General Suharto (1921–2008) was one of the longest ruler dictators of the 20th century. He ruled Indonesia for 32 years. After Zaire's Mobutu fell in 1997, only Fidel Castro was a dictator longer. When Suharto retired in 1998, he was the only president 65 percent of the population of Indonesia had ever known. Suharto was a stanch anti-Communist, a leader in Third World movement and a brutal authoritarian. He was one of the few dictators bold enough to place his portrait on his country’s currency while he was in office. Many ordinary Indonesians believed he was a reincarnation of a Javanese king with a mandate from heaven to govern.

After the upheaval, chaos and uncertainty that characterized the Sukarno years many people were happy with the stability and security that Suharto brought even it meant the loss of democracy and freedom. Suharto eliminated the Communist threat and successfully promoted a national identity and reduced regional, religious and ethnic divisions. But also tens of thousands— likely hundreds of thousands—were killed under his watch.

After his death, John Gittings wrote in The Guardian, “Suharto reminds us that even the most stubborn of dictatorships come to an end. Despite predictions by his ruling clique that he would lead Indonesia into the 21st century, his term of office, which began with bloodshed in 1967, ended equally bloodily in 1998. Although known as the "smiling general", he had a complex character which, for most of his life, successfully deflected analysis. He was acclaimed as a man of modest origins who had taken power out of disgust at the corruption of the last years of Sukarno, Indonesia's first president, who ruled from its independence from the Netherlands in 1949 until 1967. [Source: John Gittings, The Guardian, January 27, 2008 +++]

“For years, this myth coexisted with the public knowledge that Suharto presided over a regime in which his closest friends controlled huge monopolies and lucrative concessions, while his children acquired assets worth billions of dollars. Under his rule, Indonesia became closely aligned with western interests during the cold war and was rewarded with aid and investment to foster rapid economic growth, making fortunes for his cronies. He favoured ambitious, but often unsound, development projects, and schemes to relocate millions of landless peasants and open up virgin forests paved the way for the country's current environmental crisis. +++

“Vast numbers of political opponents were killed, jailed or sent to labour camps during three decades of Suharto's rule, with tens of thousands dying in East Timor alone following its illegal annexation in 1975. Suharto lost his grip on power only when the Asian financial crisis of 1997 led to popular unrest over rocketing prices and unemployment, to which he had no answer except repression. His political career ended in May 1998, two months after he had insisted on standing for a seventh presidential term and appointed a cabinet dominated by his old friends and family. The killing of six students by security forces at Trisakti University on May 12 triggered a revulsion to which even Suharto had to yield. It was grimly fitting that a regime that began in blood with the slaughter of hundreds of thousands in an anti-communist crackdown from 1965 to1966 ended with more bloodshed. Only then could the Suharto myth begin to be unravelled.” +++


Suharto's Early Life

The son a poorly educated peasant farmer, Suharto was born on June 8, 1921 in a bamboo hut in Godeon, a village in central Java near Yogyakarta, the former royal capital in central Java. He received little formal education. Suharto's parents were separated when Suharto was young. He lived with several different families. When he was 14 he moved into the home of a “dukan”, a traditional Javanese mystical healer, who became the first guru in his life. Mysticism remained important to him throughout his life.

John Gittings wrote in The Guardian, “It had been a long journey from his birthplace. His father was a minor official under Dutch rule, supervising water distribution to the fields, in return for which he was allocated two acres to farm. His mother had distant aristocratic origins, being descended from one of the sultan of Jogjakarta's concubines some generations back. Suharto himself seems to have been rather unhappy, and frequently changed his name through life - a Javanese device to fend off evil spirits at a time of personal failure. [Source: John Gittings, The Guardian, January 27, 2008 +++]

“He graduated from high school in 1939, working briefly in a village bank, and would later claim he lost the job because his only sarong was accidentally torn and he could not afford to replace it. The alternative version is that he was sacked for stealing clothes, and was ordered by the court to join the army as an alternative to prison.” +++

Suharto's Early Military Career

Suharto joined the Dutch army and over of the course of nine years served with the Dutch, the Japanese, the anti-Dutch liberation army and the fledgling Indonesian army. During World War II, Suharto used the invasion of Indonesia by Japan as a means of fighting against colonialism. He received military training in Peta and became a battalion leader in Japan's 'self-defense corps." His half brother told Time, "He came riding into the village on a horse—it was rare to see someone on a horse in our village."

