The secretive ruler who turned his country into a family business

The Indonesian autocrat may be brought down by a force even the mightiest tyrant cannot control - the global economy
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The Independent Online
THE BAPAK he used to be called by a grateful nation - the "father" of Indonesia. He is secretive and shy, almost mystical in his ways. His style is as modest as that of his predecessor, Sukarno, was flamboyant. If needs be, he can be ruthless. But his true mastery lies in playing one rival off against another, in turning silence and secrecy into tools of power. Thus, amid rumour and shadows, President Suharto has ruled the fourth most populous country in the world for a third of a century. But now the Bapak looks about to be brought down by something the mightiest autocrat cannot control: the global economy of the 20th century.

Suharto's Indonesia has been a mutant Asian tiger. Outwardly, it has obeyed the principles of the market, fostered by a group of California- trained technocrats called the "Berkeley Mafia"; but in truth suffused with economic nationalism, and perverted by cronyism and rank corruption.

The beneficiaries include an inner circle of businessmen, prospering mightily from government contracts, and licences and protection, in return for financial support for the regime. The innermost circle of all, however, is the Suharto family.

Just how much the four of his six children - Tommy, Siti, Sigit, and Bambang ("Toshiba," as the mocking acronym has it) - have accumulated through their interests in telecommunications, hotels, cars and a host of other sectors may only be guessed. The estimates range from $5bn to as much as $30bn - an amount equal to a seventh of the entire economy as measured in those happier days of 1996, when a dollar fetched only 2,300 rupiah. Today with the exchange rate at 11,000 rupiah, and given the probability that the Suhartos have been able to hedge their currency bets, the ramshackle national economy could be more than ever, the family business.

Kleptocracy is not quite the word for it; unlike President Mobutu, fallen father of another, African, nation, Suharto's rule has seen a steady improvement in his people's economic lot. Like Lenin, he can boast of bringing electricity to every village. Nor has his rule been as brutal and suffocating as that of another practitioner of rampant nepotism, Nicolae Ceausescu of Romania, executed in the coup of Christmas 1989. The closest parallel perhaps, geographically and politically, is President Marcos, who accumulated a vast personal fortune until being ousted in 1986 by a popular revolt in the Philippines, similar to the one in Indonesia today.

One thing though is certain. Whether this mechanism for perpetual family enrichment can continue, depends now on the military out of which Suharto grew. Born into a devout Muslim family near Yogyakarta in central Java, he spent a childhood of great poverty. The army he joined in 1942, aged 21, was a militia created by the Japanese. But serving under Indonesia's wartime occupiers only hardened the love of discipline and order, and the sense of nation that marks him to this day.

By 1945 he was fighting to drive out the Japanese, and by 1949 he had helped secure Indonesia's independence from Dutch colonial power. He rose steadily through the ranks, to become commander of the strategic reserve in 1962. Three years later as President Sukarno sided with the Communists, came the celebrated but still not fully explained coup, whose failure would topple him. In 1967, Suharto became president, the only change of regime in the country's modern history.

In the decades that followed, an unspoken fear underpinned his rule: that without the guiding hand of the Bapak, all would revert to the shambles from which he rescued the country. The events of 1965, when the bodies of four generals were thrown down a well at Halim Air Force Base near Jakarta, and a vengeful army used the pretext to permit the slaughter of thousands of ethnic Chinese are etched in the collective folk memory.

No matter Suharto, as chief-of-staff, may have presided over the killing. He had restored order. It was his good fortune also that the first period of his rule coincided with the growth of Indonesia's oil industry. Thanks to the Organisation of Petroleum Exporting Countries (Opec) and political upheavals in the Middle East, oil prices in the 1970s tripled, and then tripled again. Pertamina, the state oil company became a power in the region - and a byword for corruption beyond.

But enough wealth and public investment was trickling down to ordinary people to keep them content. By now the country was self-sufficient in rice. And when the oil boom bust in the mid-1980s, Suharto was astute enough to switch into textiles and the other manufacturing industries that were making the fortune of South Korea and the earlier Asian tigers. The rest was inevitable: a flood of foreign investment from a West rejoicing in his anti-Communism, giant projects, extravagant patronage and even more extravagant corruption. But last year the bubble burst, and Suharto had forgotten one thing: democracy.

Not only does absolute power corrupt absolutely; it destroys a man's sense of his own fallibility, his ability to leave the stage at the appointed moment. A ruler's greatest disservice is to leave no obvious and credible successor.

Thus it has been with Suharto. He has endowed Indonesia with a middle class. But the history of middle classes the world over is that, sooner or later, they demand a say in running things. He has been intermittently ill but has made no gesture to mortality, securing his re-election to the Presidency only two months ago. He has seen his economy descend into chaos, but has been unable to recognise that the problem is of his own making.

His last chance, with the financial markets and the International Monetary Fund at his door, lay in the government he appointed in March. It might have been an attempt to prepare the future without him, containing figures of probity and sound economic credentials. Instead it was stuffed with cronies. Unfortunately economic collapse has drained what was left of public loyalty.

No longer are the people afraid: any evil is lesser than Suharto. That is the vice in which President Suharto is caught. The army made him. The army is now the arbiter of his fate.

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