Soeharto, The Most Favored and Best President of Indonesia

Soeharto was named Indonesia’s best president by a plurality of respondents, according to a survey. Survey Indo Barometer concluded that the Indonesia people are craving for conditions like in the New Order era of former president Soeharto. Indonesians have voted the late Soeharto. Indonesia’s second president, who ruled the country for 32 years, as their most popular president. Soeharto defeated incumbent President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, according to a survey released by Indo Barometer. Half of the respondents to the survey, which was conducted to mark 13 years of the reforms era, believed that their lives had not improved, while more than a third chose Soeharto as their favorite presiden. Suharto was the second President of Indonesia, holding office for 31 years from 1967 following Sukarno’s removal until his resignation in 1998. In Indonesian literature and media, he was sometimes referred as Pak Harto.

In a survey carried out from April 25 to May 4, 2011 Indo Barometer discovered 40.9 percent respondents preferred conditions like during the New Order government while only 22.8 percent preferred present conditions. The survey involved more than 1,200 respondents from 33 provinces in the country. In percentage 47.7 percent of people living in cities which is higher than 35.7 percent of people living in villages state the New Order government is better.

Suharto was born in a small village near Yogyakarta, during the Dutch colonial era. His Javanese peasant parents divorced not long after his birth, and he was passed between foster parents for much of his childhood. During the Japanese occupation of Indonesia, Suharto served in Japanese-organised Indonesian security forces. Indonesia’s independence struggle saw him joining the newly formed Indonesian army. Suharto rose to the rank of major general following Indonesian independence. An attempted coup on 30 September 1965 was countered by Suharto-led troops and was blamed on the Indonesian Communist Party. The army subsequently led an anti-communist purge, and Suharto wrested power from Indonesia’s founding president, Sukarno. He was appointed acting president in 1967 and President the following year. Support for Suharto’s presidency was strong throughout the 1970s until mid-1990s but eroded following the 1997–98 Asian financial crisis. He resigned from the presidency in May 1998 and died in 2008.

The legacy of Suharto’s 32-year rule is debated both in Indonesia and abroad. Under his “New Order” administration, Suharto constructed a strong, centralised and military-dominated government able to maintain sustainable stability over a sprawling and diverse Indonesian state. During his rule, Suharto sought to develop Indonesia’s economy and improve the livelihoods of Indonesians. His government set-up pro-growth macroeconomic policies originally arranged by a group of American-trained economists, while encouraging a group of mostly ethnic-Chinese businessmen who were dependent on him to expand their businesses. By the late 1990s, these companies have become large conglomerations which still dominate Indonesian economy today. He also sought to attract foreign investment into Indonesia, in view of the small domestic capital base at the beginning of his rule. For most of his presidency, Indonesia experienced significant economic growth and industrialisation,[4] dramatically improving health, education and living standards.[5] Suharto’s investor-friendly policies, his mild foreign policies compared with his predecessor Sukarno, and an avowedly anti-Communist stance won him the economic and diplomatic support of the international community, particularly the West, Japan, and neighbouring Southeast Asian countries.

By the 1990s, corruption[6] and the authoritarianism of his New Order led to discontent among Indonesians.[7] By the 1990s, Suharto’s children were allowed to set-up businesses that monopolised key sectors of economy, ventures which mostly relied on Suharto’s political influence. Such nepotistic policies greatly damaged support for Suharto’s rule amongst the new upper and middle class created by New Order’s decades of high growth.

Suharto denied many political and democratic freedoms and rights to the Indonesian people, in the name of securing stability required for economic development of the country. Additionally, Suharto was accused of employing brutality against his political opponents, most notably the anti-communist massacres at the beginning of his rule. Under his order, Indonesia controversially invaded and annexed East Timor. However, in the years after his presidency, attempts to try him on charges of corruption failed because of his poor health and remaining strong support for Suharto within Indonesia.

Military career

In the years following Indonesian independence, Suharto served in the Indonesian National Army, primarily in Java. On April 1950, Colonel Suharto led the his Brigade III, now designated the Garuda Mataram Brigade, in suppressing the Makassar Uprising, a rebellion of former members of KNIL who wished to maintain the Dutch-established State of East Indonesia and its federal entity the United States of Indonesia. During his year in Makassar, Suharto became acquainted with his neighbours the Habibie family, whose eldest son BJ Habibie would later became Suharto’s vice-president and went on to succeed him as President. On November 1951, Suharto was assigned to command the Pragola Brigade based in Salatiga, north of Yogyakarta. In the next month, Battalion 426 under Suharto’s brigade, mostly comprising of members of Islamic militias, revolted in Surakarta area in support of the Darul Islam insurgents centred in West Java under Sekarmadji Maridjan Kartosuwirjo. On January 1952, Suharto was appointed to lead the task force created to destroy the rebellious battalion. In a series of bloody battles lasting the entire month of January 1952, Suharto’s forces defeated the battalion in a campaign which saw extensive use of tanks, artillery, and air power by the TNI. Remnants of the rebels fled to join the Darul Islam bands operating in the northwestern coast of Central Java. The province was eventually cleared of significant Darul Islam activity by 1957 through a series of operations conducted by the ‘Banteng (Wild Buffalo) Raiders’ led by Ahmad Yani.

