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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


Suharto's legacy: fortunes and failings

Return to Main Story

The Military On political maneuvers

Habibie Inc. The new president's family values

Economy Many problems need fixing

Cronies Attention turns to Suharto's clan

Students Chalk it up to youthful exuberance

"I seek forgiveness" excerpts from Suharto's resignation speech

FOR A MAN WITH SUCH an uncanny instinct to exploit the flaws in others, Suharto proved surprisingly incapable of recognizing his own. Perhaps he was stuck in the past. Even before his 32-year reign as Indonesia's undisputed leader began in 1966, he practiced ancient Javanese arts of grasping power, nurturing it and using it to feed upon itself. He had never considered giving it up. In the end, the truth of his own political weakness was thrust upon him by some of his staunchest supporters in the government and military.

It must have been a shock. After returning from a conference in Egypt to a nation in the grips of violent rage, Suharto set about trying to restore his own authority. But soon he found himself in an unfamiliar position: a pawn in the power game of others rather than the master strategist himself. On May 18, Suharto's man in parliament, speaker Harmoko, shocked the nation by declaring that legislators wanted Suharto to resign. Over the next two days, a series of respected figures weighed in. A group of nine Muslim leaders turned down Suharto's request to join a reform council the president planned to create. One of the nine, Nurcholish Madjid, says then-minister of religious affairs Quraish Shihab told him that Suharto commented: "Well, if even moderate Cak Nur won't join me, then I'm really not trusted anymore and I should resign." Later, the government's top economic minister Ginandjar Kartasasmita, together with 13 other ministers, told the president they would resign if he did not quit first. Finally, Gen Wiranto, commander of the armed forces, explained to Suharto that he was out of options.

What a comedown for the man who had done so much to lift the world's fourth most-populous nation from poverty and stagnation in the 1960s to the status of economic dynamo in the first half of this decade. When Suharto took over, Indonesians earned an average annual income of $50 - at the time, less than half that of the average in India. Not long ago, before the rupiah suffered a 75% devaluation, Indonesians were more than twice as affluent as their Indian counterparts. Infant mortality and population growth rates plummeted under Suharto. Rice production soared. Thirty years ago, 90% of the nation's exports were oil or gas products. Today, while such commoditities remain critical to the nation's exports, they don't equal the value of manufactured goods sold overseas.

Some argue that Suharto has benefited principally from economic serendipity - world oil shocks, for instance, that greatly increased the nation's annual income from crude. But he probably deserves more credit than that. In the 1970s and 1980s, Suharto leaned heavily on a coterie of university-educated technocrats dubbed the Berkeley Mafia (many attended the University of California at Berkeley). They embraced Western investment in a way Suharto's predecessor, Sukarno, never did. Indonesia grew at average annual GDP rates of 7% from 1965 to 1980 and 5.5% from 1980 to 1995.

However, as the world has come to realize, the growth obscured serious problems. For one thing, Suharto's family and cronies reaped huge profits from a litany of monopolies and specially licensed projects they controlled. And while the nation's growth indeed lifted the incomes of all Indonesians, the benefits came in hugely unequal portions. When the rupiah began to fall steeply in value against the dollar last year, many fundamental weaknesses in the economy were exposed. A large number of banks were insolvent. Corporate debt ballooned. Unemployment rose as businesses failed and Indonesians returned home from layoffs elsewhere in the crisis-struck region.

The new economic disenchantment fed an already evolving unhappiness with the lack of political openness and accountability in government. Suharto had never been interested in reforming either the economy or the government - as he demonstrated in his stubborn and repeated resistance to International Monetary Fund programs. He was probably too autocratic to ever think he could trust people with his power. And like all kings who become despots, he came to see his own and his nation's interests as one and the same. It is likely that he never saw what hit him.

- With reporting by Jose Manuel Tesoro/Jakarta


Excerpts from Suharto's resignation speech that was broadcast to the nation on May 21:

"I have been carefully following the developments in our country, especially the demands of the people for reform in all aspects of Indonesia. Based on my deep understanding of these aspirations, and prompted by the conviction that these reforms need to be implemented in an orderly, peaceful and constitutional manner, I had earlier declared a plan to form a committee for reform and to change the composition of the cabinet.

"But, reality has shown that the committee for reform cannot be formed. Considering this, I am of the opinion that it would be very difficult for me to govern. Therefore, in line with the 1945 Constitution and after earnestly taking into consideration the views of the House of Representatives I have decided to quit being the president of the Republic of Indonesia.

"In line with the Constitution, the vice president of Indonesia, B.J. Habibie, will conclude the remainder of my presidential term. For the assistance and support of the people, I express my thanks. And I seek forgiveness if there were any mistakes and shortcomings."

This edition's table of contents | Asiaweek home



U.S. secretary of state says China should be 'tolerant'

Philippine government denies Estrada's claim to presidency

Faith, madness, magic mix at sacred Hindu festival

Land mine explosion kills 11 Sri Lankan soldiers

Japan claims StarLink found in U.S. corn sample

Thai party announces first coalition partner


COVER: President Joseph Estrada gives in to the chanting crowds on the streets of Manila and agrees to make room for his Vice President

THAILAND: Twin teenage warriors turn themselves in to Bangkok officials

CHINA: Despite official vilification, hip Chinese dig Lamaist culture

PHOTO ESSAY: Estrada Calls Snap Election

WEB-ONLY INTERVIEW: Jimmy Lai on feeling lucky -- and why he's committed to the island state


COVER: The DoCoMo generation - Japan's leading mobile phone company goes global

Bandwidth Boom: Racing to wire - how underseas cable systems may yet fall short

TAIWAN: Party intrigues add to Chen Shui-bian's woes

JAPAN: Japan's ruling party crushes a rebel at a cost

SINGAPORE: Singaporeans need to have more babies. But success breeds selfishness

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