Suharto (June 8, 1921 – January 27, 2008) was an Indonesian military and political leader. He served as a military officer in the Indonesian National Revolution, but is better known as the long-reigning second President of Indonesia, holding the office from 1967 to 1998.
Suharto seized power from his predecessor, the first president of Indonesia Sukarno, through a mixture of force and political maneuvering against the backdrop of foreign and domestic unrest. Over the three decades of his “Orde Baru” (New Order) regime, Suharto constructed a strong central government along militarist lines. An ability to maintain stability and an avowedly anti-Communist stance won him the economic and diplomatic support of several Western governments in the era of the Cold War. For most of his three-decade rule, Indonesia experienced significant economic growth and industrialization. His rule, however, led to political purges and the deaths of millions of suspected Indonesian communists and Chinese-Indonesians, and enaction of legislation outlawing communist parties and ethnic Chinese. In addition, his invasion of East Timor in 1975 was notorious for its brutality with a reported 200,000 dead during the length of Indonesia’s occupation.
By the 1990s, his New Order administration’s authoritarian and increasingly corrupt practices had become a source of much discontent. Suharto’s almost unquestioned authority over Indonesian affairs slipped dramatically when the Asian financial crisis lowered Indonesians’ standard of living and fractured his support among the nation’s military, political and civil society institutions. After internal unrest, diplomatic isolation began to drain his support in the mid-to-late 1990s, Suharto was forced to resign from the presidency in May 1998 following mass demonstrations. After serving as the public face of Indonesia for over 30 years, Suharto lived his post-presidential years in near seclusion. Attempts to try him on charges of genocide failed due to his failing health. His legacy remains hotly debated and contested both in Indonesia and abroad.
Like many Javanese, Suharto has only one name. In contexts where his religion is being discussed he is sometimes called Haji or el-Haj Mohammed Suharto, but this Islamic title is not part of his formal name or generally used. The spelling “Suharto” has been official in Indonesia since 1947 but the older spelling Soeharto is still frequently used.
Background and career
Suharto was born in the era of Dutch colonial control of Indonesia, in the hamlet of Kemusuk, a part of the larger village of Godean, 15 kilometres west of Yogyakarta, in central Java. Escaping what was by many accounts a troubled childhood, he enrolled as a soldier in the Dutch military school during a time when the East Indies became a centre of several armed conflicts, including World War II and the Indonesian National Revolution. Like many natives in the military, Suharto was forced to change allegiances several times, but his training enabled him to become an asset to the side he finally settled upon, that of the Indonesian Nationalists.
A troubled and mysterious childhood
The facts of the childhood and youth of Suharto, according to Western biographies, are steeped in both mystery and myth. Standard and apocryphal accounts of his early years and family life exist, many loaded with political meaning. Suharto’s parents, his mother Sukirah and father Kertosudiro, were ethnic-Javanese and peasant class, living in an area without electricity or running water. His father Kertosudiro’s marriage to Sukirah was his second; he already had two children from his previous marriage. Kertosudiro’s marriage to Sukirah itself is believed to have ended in divorce early in Suharto’s life, though exactly when is inconsistent – the account in Roeder’s biography The Smiling General claims the divorce came within years of his birth; the account in Suharto’s autobiography Pirakan states that it came within mere weeks.
The absence of official documentation and certain aspects of Suharto’s early life that are inconsistent with that of a Javanese peasant (Suharto received, for example, an education fairly early on), has led to several rumors of Suharto being the illegitimate child of a well-off benefactor, which included a being the child of a Yogyakarta aristocrat or well-off Chinese Indonesian merchant. Suharto biographer Robert E. Elson believes that such rumors cannot be entirely ruled out, given that much of the information Suharto has given on his origins has been tinged with political meaning.
His parents divorced and re-married to new partners. Suharto was estranged from alternately each or both his parents for extended periods of time, being passed around several households for much of his early life. The marriage of his paternal aunt to a low-level Javanese official named Prawirowiharjo, who took to raising Suharto as his own, is believed by Elson (2001) to have provided both a father-figure and role model for Suharto, as well as a stable home in Wuryantoro, from where he received much of his primary education.
As noted by Elson (2001) and others, Suharto’s upbringing stood in contrast with that of leading Indonesian Nationalists such as Sukarno, in that he is believed to have had little interest in anti-colonialism, or political concerns beyond his immediate surroundings. He was also, unlike Sukarno and his circle, illiterate in Dutch or other European languages. He would, however, learn Dutch upon his induction into the Dutch military in 1940.