The experience of fighting both communism and Islamic radicals left Suharto with a deep antipathy to both groups, whom he considered as excessively militant and unpredictable. He began to put faith on the need for material growth of the people, to immunise them from the disruptive influence of communism and radical Islam.

On November 1956, Suharto was appointed as commander of Diponegoro Division, responsible for Central Java and Yogyakarta provinces, with the rank of full colonel. In this role, he became regional martial law administrator for the two provinces after Sukarno’s declaration of martial law on March 1957. Suharto also provided strong political and manpower support for military expeditions launched by Army Chief Abdul Haris Nasution to defeat the 1958 PRRI-Permesta rebellion, led by dissident regional military commanders in Central Sumatera and North Sulawesi.

Suharto’s relationship with prominent ethnic-Chinese businessmen Liem Sioe Liong and Bob Hasan, which extended throughout his presidency, began in this period. With help of his divisional staff and future presidential aides Major Joga Sugama, Major Sudjono Humardani, and Major Ali Murtopo, Suharto established two military foundations (jajasan) which collected or extorted informal levies from all significant business activities in the province to fund a series of “profit generating” enterprises operated by these ethnic-Chinese businessmen who became his cronies. The proceeds from these enterprises, which by early 1959 had accumulated total capital of Rp35,381,935 (then equivalent to US$786,265), was meant primarily to keep his poorly funded military division functioning and contribute to the welfare of his soldiers. Later, he funneled funds from one of the foundations to provide easy credit to peasants and the poor in the province.

These extra-legal activities caught the attention of local military police chief Lieutenant Colonel Sunarjo Tirtonegoro, who in 1959 reported Suharto to Army Headquarters in Jakarta. Inline with the ongoing anti-corruption drive within the military at the time, Army Chief Nasution dispatched Inspector General of the Army, Brigadier General Sungkono, to conduct full investigation. Sungkono’s findings were damning, indicting Suharto for systematic abuse of power and financial impropriety with regards to unaccountable usage of funds raised by the military-linked foundations. Consequently, Army Deputy Chief Gatot Soebroto flew to Semarang and dismissed Suharto from his position on 14 November 1959. His organisational ability and past services during the Revolution saved him from dismissal, instead he was transferred to study at the army’s Staff and Command School (Seskoad) in the city of Bandung.

Analysts suggested that in organising these enterprises, Suharto was acting in the footsteps of ancient Javanese kings who extracted levies and taxes to enable dispensation of monetary rewards to their loyal subjects. In doing so, Suharto believed he was acting for the benefit of his soldiers and the people of Central Java in general.

While in Bandung, Suharto used his time to study military, political, and economic theories, to compensate for his previous lack of higher education. There, he was brought in touch with a group of intellectual officers who were postulating ideas on more active role of the army in national life. The deputy head of Seskoad, Colonel Suwarto, introduced Suharto with the idea of army’s role in guiding the underdeveloped Indonesian people to contend against the growing influence of communism. Suharto also used his time in Seskoad to meet military and civilian figures from more wide-ranging regions and backgrounds, as opposed to his almost exclusively Javanese social circle beforehands. He completed his Seskoad studies on 17 December 1960, with a research paper titled “Territorial Warfare as conception of Indonesian defence.”

High military command

In March 1961, Suharto was appointed to command the newly-established Army General Reserve (Tjadangan Umum Angkatan Darat/TJADUAD), a quick reaction force capable to be deployed throughout Indonesia. This Jakarta-based force was later renamed Komando Strategis Angkatan Darat (KOSTRAD) in 1963. As KOSTRAD commander, Suharto established a foundation called Jajasan Kesedjahteraan Sosial Darma Putra, which raised funds from various businesses to be channeled into various enterprises, again ostensibly to contribute to soldiers’ welfare. Among the businesses financed by this foundation was Mandala Airlines (established 1969) and Bank Windu Kentjana (established 1967), which was operated by Liem Sioe Liong and was one the forebears of Bank Central Asia, the third-largest bank in Indonesia today.

