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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

Just a Routine Checkup?

Concerns over President Suharto's health send tremors throughout the country

By Todd Crowell
and Keith Loveard / Jakarta


JAKARTA WAS ALREADY ON edge following the ousting last month of Megawati Sukarnoputri as head of the Indonesian Democratic Party. Then news began to filter out of the palace that President Suharto, 75, was flying to Germany on July 7 for a medical checkup. Though a government spokesman insisted that the examination was routine, it heightened the worries, never far below the surface, about the health of the only leader Indonesia has known for 30 years.

Every office in the capital was buzzing with speculation over the seriousness of Suharto's condition. Some believed that the president had developed heart problems. That was reinforced after Suharto checked into a clinic at Bad Oeynhausen, near Hanover, the same place that Minister for Technology B.J. Habibie had earlier undergone heart surgery. Habibie flew ahead to make arrangements and greet the president and his 40-member party, which included four of his children. Suharto's staff would only say that he was being treated for kidney stones, a condition he has had before.

Concern over Suharto's health sent tremors through Southeast Asia. In Singapore, the rupiah's value slid to 2,338 to the dollar on July 4 after having held steady at 2,326 since April. The Jakarta Composite Index, which should have been buoyed by the announcement that inflation was zero in June, dived 19 points over two days to 575. "There is every sign of capital flight," said an economist. "People are concerned, especially in the wake of the Democratic Party protests, that things could get out of hand here."

Most of Jakarta's weekend newspapers carried photographs showing Suharto carrying out his presidential duties and receiving VIP guests. He played a round of golf with his regular partner, timber tycoon Bob Hasan, just before departing for Germany. Later, the press published pictures of him in Germany wearing a jaunty Dutch-boy's hat and strolling with his smiling daughters. The president was "in better health than many people think," said the clinic's head Dr. Reiner Koerfer.

Such efforts did calm nerves. After several days of wobbling, Indonesian financial markets stabilized. The rupiah recovered some of the ground it lost the week before, and the central bank said it did not have to intervene to prop up the currency. The stock market also recovered some of its robustness, hitting 578 on July 10. By mid-week everyone seemed to be breathing easier.

But some worries remained. Suharto's departure was extremely abrupt for a routine checkup. He canceled a July 9 visit to Malaysia to make the trip. The president is scheduled to host the ASEAN ministerial conference beginning July 19, and afterwards the ASEAN Regional Forum. If he is absent, that would be an ominous sign.

And there is the hard-to-evaluate but important emotional impact of the sudden death from a heart attack of his wife, Tien Suharto, in April. Many in Indonesia could not help but wonder how Suharto would be affected by the loss of his steady partner of nearly 50 years. In the weeks that followed, the president seemed subdued, and in recent days some observers say his face has looked puffy and his walk lacked his natural bounce.

Speculation last year that Suharto had received kidney dialysis elicited a formal denial from State Secretary Murdiono, who said the president had been treated for kidney stones, a simpler condition. This time Murdiono again declared that the president was fit. "You can see for yourself, he's fine," he told reporters. But he was silent on whether Suharto was suffering from diabetes or heart trouble.

The health scare was a strong reminder that the presidential succession remains an unsettled question. Suharto seems determined to seek a seventh term in 1998, and has allowed no strong No. 2 to emerge. Uncertainty over his health has complicated the calculations of the men who fancy themselves becoming the nation's third president. They include Vice-President Try Sutrisno, who would become acting president if Suharto were incapacitated, and Habibie, who was at the president's side at the German clinic.

Adding to the political tensions last week, an independent election monitoring committee called for postponing next year's parliamentary election. "It should be called off because the political parties that should participate are not independent," said Gunawan Mohamad, former editor of the banned Tempo magazine. The military signaled it would not tolerate demonstrations in Suharto's absence. Chief of the General Staff Lt.-Gen. Suyono told regional commanders to be ready for trouble. The country can only hope there isn't any.


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