Haji Mohammad Suharto

(1921– 2008) Indonesian president

The second president of Indonesia after Sukarno, General Haji Mohammad Suharto was born June 8, 1921, in Kemusuk Argamulja, central Java. His military career began with the Japanese occupation from 1942 to 1945. After Sukarno’s declaration of independence in 1945, Suharto fought against the Dutch and later joined the Indonesian National Army. In the violent upheaval of 1965, he was instrumental in crushing the Partai Kommunist Indonesia (PKI, or Indonesian Communist Party) coup and rose rapidly after this event.

As Sukarno’s political authority weakened, Suharto began to strengthen his position. By an executive order in 1966, Sukarno was forced to grant emergency powers to Suharto. Under Suharto Orde Baru (New Order) was established, emphasizing economic development and social harmony. Relations with Western countries improved and confrontation with Malaysia ended, but relations with China deteriorated. Indonesia became a founding member of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN). The military became powerful and extended its hold over economic management, which led to large-scale corruption. Suharto also restricted political party activity. By March 1967 he was the acting president and he was elected president on March 21, 1968. He continued to hold the office until 1998, being reelected unopposed five times. His Golkar Party also won every election during this time.

Suharto’s regime suppressed secessionist movements and added Western New Guinea, a former Dutch colony under United Nations (UN) temporary executive authority after a stage-managed election in 1969. However, he had to deal with the Organisasi Papua Merdeka (OPM, or Free Papua Movement) and its guerrilla campaign against the government of Indonesia.

Suharto also faced problems from the province of Aceh after the formation of the Gerakan Aceh Merdeka (GAM, or Free Aceh Movement), which demanded independence in 1976. He suppressed the rebellion by force and martial law, but discontent remained.

East Timor was a former Portuguese colony. Suharto ordered an invasion and incorporated it into Indonesia in 1976. A guerrilla war against Indonesian occupation continued amid reports of brutality by the army. In 1998 talks between Portugal, Indonesia, and the United Nations resulted in a plebiscite for the East Timorese people. However, the Indonesian army and a pro-Indonesian militia unleashed a reign of terror in the region that killed more than 1,300 people and sent 300,000 people fleeing into West Timor.

Suharto faced challenges on the economic front also, as his profligate spending and corruption forced the economy to falter. Beginning in the 1990s, opposition to his authoritarian regime gained intensity. The financial crisis of Asia in 1997 resulted in the plummeting value of the Indonesia currency, which lost 80 percent of its value in 1998. Riots escalated after May 1998, causing him to resign on May 21, 1998. He was replaced by Vice President Jusuf Habibie.

Suharto was placed under house arrest in 2000. In 2003 the Human Rights Commission of Indonesia began to examine atrocities committed under his regime. By then Suharto was in poor health, often hospitalized, and therefore spared prosecution. Indonesia returned to democratic government after his fall. Suharto died in Jakarta on January 27, 2008, from multiple organ failure.

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