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Web-only Exclusives
November 30, 2000

From Our Correspondent: Hirohito and the War
A conversation with biographer Herbert Bix

From Our Correspondent: A Rough Road Ahead
Bad news for the Philippines - and some others

From Our Correspondent: Making Enemies
Indonesia needs friends. So why is it picking fights?

Asiaweek Time Asia Now Asiaweek story

In Mourning

The nation said farewell to Ibu Tien, and
wondered how long Suharto would stay on

By Susan Berfield and Keith Loveard / Jakarta


PRESIDENT SUHARTO SAT CROSS-LEGGED on the floor beside the body of his wife, Siti Hartinah. His head was bowed, his face ashen; he seemed almost unaware of the mourners who filed through his home on April 28, briefly pressing his hands as they passed. Ibu [mother] Tien, as the 72-year-old first lady was known, had died suddenly in the early morning of a heart attack thought to have been brought on by diabetes. She had been rushed to a nearby army hospital after she complained of breathing difficulties, but doctors could not save her.

The Suhartos had married nearly a half-century ago during Indonesia's war of independence. He was a farmer's son serving as a lieutenant colonel in the newly established Indonesian army; she was a volunteer with the Indonesian Red Cross, the daughter of a district officer in the Dutch colonial administration, and the descendant of Javanese royalty. They had three sons and three daughters, most of whom are now members of the country's business elite.

Tien had been a quiet but powerful force in building the family's political and economic empire after Suharto assumed power in 1966. She was the president's closest confidant. And, in his first days without her, he seemed distraught. For some time now, people have been asking how much longer Suharto will rule, and who will succeed him. The first lady's death has naturally intensified the speculation about the 74-year-old president's plans.

Word of Tien's death spread first among those walking to the mosque to celebrate Eid'l Adha, the second most important Muslim festival. Thousands lined the streets of Jakarta later that Sunday to catch a glimpse of the cortege as it moved from the Suhartos' home to Halim airport, where the coffin was flown to Tien's birthplace in central Java. On Monday she was buried in her family's mausoleum outside Solo, once a royal capital.

Suharto, with his eldest daughter Siti Hardiyanti Rukmana at his side, stood close to the coffin during the brief state funeral. The president was silent; Rukmana, better known as Tutut, spoke on behalf of the family. The ceremony, attended by the leaders of Brunei, Malaysia, Singapore and Thailand, was broadcast throughout the country. Flags flew at half-mast, and the government declared a week-long mourning period.

Tien had always played her supporting role with poise. She was at the president's side during his frequent trips to factories, far-flung villages and foreign countries. The one-time volunteer continued working with private social welfare organizations. Yet as conscientious a first lady as she was, Tien early on was tagged with the nickname Madam Ten Percent. Harry Tjan Silalahi of the Center for Strategic and International Studies says allegations of corruption never had any substance: "She was a backstage player. She might have liked to receive a few presents, but no more than that." Indeed, whatever resentment Indonesians felt about the first lady dissipated with her death -- if not before it. Students who in the early 1970s protested against the extravagance of her Indonesia-in-miniature theme park on Jakarta's outskirts now visit it with their children.

It is the rise of an urban middle class that will be the president's legacy. When Suharto first came to power 30 years ago, the country's economy was in a free fall. His export-oriented policies helped put it back on track. In 1995, Indonesia's per capita income exceeded $1,000 for the first time, marking its exit from the ranks of the poor developing countries. Economic growth has held at around 8%. "Things are much easier these days," says a Jakarta shopkeeper. But then he adds: "Maybe Ibu Tien's death will cause the president to reflect on his own age."

Suharto is unlikely to retire, though, until he is confident that economic development will not be disturbed by simmering political agitation, and that the vast business interests of his children will be protected. While some believe that his wife's death could weaken his resolve to seek a seventh five-year term in 1998, most do not think it will altogether crush it. "Suharto is a very determined and egocentric man," says Silalahi. "If he thinks the people still want him, that will influence him as well."

The president probably will not say anything publicly about his plans until he has to. But then Indonesians are used to that. Suharto has never declared his intentions early in the electoral season. Parliamentary polls are not due until June 1997. The two top leaders will be formally selected in March 1998 by an electoral college made up of 425 directly elected members of Parliament and 75 military members, plus 500 appointees -- many of whom are also from the armed forces.

If Suharto accepts another term, he may arrange for his 47-year-old daughter Tutut, who is chairwoman of the central board of the dominant Golkar party, to be nominated vice-president. The only obstacle to Tutut's rise could be the military brass; they would like someone with a military background in the No. 2 spot. Other possible contenders include Research and Technology Minister B.J. Habibie, State Secretary Murdiono and National Planning Minister Ginandjar Kartasasmita.

Whoever serves with Suharto will in effect be the president-in-waiting. Under the Constitution, the vice-president completes the president's term if he becomes ill or incapacitated. Though Suharto seems to be in good health despite persistent rumors of kidney trouble, he could retire mid-way through his next term, if he knew he was leaving the country in reliable hands. Even some family members would like him to cede power before his term ends. "What we hope is that he will stand down in the year 2000," says one relative. "If he were to die in office, the family could be in trouble."

Many Indonesians echo that uncertainty over the future. Middle-class aspirations for greater political freedom, the growing gap between rich and poor, government corruption, worker unrest and violent incidents such as the recent deaths of six students protesting public transport fare hikes, all threaten the stability Suharto helped to create.

Suharto may be deft enough to ease such dissatisfaction. If he were to die in office, a successor without his clear backing probably would not last long enough to even try. And fighting among presidential rivals would likely bring these bubbling tensions to a boil.


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