Suharto also fought to expel the Dutch. During the war for independence, he distinguished himself by leading a lightning attack on Yogyakarta, seizing it on March 1, 1949, after the Dutch had captured it in their second "police action." He used that position to secure a position as a career army officer when Indonesia became independent. A former soldier who served in a battalion with Suharto told Time, "He was a very a noble figure. Everyone revered him. He had a good reputation at the front. He didn't talk much. He was distant from us. He was someone you had to be afraid of. And don't forget—he was educated by the Japanese army. He has the ethics of the samurai. They never surrender." Rising quickly through the ranks, Suharto was placed in charge of the Diponegoro Division in 1962 and Kostrad the following year.

John Gittings wrote in The Guardian, “The only path forward for young men in what was then the Dutch East Indies - outside the tiny elite sent to college - was the army. Suharto joined the Royal Netherlands Indies army in 1940, and soon became a sergeant. When the Japanese invaded in 1942, the Dutch commander in chief, Lieutenant General Ter Poorten, surrendered precipitately. Any respect for the colonial power was lost. Suharto, with tens of thousands of others from the disbanded force, joined Peta, the Volunteer Army of Defenders of the Motherland, whose explicit aim was to help Japan defend Indonesia against invasion by the western allies. In fact, nationalist leaders such as Sukarno and Mohammed Hatta used support for Japan to arouse a more general sense of anti-imperialism. [Source: John Gittings, The Guardian, January 27, 2008 +++]

“The Japanese turned ex-NCOs, including Suharto, into officers and gave them further military education, including lessons in the use of the samurai sword. Suharto's adulatory biographer, OG Roeder, records in “The Smiling General” (1969) that his subject was "well known for his tough, but not brutal, methods". When, in August 1945, the Japanese surrender brought the second world war to a close, its forces were ordered by the allies to prevent an Indonesian nationalist takeover. However, Peta units refused to disarm, seizing control of several large towns. Suharto led a raid on the Japanese garrison at Jogjakarta. In the official account, he is also credited with foiling a communist coup against Sukarno. In a more plausible interpretation, he supported the conspiracy when it appeared likely to succeed, but betrayed it once it had failed. Fact and myth are equally hard to disentangle in his career. +++

Suharto's Character

Suharto had a gentle, calm demeanor and some called him the "smiling general." He read speeches in a flat, even tone and never displayed any emotion. In his autobiography, he claimed he lived according to "the three don't": “Aja kagetan” ("don't be startled"), “aja gumunan” ("don't be overwhelmed") and “aja dumeh” ("don't feel superior").

Suharto had a thick Javanese accent. He frequently used malapropisms, which were copied by his aides. During some interviews Suharto fielded questions in English and answered them in Bahasa Indonesian. Suharto's half brother Notosuwito told Time, "He is never emotional...Suharto is quiet, searching for a way. If he has already worked it out, he speaks and everyone is surprised. He himself is never surprised, but he surprises other people."

Notosuwito also told Time, "Suharto was conditioned by his village...He has an obligation to the people below him. It is certain he feels sad...but he never shows his sadness to the people. He has a fighting spirit, and he will struggle until he dies for the welfare of the people."

Suharto liked golf, deep-sea fishing and driving around the grounds of his home in a Harley Davidson and a side car with his vice president B.J. Habibie in the sidecar. He was once photographed with arm around a stewardess.

Suharto and Superstition

Suharto considered himself a devout Muslim but was very superstitious. He regularly consulted traditional Javanese mystics, sorcerers and astrologers. He often consulted a “dukan” before making important decisions and reportedly believed that events were sometimes driven by forces manifested through a relationship between retail bar codes and the number 666. Suharto liked to visit a sacred cave on Java's Dieng plateau, the spiritual home of Semar, the infamous Javanese buffoon-god, and meditate there.

Suharto regularly consulted astrologers and made policy on their recommendations. Describing one of Suharto's dukun in action, Dorinda Elliot wrote in Time, "Working himself into a trance, Kusandi tenses, pating, growling, lunging with knuckles flexed. With spirits help, he says, he has 'become a tiger.'"

Suharto tried to develop his own mystical powers. When one of his spiritual advisors was asked by National Geographic how Suharto could be forced from power if he had mystical powers, the advisor said, “He didn’t listen to me.”

Suharto During the Sukarno Years

After Sukarno declared Indonesian independence in 1945, Suharto joined Sukarno's revolutionaries and emerged as an officer when Indonesia was recognized as an independent country in 1949. During most of the Sukarno years, Suharto was an uncharismatic but steady mid-ranking officer. He "used an innate shrewdness and an ability to play rivals off one another," was involved in crushing a popular uprising in the 1950s in the islands, and befriended influential Chinese businessmen.

