, forcing the activists underground. Only token prosecution of cases recommended by the commission was pursued. The pattern of co-opting a few of his more powerful opponents while criminalising the rest became a hallmark of Suharto's rule.

In order to maintain a veneer of democracy, Suharto made a number of electoral reforms. He stood for election before electoral college votes every five years, beginning in 1973. According to his electoral rules, however, only three parties were allowed to participate in the election: his own Golkar party; the Islamist United Development Party (PPP), and the Democratic Party of Indonesia (PDI). All the previously existing political parties were forced to be part of either the PPP and PDI, with public servants under pressure to join the membership of Golkar. In a political compromise with the powerful military, he banned its members from voting in elections, but set aside 100 seats in the electoral college for their representatives. As a result, he won every election in which he stood, in 1978, 1983, 1988, 1993, and 1998.

This authoritarianism became an issue in the 1980s. On May 5, 1980 a group Petition of Fifty (Petisi 50) demanded greater political freedoms. It was composed of former military men, politicians, academics and students. The Indonesian media suppressed the news and the government placed restrictions on the signatories. After the group's 1984 accusation that Suharto was creating a one-party state, some of its leaders were jailed.

In the same decade, it is believed by many scholars that the Indonesian military split between a nationalist "red and white faction" and an Islamist "green faction." As the 1980s closed, Suharto is said to have been forced to shift his alliances from the former to the latter, leading to the rise of Jusuf Habibie in the 1990s.

After the 1990s brought end of the Cold War, Western concern over communism waned, and Suharto's human rights record came under greater international scrutiny. In 1991, the murder of East Timorese civilians in a Dili cemetery, also known as the "Santa Cruz Massacre" , caused American attention to focus on its military relations with the Suharto regime and the question of Indonesia's occupation of East Timor. In 1992, this attention resulted in the Congress of the United States passing limitations on IMET assistance to the Indonesian military, over the objections of President George H.W. Bush.[2] In 1993, under President Bill Clinton, the U.S. delegation to the UN Human Rights Commission helped pass a resolution expressing deep concern over Indonesian human rights violations in East Timor.[3]

Reformation protests and the fall of Suharto

For more details on this topic, please see Indonesian 1998 Revolution

In 1996 Suharto was challenged by a split over the leadership of the Indonesian Democratic Party (PDI), a legal party that propped up the regime. Megawati Sukarnoputri, the daughter of Sukarno, had become PDI's chairwoman and was increasingly critical of Suharto's regime. In response, Suharto backed a co-opted faction led by Deputy Speaker of Parliament Suryadi. The Suryadi faction announced a party congress to sack Megawati would be held in Medan June 20 - 22.

In response, Megawati proclaimed that if sacked, her supporters would hold demonstrations in protest. The Suryadi faction went through with its sacking of Megawati, and the demonstrations manifested themselves throughout Indonesia. This lead to several confrontations on the streets between protesters and security forces. A deal was eventually made with the military to allow Megawati's supporters to take over PDI headquarters in Jakarta, in exchange for a pledge of no further demonstrations. During this time, Megawati supporters organized "democracy forums" at the site, with several activists making speeches denouncing Suharto and his regime. (Aspinall 1996)

After one month of this, police, soldiers, and persons claiming to be Suryadi supporters stormed the headquarters, killing Megawati supporters and arresting two-hundred. Those arrested were tried under the Anti-Subversion and Hate-spreading laws. The day would become known as "Black Saturday" and mark the beginning of a renewed crackdown by the New Order government against supporters of democracy, now called the "Reformasi" or Reformation. (Amnesty International 1996)

On 21 May 1998, after enormous political pressure and numerous demonstrations, Suharto announces his resignation on Indonesian TV
On 21 May 1998, after enormous political pressure and numerous demonstrations, Suharto announces his resignation on Indonesian TV

In 1997 Asian financial crisis had dire consequences for the Indonesian economy and society, and Suharto's regime. The Indonesian currency, the rupiah, took a sharp dive in value. Suharto came under scrutiny from international lending institutions, chiefly the World Bank, IMF and the United States, over longtime embezzlement of funds and some protectionist policies. In December, Suharto's government signed a letter of intent to the IMF, pledging to enact austerity measures, including cuts to public services and removal of subsidies, in return for receiving the aid of the IMF and other donors.

