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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

THE SECRET OF SURVIVAL

As butter runs out, Suharto sticks to his guns

By Ricardo Saludo


"ALL POWER IS A trust," said the 19th century British prime minister, Benjamin Disraeli. In mid-May, as the worst rioting ever in Jakarta raged, Suharto, ruler of Indonesia since 1966, seemed to agree. During a break from the G-15 summit of developing nations in Cairo, the president told a group of compatriots that he was willing to quit if the people had lost trust in him. But long-time watchers of the wily Javanese despot had their doubts he would bow out so easily. And they were right to put less value in Suharto's calculated statements and more in his proven ability to bounce back, banking on an army he had dominated for 32 years.

Having survived a communist coup attempt in September 1965 and seized power in a counter-coup, General Suharto, 77 next month, had always been extra careful to ensure that the security forces - now 460,000 strong - would be staunchly loyal. He paid particular attention to units around Jakarta, like the Kostrad strategic reserve, with which Suharto launched his counter-putsch in 1965. The 20,000-man unit is now under a son-in-law of his, Lt.-Gen. Prabowo Subianto. That military clout seemed in evidence on May 18: after meetings with Suharto and top generals, Defense Minister and Armed Forces Commander Gen. Wiranto declared that the military found "no legal basis" for a call by leaders of Parliament for the president to resign.

To keep army control, Suharto had cut down any emerging rival. "His main failing," says a senior military officer, "has been to consistently block people who might threaten his power" - creating Asia's biggest succession problem. He retired or outmaneuvered generals he was wary of. Early in the decade, he kicked armed forces chief Benny Murdani upstairs to defense minister and eventually out of the cabinet. At one point, Murdani complained to the strongman about policies, wrongly thinking he had allies in the armed forces behind him. In 1974, intelligence chief and deputy army commander Sumitro began eclipsing the president, but he had to quit over his moderate tack toward student protests against Suharto and Japanese business. They degenerated into arson and looting - allegedly after the president's men infiltrated the picket lines.

Since he rose to power, Suharto had displayed a remarkable ability to twist and turn meticulously through the mire of politics. His reform gambit last week, complete with a delegation of Muslim leaders, was a clear attempt to defuse tension and win over a segment of the Muslim majority. Many Javanese attributed his skill to "the gift of the gods," or wahyu. Suharto himself had long been known to rely on the advice of dukun or soothsayers. In one memorable meeting in 1975, he invited Australian prime minister Gough Whitlam to the cave where he meditated. The tall visitor was apparently so impressed that his government later turned a blind eye to Indonesia's 1975 invasion of East Timor.

But Suharto was thought to have lost a measure of wahyu with the death of his blue-blooded wife Ibu Tien in 1996. He supposedly tried to regain it with the marriage last year of his son Tommy to a member of the Mangkunegoro royal family of Solo, central Java. Whether or not the mystic touch was crucial, Suharto has certainly seen his political fortunes slide since his wife's death. Just two months later in June 1996, his ouster of Sukarno's popular daughter, Megawati Sukarnoputri, as head of the opposition Indonesian Democratic Party triggered the biggest protests in Jakarta in years. Then 1997 brought the Asian currency crisis, which saw the rupiah lose as much as 85% of its value and Indonesia enter its worst recession ever.

The regional crisis dislocated the other key source of Suharto's power: Indonesia's economic boom. Under his rule, tens of millions of Indonesians rose out of destitution, slashing the incidence of poverty from 64% of the population in 1975, to 11.4% 20 years later. That made most Indonesians willing to put up with the autocracy and corruption of the regime. Even if his family companies and foundations milked Indonesia, they also spread largess to build grassroots support.

Suharto learned early to use his position to make money, as Central Java commander in the mid-1950s. His superiors had encouraged him to supplement funds with businesses on the side. Thus grew his dealings with such longtime cronies as Mohamad "Bob" Hasan and Liem Sioe Liong. But Suharto evidently went too far and was relieved of his command.

Today, as the economy crumbles and unrest mounts, Suharto still maintains his regal bearing and feudal distance, even smiling at the end of his May 19 televised address on his reform plan. But in fact, he has again retreated behind his last line of defense: armed might. Thus he took and maintained power in the past, unflinching at the hundreds of thousands of casualties which attended defining moments in his rule, including the Timor annexation.

But this time, even his army may no longer care to stanch history's tide. "The march of freedom is irreversible," says president-elect Joseph Estrada of the Philippines about the Indonesian political crisis. "You cannot be a dictator forever." Now, Suharto may find that even the soldiers he had relied on for decades have shifted their loyalty to the people.

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