Mohammed Suharto (8 June 1921 – 27 January 2008), second president of Indonesia (1967-1998), who oversaw the country’s unprecedented economic growth and emergence as a regional power.
Born to a peasant family in Kemusu, a village near the city of Yogyakarta in central Java (then under Dutch control), Suharto had an unsettled childhood. His parents’ marriage broke up before he was two years old, and he was brought up variously by each of his remarried parents and by relatives in other villages and towns around Yogyakarta. Suharto attended local Javanese schools, worked for a short time in a village bank, and joined the Dutch colonial army in 1940.
By 1942 Suharto had been promoted to sergeant. That year, Japan invaded and occupied Indonesia during World War II. Believing that cooperation with the Japanese offered the best hope for eventual Indonesian independence, Suharto joined a Japanese-led militia and received military training. After Japan surrendered an d Indonesia declared its independence in August 1945, Suharto joined the newly established Indonesian army and fought in a five-year war against the Dutch, who attempted to regain control of the region after Japan’s withdrawal. The Dutch captured much of Java in 1947 and Yogyakarta the following year. In March 1949 troops under Suharto’s command attacked the Dutch in Yogyakarta and recaptured the city. The Dutch agreed to leave all of Indonesia except Dutch New Guinea (West Irian) later that year.
Over the next 15 years, Suharto rose steadily through the military ranks. In the early 1950s Suharto led military operations to suppress uprisings by Muslim and Dutch-led groups in various parts of Indonesia, and in 1957 he took command of the central Javanese army division. Suharto became a brigadier general in 1960, and in 1962 he headed a military operation to recover West Irian (now the province of Papua; formerly Irian Jaya) from the Dutch. In 1963 he was put in charge of the army’s strategic command, a special force kept on alert for national emergencies.
By the mid-1960s both the military and the Indonesian Communist Party (Partai Komunis Indonesia, or PKI) had gained considerable power under the regime of Indonesian president Sukarno. When a group of dissident pro-Communist army and air force troops attempted to seize control of the government in Jakarta, Indonesia’s capital, in October 1965, Suharto successfully suppressed them. Although he was not Indonesia’s dominant military leader at the time, Suharto outmaneuvered his military competitors for power during the succeeding months. The army alleged that the PKI was responsible for the abortive coup, and in late 1965 army units and Muslim groups began to massacre Communists and their supporters throughout the countryside. In March 1966 Suharto successfully persuaded President Sukarno to authorize him to restore security and order, which effectively transferred executive authority to Suharto. In 1967 the Indonesian parliament appointed Suharto acting president. He was elected full president by the parliament in 1968 and was reelected to successive five-year terms in 1973, 1978, 1983, 1988, 1993, and 1998. The Indonesian constitution does not limit the number of terms a president may serve.
President of Indonesia
From the outset, Suharto focused heavily on national security, adopting a strong anti-Communist stance in contrast to his predecessor, Sukarno. Suharto quickly eliminated the PKI and associated organizations and subsequently began repressing other organizations and people he viewed as a threat to his hold on power. These included Muslims pursuing a more prominent role for Islam in state affairs, writers desiring greater artistic freedom, and politicians seeking increased freedom to promote their ideas to the public. When Portugal ended its colonial rule of the territory of East Timor in 1975, Suharto intervened in the struggle for control of the region. The Revolutionary Front for an Independent East Timor (Fretilin), a leftist revolutionary party, eventually took power, and in December Suharto ordered an invasion of the region, arguing that an independent East Timor under Fretilin would threaten the unity of the Indonesian state. Suharto’s government annexed East Timor the following year.
Suharto also sought to restore Indonesia’s relations with the Western world, which had deteriorated under Sukarno. Suharto ended Indonesia’s hostile stance toward Malaysia, whose independence Sukarno had felt was a front for continued British colonial activities in the region. Suharto also rejoined the United Nations (UN), from which Sukarno had withdrawn in 1965, when Malaysia was elected a nonpermanent member. Finally, Suharto froze the diplomatic ties forged by Sukarno with Communist China.
With internal political stability largely in place by the 1980s, Suharto set out to expand Indonesia’s role in international politics. He continued the country’s leadership role in the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), a regional economic and political alliance that Indonesia had helped found in 1967. In the late 1980s and early 1990s he promoted efforts to bring peace to Cambodia and also normalized relations with China. In 1992 Indonesia chaired the Nonaligned Movement, an association of nations not specifically allied with a world superpower.
Economic development was another major focus of Suharto’s presidency. Under his rule, Indonesia experienced unprecedented growth beginning in the early 1970s. Economic success resulted from substantial foreign investment and from economic diversification, which reduced the country’s reliance on oil and agriculture. Suharto’s government developed roads and irrigation systems and implemented food production programs.
The government also made social improvements, expanding health and educational facilities and family planning programs. Although most Indonesians enjoyed greater economic security than ever before, the benefits of the country’s growth were experienced unequally, as Suharto’s family members and their business partners became immensely wealthy.
By 1997 Suharto was concluding his sixth five-year term of office and had not given any indication that he was contemplating retirement. Although critics periodically raised the question of succession, Suharto always managed to deflect the issue. He also ensured that his vice presidents were always politicians with no reasonable likelihood of succeeding him.
In the second half of 1997 the value of the Indonesian currency began to plummet, sparking a massive economic crisis in which inflation soared and unemployment rose. Negotiations with the International Monetary Fund (IMF) produced three possible rescue packages for the economy. However, these packages failed to convince international financial managers that recovery was possible. These managers made it clear that they did not believe economic stability could be restored as long as Suharto was president.
In March 1998 Suharto was elected to a seventh term. His cabinet appointments - mostly loyalists unlikely to challenge his authority or push for change - sparked demonstrations by university students calling for democratic reforms. In May police shot six students at a demonstration, triggering two days of arson and looting in Jakarta in which about 500 people died. Opposition to Suharto’s rule spread to many political and community leaders who had previously supported him. On May 21 Suharto bowed before this pressure and resigned. His vice president, B. J. Habibie, succeeded him as president.