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President Suharto, 1921 - 2008

Ruled amid prosperity, slaughter

January 28, 2008|Richard C. Paddock and Paul Watson | Times Staff Writers

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 over an era of rapid economic growth and extraordinary graft, died Sunday in Indonesia. He was 86.

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

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 the spring of 1998.

Pallbearers, dressed in combat fatigues and representing each of Indonesia's armed forces, carried Suharto's flag-draped coffin after a ceremony Monday morning at Cendana Palace, where he lived as president and in retirement.

Female relatives sprinkled the ground with flower petals after Suharto's coffin was loaded into a white Mercedes-Benz van.

"We ask that if he had any faults, please forgive them . . . may he be absolved of all his mistakes," Suharto's eldest daughter, Siti Hardiyanti Rukmana, told reporters earlier.

Her father's coffin was flown by transport plane to Central Java, where President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono presided over a state funeral and burial at the Suharto family cemetery near Solo. He was laid to rest next to his wife.

Hailing the former dictator as "one of the nation's best citizens," Yudhoyono declared a week of national mourning.

Hundreds of Indonesians converged on Suharto's mansion in south Jakarta, and their mixed reactions to his death reflected the complex legacy of a man revered by many as the "Father of Development" and despised by many others as a mass murderer.

Siti Rahayu, a 27-year-old housemaid, said she was sad because Suharto had suffered for weeks, and she missed his regime because things were better for the poor then.

"Although he's responsible for all the corruption, collusion and nepotism, it was for the people. We had a lot of debt because he wanted to build our country," she said.

Rudiyanto, 43, a wildlife researcher, said Suharto was still synonymous with president in his mind.

"And as president, Suharto did what he had to; whether his way of doing it required 'victims,' that's another story," Rudiyanto said, adding that it's important for the country's future that the courts decide whether "he was wrong or right, whether he was hero or crook."

U.S. Ambassador Cameron R. Hume paid his respects to Suharto at the former dictator's home. In a statement, Hume praised the "remarkable economic and social development" that Indonesia achieved under Suharto.

"Though there may be some controversy over his legacy, President Suharto was a historic figure who left a lasting imprint on Indonesia and the region of Southeast Asia," Hume 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 27 years.

The 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. "It created a big wound in society, and even today it is not completely gone."

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

Under a carefully managed compromise, the Indonesian military retained its dominance over politics behind the scenes in exchange for allowing democratic reforms.

In one of the most significant steps of the post-Suharto era, government power has been decentralized. More than 16,000 public service facilities were transferred to regional authorities, which boosted economic growth in areas that once seemed to be overlooked.

Conflicts in East Timor and Aceh have been resolved. East Timor was granted independence, while guerrillas in Aceh laid down their arms in exchange for special autonomy for the province, a peace deal forged after the devastation of the 2004 tsunami.

After Suharto's ouster, Indonesia's radical Islamic movement gained new strength, but the Democratic government's softer approach has slowly shown results. There have been fewer high-profile attacks in recent years.

Suharto preferred to rule with an iron fist. He not only crushed Indonesia's Communist Party, but also suppressed Islamic extremists, forcing the most militant clerics into exile.

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