Pre-Independence military career
After a brief stint in a clerical job at a bank (from which he was fired), followed by a spell of unemployment, Suharto joined the Royal Netherlands East Indies Army (KNIL) in 1940, and studied in a Dutch-run military school in Gombong near Yogyakarta. This unusual opportunity for an indigenous colonial subject came as a result of the Netherlands’ growing need for troops as World War II widened and the threat of an invasion by Imperial Japan grew more likely.
After graduation, Suharto was assigned to Battalion XIII at Rampal. His service there was unextraordinary, but for his contracting malaria requiring hospitalization while on guard duty, and then gaining promotion to sergeant.
The invasion of Imperial Japanese forces and subsequent surrender of the Dutch forces led to Suharto’s desertion from the Dutch to the Japanese occupation force. He first joined the Japanese sponsored police force at the rank of keibuho (assistant inspector), where he claimed to have gained his first experience in the intelligence work so central to his presidency (“Criminal matters became a secondary problem,” Suharto remarked, “what was most important were matters of a political kind”).
Suharto shifted from police work toward the Japanese-sponsored militia, the Peta (Defenders of the Fatherland) in which Indonesians served as officers. In his training to serve at the rank of shodancho (platoon commander) he encountered a localized version of the Japanese bushido, or “way of the warrior”, used to indoctrinate troops. This training encouraged an anti-Dutch and pro-nationalist thought, although toward the aims of the Imperial Japanese militarists. The encounter with a nationalistic and militarist ideology is believed to have profoundly influenced Suharto’s own way of thinking.
The Japanese turned ex-NCOs, including Suharto, into officers and gave them further military education, including lessons in the use of the samurai sword. Suharto’s biographer, O.G. Roeder, records in The Smiling General (1969) that Suharto was “well known for his tough, but not brutal, methods”.
Service in the Indonesian National Revolution
The Japanese surrender to the Allies in World War II brought forth the opportunity for the leaders of the Indonesian Nationalist cause Sukarno and Mohammad Hatta to hastily declare the complete independence of Indonesia and the beginning of the Indonesian National Revolution. International recognition of Indonesia’s sovereignty, however, would only come after armed action – a task at which Suharto would prove himself adept.
Expulsion of the Japanese
The Japanese surrender left Suharto in a position to create a name for himself as a part of the military effort to first expel the remaining Japanese forces, and to prepare nationalist forces for the Dutch attempt to retake their former colonial possessions in the archipelago. He became a deputy to Umar Slamet in the service of the revolutionary government’s People’s Security Body (BKR).
Suharto claims to have led a number of attacks against remaining Japanese forces around Yogyakarta. The central role he commonly portrayed himself playing in his reminisces on the period during his presidency is debatable; however, it may be acknowledged that Suharto’s familiarity with military functioning helped in the organization of the disparate independence forces into a unified fighting force. In the early years of the War, Suharto organized local armed forces into Battalion X of Regiment I; Suharto was promoted to the rank of Major and became Battalion X’s leader.
Return of the Dutch
The arrival of the Allies, under a mandate to return the situation to the status quo ante bellum, quickly led to clashes between Suharto’s Division X and returning Dutch forces, bolstered by Gurkhas in the employ of Great Britain. Political differences within both the Allies and the civilian Nationalist forces caused the conflict to alternate in intensity from the end of 1945 into first months of 1946, as negotiations went on between the leaderships of the Indonesian Nationalists and the Dutch in between periods of fighting. In this muddle, Suharto led his troops toward halting an advance by the Dutch T (“Tiger”) Brigade on May 17, 1946. It earned Suharto the respect of his superior, Lieutenant Colonel Sunarto Kusumodirjo, who invited him to draft the working guidelines for the Battle Leadership Headquarters (MPP), a body created to organize and unify the command structure of the Indonesian Nationalist forces.
The military forces of the still infant Republic of Indonesia were constantly restructuring. By August 1946, Suharto was head of the 22nd Regiment of Division III (the “Diponegoro” Division) stationed in Yogyakarta. In late 1946 the Diponegoro Division became responsible for defense of the west and south-west of Yogyakarta from Dutch forces. Conditions at the time are reported in Dutch sources as miserable; Suharto himself is reported as assisting smuggling syndicates in the transport of opium through the territory he controlled, in order to make income.