In the 1950s, Suharto was reportedly involved in a sugar smuggling operation and given a less prestigious command as punishment after he was caught. Even so Suharto rose through ranks to become an influential general and head of the Strategic Reserve Command in Jakarta, which protected the capital.

John Gittings wrote in The Guardian, “When Indonesia gained independence in 1949 after a four-year struggle against the Dutch, Sukarno became the country's first president. Suharto, by then a colonel in the new national army, took part in the pacification of rebellious forces in South Sulawesi, where his troops earned a reputation for extreme brutality. Suharto and his colleagues saw themselves as operators — and the army as the mechanism — to steer Indonesian society through a transition beset by militant communism and Islam. Less visible than the senior generals around Sukarno, they were waiting in the wings for the president's uneasy coalition of Muslims, the PKI and the army to crumble.” [Source: John Gittings, The Guardian, January 27, 2008 +++]

Suharto Comes to Power After the 1965 “Coup”

Suharto consolidated his power while Sukarno was still officially president. Using the 1965 “coup” as an excuse to clean house he consolidated his power and either struck deals or eliminated potential rivals. After aligning himself with conservatives, Suharto removed "undesirable" elements from his organization, banned the Communist PKI, appointed loyalista to key positions in the cabinet, and lead the Indonesian military in a brutal crackdown on Communists in Indonesia. He received secret support from the U.S. as part its drive against communism.

In March 1966, Suharto established himself as the Army Chief of Staff and assumed effective power of the Indonesian government (Sukarno was politically crippled and Suharto had the support of the military). Pramoedya Ananta Toer wrote, Suharto "tried to legitimize his rule by claiming Sukarno had conferred power to him in a letter dated March 11, 1966—a letter which has never been produced to the public and is now said to have been 'lost'."

After Suharto took over leadership of the armed forces he set about manoeuvring Sukarno from power. According to Lonely Planet: Despite the chaos, Sukarno continued as president, and as he still had supporters in the armed forces it seemed unlikely that he would voluntarily resign. However, on 11 March 1966, after troops loyal to Suharto surrounded the Presidential Palace, Sukarno signed the 11 March Order giving Suharto the power to restore order. While always deferring to the name of Sukarno, Suharto rapidly consolidated his power. The PKI was officially banned. Pro-Sukarno soldiers and a number of cabinet ministers were arrested. A new six-man inner cabinet, which included Suharto and two of his nominees, Adam Malik and Sultan Hamengkubuwono of Yogyakarta, was formed. Suharto then launched a campaign of intimidation to blunt any grass-roots opposition. Thousands of public servants were dismissed as PKI sympathisers, putting thousands more in fear of losing their jobs. By 1967 Suharto was firmly enough entrenched to finally cut Sukarno adrift. The People’s Consultative Congress, following the arrest of many of its members and an infusion of Suharto appointees, relieved Sukarno of all power and, on 27 March 1968, it ‘elected’ Suharto as president. [Source: Lonely Planet]

Suharto became the head of the Indonesian government when Sukarno was muscled out of power and forced to retire and placed under house arrest in 1967. In March 1968, after Sukarno’s departure, Suharto formerly assumed the presidency of Indonesia after he was “elected” to the office Pramoedya wrote, "Suharto's next step, in 1971, was to stage a general election in accordance with his taste and needs. Two years later he required all political currents to merge into just three parties, yielding a 'constitutional state' complete with recognition and support of Western countries."

John Gittings wrote in The Guardian, Suharto’s moment came on September 30 1965, when the PKI leader, DN Aidit (apparently acting on his own), and a small group of leftwing officers launched a botched coup in which six senior generals were killed. Suharto, who mysteriously survived, quickly suppressed the uprising. Over the next six months, army units and local vigilante groups launched a nationwide purge of so-called communists, a catch-all label that included labour and civic leaders and thousands of others who would never have even heard of Karl Marx. Most were shot, stabbed, beaten to death or thrown down wells in acts of horrifying violence. The purge was masterminded by Suharto, who soon persuaded President Sukarno to vest in him leadership of the armed forces, and used trusted officers to carry it out. It is thought up to 600,000 were killed. Suharto, while professing complete loyalty to the president, quickly marginalised Sukarno. And by March 1966, Sukarno had transferred most of his power to Suharto, who became acting president a year later. By March 1968, he was formally elected president by the tame provisional parliament. Sukarno remained under house arrest till his death in 1970. [Source: John Gittings, The Guardian, January 27, 2008]

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Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, Compton’s Encyclopedia, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Global Viewpoint (Christian Science Monitor), Foreign Policy, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, NBC News, Fox News and various books and other publications.

Last updated June 2015

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