On 19 December 1961, President Sukarno declared confrontation against the Dutch to win Indonesian-claimed territory of Netherlands New Guinea from the Dutch who were preparing it for its own independence, separate from Indonesia. On 2 January 1962, Sukarno created the Mandala Command, a combined arms force meant to organise the military side of the campaign. Suharto was appointed as commander of this force and was promoted to major general. Relocating to Mandala Command Headquarters in Makassar, Suharto begin mapping-out military strategies to challenge Dutch control over the half-island, referred by Indonesians as West Irian. Up to August 1962, Mandala Command inserted nearly 3,000 soldiers into the territory via sea and airborne drops in a largely unsuccessful attempt to establish guerilla bases against the Dutch, while plans were made to launch a massive invasion on Dutch military headquarters in Biak involving 20,000 soldiers (Operasi Djajawidjaja). Suharto’s relatively modest military commitment was due to Sukarno’s belief in his ability to pressure the Dutch into giving-up the territory by aggressive diplomatic maneuvers to lobby both Soviet Union and United States, arranged by his able Foreign Minister Subandrio, with the military pressure mainly useful as bargaining tool. This strategy paid-off as the Dutch caved in to American pressure and signed the New York Agreement on August 1962.

The Dutch surrendered control of West Irian to UNTEA on 1 October 1962, which in turn handed the territory to Indonesian control on 1 May 1963. On that day, Suharto commanded the Indonesian honour guard during the handover ceremony in Hollandia (renamed Kotabaru, later Sukarnapura), the capital of West Irian.[37]

In 1964, Sukarno declared confrontation against newly-established Malaysia with the aim of dismembering the “imperialist British puppet state” and helping the North Kalimantan Communist Party take control of Sabah and Sarawak. On January 1965, Suharto was appointed first deputy commander of Komando Mandala Siaga (KOLAGA), another combined arms command organising military operations of Sukarno’s Konfrontasi. The Malaysian Confrontation was unpopular with the army, who considered the venture to be beneficial only for interests of their adversary the Indonesian Communist Party (PKI). Consequently, the army deliberately delayed deployment of its troops into combat, and engaged in other maneuvers designed to obstruct effective implementation of Konfrontasi. Beginning in late 1964 to early 1965, Suharto organised secret attempts to spread peace-feelers to the Malaysian government, aided by his “right-hand man” Lieutenant Colonel Ali Murtopo


From 1965 to 68, hyper-inflation was brought under control. A number of measures were implemented to encourage foreign investment once again in Indonesia. These included the privatisation of its natural resources to promote investment by industrialised nations, labour laws favourable to multinational corporations, and soliciting funds for development from institutions including the World Bank, Western banks, and friendly governments.[69] Suharto brought a shift in policy from Sukarno and allowed USAID and other relief agencies to resume operations within the country. He opened Indonesia’s economy by divesting state owned companies, and Western nations in particular were encouraged to invest and take control of many of the mining and construction interests there.

Within a few years, the Indonesian economy had been revived from its near collapsed state of the mid-1960s. It recorded strong annual economic growth for the three decades of Suharto’s presidency, although much of these gains would be lost in the 1997/98 Asian financial crisis. Indonesia achieved self-sufficiency in rice production by the mid-1980s, a basic education to almost all citizens, and a successful family planning program. Subsidies on basics such as food and fuel to maintain grass-roots support were costly to government budgets.

Although the Suharto regime claimed to have had success in reducing poverty, four in five Indonesians still lived below or only slightly above the level of $1 a day near the end of his rule. Suharto’s former government ministers flatly stated the alleged lowering of poverty rates was false. The Suharto regime’s definition of poverty was also inflated: it was a monetary sum, a rupiah base sufficient to enable the poor to get the internationally accepted norm of 2,100 calories a day. The cash amount had been less than the globally accepted poverty line of $1 a day. Until the 1998 crisis, it was only about half that in Indonesia’s cities, and less in the countryside.

Influence and business opportunity became increasingly concentrated within Suharto’s family, relatives, favoured generals and a number of ethnic Chinese businessmen that he had known since his time in Semarang in particular Liem Siu Liong and Bob Hasan. Much of the funds flowed to foundations (yayasan) controlled by the Suharto family. By the late ’80s, the extent of the first family’s business activities concerned even long-time military associates, such as General Benny Murdani. By the pre-financial crisis peak of the mid-1990s, the family’s annual revenue was estimated in the billions of US dollars. Much of it was recycled back into pay-offs, patronage, military subsidies, and campaign funding

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