Beginning early 1998, the austerity measures approved by Suharto had started to erode domestic confidence in the regime. Prices for goods such as kerosene and rice, and fees for public services including education rose dramatically. The effects were exacerbated by widespread corruption.

Suharto stood for reelection by parliament for the seventh time in March 1998, justifying it on the grounds of the necessity of his leadership during the crisis. The parliament approved a new term. This sparked protests and riots throughout the country, now termed the Indonesian 1998 Revolution. Dissension within the ranks of his own Golkar Party and military finally weakened Suharto, and on May 21 he stood down from power. He was replaced by his deputy Jusuf Habibie.

After the fall

Since his resignation, Suharto has retired to a family compound in Central Jakarta, making few public appearances. Efforts to prosecute Suharto have mostly centered around alleged mismanagement of funds, and their force has been blunted due to health concerns.

In May 1999, Time Asia reported that the Suharto family fortune is worth an estimated US$15 billion in cash, shares, corporate assets, real estate, jewelery and fine art. US$9 billion of this is reported to have been deposited in an Austrian bank. The family is said to control about 36,000 km² of real estate in Indonesia, including 100,000 m² of prime office space in Jakarta and nearly 40 percent of the land in East Timor. Over US$73 billion is said to have passed through the family's hands during Suharto's 32-year rule. According to Transparency International, Suharto embezzled more money than any other world leader in history. [1]

On May 29, 2000, Suharto was placed under house arrest when Indonesian authorities began to investigate the corruption during his regime. In July, it was announced that he was to be accused of embezzling US$571 million of government donations to one of a number of foundations under his control and then using the money to finance family investments. But in September court-appointed doctors announced that he could not stand trial because of his declining health. State prosecutors tried again in 2002 but then doctors blamed an unspecified brain disease. He has since been hospitalized repeatedly for stroke and heart problems.

On May 6, 2005, Suharto was taken to Pertamina Hospital in Jakarta with intestinal bleeding, believed to be from diverticulosis. The political elite of Indonesia, including President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono and Vice President Jusuf Kalla, visited his bedside. He was released and returned home, May 12, 2005.

On May 26, 2005, the Jakarta Post reported that amid an effort by the government of President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono to crack down on corruption, Indonesian Attorney General Abdurrahman Saleh appeared before a Parliamentary commission to discuss efforts to prosecute New Order figures, including Suharto. Attorney General Abdurrahman remarked that he hoped Suharto could recover so that the government could begin inquiries into New Order human rights violations and corruption for purposes of compensation and recovery of state funds, but expressed skepticism that this would be possible. The Supreme Court of Indonesia also issued a decree making the office of the Attorney General responsible for supervising Suharto's medical care.

Related legal cases

Unable to prosecute Suharto, the state has instead pursued legal actions against his former subordinates and members of his family. Suharto's son Hutomo Mandala Putra, more widely known as Tommy Suharto, was initially sentenced to fifteen years in jail for arranging the murder of a judge who sentenced him to eighteen months for his role in a land scam in September 2000. He became the first member of the Suharto family to be found guilty and jailed for a criminal offence. Tommy Suharto maintained his innocence, and won a reduction of his sentence to ten years in June 2005.

In 2003, Suharto's half-brother Probosutedjo was prosecuted for corrupt practices that lost a total of $10 million from the Indonesian state. He was sentenced to four years in jail. A subsequent investigation into a bribery scheme involving offers of $600,000 to various judges was made by the Indonesian Corruption Eradication Commission. Probosutedjo confessed to the scheme in October 2005, leading to the arrest of his lawyers.

Presidents of Indonesia
Preceded by:

Followed by:
Jusuf Habibie
Politics of Indonesia


1. ^  In 1991 a government minister admitted that the Indonesian national archives possessed only a copy of this letter and not the original. In 1992 another government minister called for whomever is in possession of the original document to submit it to the national archives. However, there are several testimonies from eyewitnesses who claim that such a document did exist, and that the copy in the archives is a faithful reproduction of the original.

2. ^  See United States Cong. House of Representatives. 102nd Congress, 2d Session. H.R. 5368, 2nd Session Foreign Operations, Export Financing, and Related Programs Appropriations Act, 1993. Title III - International Military Education and Training.

3. ^  See UN Commission on Human Rights resolution 1993/97, "Situation in East Timor"


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