Indonesian ex-president Suharto dies

The Baltimore Sun

JAKARTA, Indonesia -- Former President Suharto, an army general who rose to power in Indonesia with the slaughter of hundreds of thousands of people and ruled for 32 years during an era of rapid economic growth and extraordinary graft, died yesterday in Indonesia. He was 86.

Suharto's unyielding opposition to communism won him the backing of the United States during the height of the Cold War, although he was one of the most brutal and corrupt rulers of that era. He governed the world's fourth-most-populous nation with a combination of paternalism and ruthlessness from 1965 until he was ousted in spring 1998.

Like many Javanese, Suharto used only one name. He had been in poor health for years after suffering several strokes and other ailments. He was admitted to the hospital Jan. 4, suffering from anemia and low blood pressure.

Suharto surprised his doctors, and the nation, last week by overcoming a blood infection and making what one physician called a miraculous recovery. But his health suddenly took a turn for the worse, and by yesterday morning, he had suffered multiple organ failure for a second time. As Suharto drifted in and out of consciousness, his family gave doctors permission to take him off life support.

Declaring a week of mourning, President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono asked Indonesians to "pay the highest respect to one of the best sons of the nation.

"I'm asking all Indonesians to pray for him, for his dedication and service to the country, and to human beings. We also pray for the family to be strong and look ahead for a better future," the president said.

Suharto expanded Indonesia's territory by force and guile, annexing the territories of Papua and East Timor and brutally suppressing the independence movement in the province of Aceh in a conflict that lasted for 27 years.

Estimates of the number of people killed by Suharto's regime "vary from 300,000 to 2 million, but the exact number nobody knows," said Asmara Nababan, former secretary-general of Indonesia's Human Rights Commission.

His military regime incarcerated hundreds of thousands of political prisoners for years without trial. Many critics simply vanished.

But long before Suharto's death, Indonesians were working to build a democracy from the rubble of his regime, which collapsed in 1998 amid nationwide protests and riots sparked by an economic meltdown across the region.

Suharto crushed Indonesia's Communist Party and suppressed Islamic extremists, forcing the most militant clerics into exile.

During his rule, Suharto is credited with stimulating economic growth, cutting the annual inflation rate from 600 percent to 6.5 percent and raising personal income from an average of $70 a year to $1,300. The number of Indonesians living in dire poverty fell from 56 percent to 12 percent, and literacy rates and average life spans rose.

At the same time, he divided up the nation's wealth among his six children and his cronies, amassing a family fortune estimated at $40 billion.

Suharto's son, Hutomo "Tommy" Mandala Putra, was sent to prison for embezzling millions of dollars and orchestrating the murder of a supreme court justice, but Suharto was never prosecuted. Neither did the government ever seize any of his allegedly ill-gotten assets.

In 2000, the government charged him with embezzling $571 million. But the courts eventually ruled that Suharto, who had suffered strokes after resigning the presidency, was too ill to face charges.

Critics said his claim of illness was a ploy.

In May 2006, Yudhoyono's government reviewed the charges against Suharto and reached the same conclusion as the judges: He was too ill to be taken to court.

Suharto's wife, Siti Hartinah, died in 1996. Suharto is survived by three sons and three daughters.

Richard C. Paddock and Paul Watson write for the Los Angeles Times.

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