After a period of cooling down, the Dutch-Indonesian conflict flared up again in 1947 as the Dutch initiated the first of two major military offensives to recapture Indonesia. Known as Operatie Product, it severely demoralized Indonesian forces, but diplomatic action in the United Nations granted a respite from the fighting in order to resume negotiation. In the meantime, Suharto was married to Siti Hartinah, a woman from a high class family that, in the years of the revolution, lost its prestige and income. Over the next 17 years the couple would have six children: Siti Hardiyanti Rukmana (Tutut, born 1949), Sigit Harjojudanto (born 1951), Bambang Trihatmodjo (born 1953), Siti Hediati (Titiek, born 1959), Hutomo Mandala Putra (Tommy, born 1962), and Siti Hutami Endang Adiningsih (Mamiek, born 1964). Suharto’s wife, Sidi Hartinah, died in 1996.
The Second Police Action, Operatie Kraai (“Operation Crow”), commenced in December 1948 and decimated much of the Indonesian fighting forces, resulting in the capture of Sukarno and Hatta, the civilian leadership of Indonesia. Suharto, for his part, took severe casualties as the Dutch invaded the area of Yogyakarta; the retreat was equally humiliating.
Guerrilla warfare and victory
It is widely believed that the humiliating nature of this defeat engrained a sense of guilt in Suharto, as well as a sense of obligation to avenge his honor. Suharto, and the aggrieved Indonesian armed forces, attempted to do this by means of guerrilla warfare, using intelligence and supply networks established at the village level. During this time ambushes became a favored tactic; villagers were enlisted to attack Dutch patrols with weapons as primitive as bamboo spears. The desired effect was to remind the populace of the continuing resistance to Dutch rule. However, these attacks were largely ineffective and were often comparable to suicide.
Suharto’s efforts to regain the national honor culminated in an attack on Dutch forces at Yogyakarta on March 1, 1949. Suharto would later embellish his role as the singular plotter; according to more objective sources, however, the nationalist Sultan Hamengku Buwono IX (who still remained in power), as well as the Panglima of the Third Division ordered the attack. General Nasution would recall, however, that Suharto took great care in preparing the “General Offensive” (Indonesian” Serangan Umum).
In a series of daring small-scale raids under cover of darkness and with the support of locals, Suharto’s forces captured the city, holding it until noon. The attack yielded some ammunition and a few light arms; as propaganda and psychological warfare it had filled the desired effect, however – civilians sympathetic to the Nationalist cause within the city had been galvanized by the show of force, and internationally, the United Nations took notice, with the Security Council putting pressure on the Dutch to cease Police Action and to re-embark on negotiations. Suharto gained both national and international recognition of his abilities as a military planner.
The return of the Dutch to the negotiating table all but assured, Suharto took an active interest in the peace agreements, though they were much to his dissatisfaction.
 Post-Independence military career
During the following years he served in the Indonesian National Army, stationed primarily on Java. In 1950, Colonel Suharto led the Garuda Brigade in suppressing a rebellion of largely Ambonese colonial-trained supporters of the Dutch-established State of Eastern Indonesia and its federal entity the United States of Indonesia; the rebellion was led by Andi Azis a former officer of the Royal Netherlands East Indies Army (KNIL).During his one-year stay in Makassar, Suharto became acquianted 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. In 1951, Suharto led his troops in a cautious blocking campaign against the Islamic-inspired rebellion of Battalion 426 in Central Java before it was broken by the ‘Banteng (Wild Buffalo) Raiders’ led by Ahmad Yani. Between 1954 and 1959, Brigadier General Suharto served in the important position of commander of Diponegoro Division, responsible for Central Java and Yogyakarta provinces. His relationship with prominent businessmen Liem Sioe Liong and Bob Hasan began in Central Java where he was involved in series of ‘profit generating’ enterprises conducted primarily to keep the poorly funded military unit functioning.Army anti-corruption investigations implicated Suharto in 1959 smuggling scandal. However, his military career was rescued by Gen. Gatot Subroto; instead of being brought before a court martial, he was transferred to the army Staff College in Bandung, West Java.
In 1962 he was promoted to the rank of major general and was appointed to lead the Mandala Command, a joint army-navy-air force umbrella command headquartered in Makassar, that organised the military campaign against the Dutch in Netherlands New Guinea. After the surrender of the Dutch, Suharto was appointed commander of Kostrad (Strategic Reserve), a sizeable army combat force, which most importantly had significant presence in the Jakarta area. By 1965, the armed forces split into two factions, one left wing and one right wing, with Suharto in the right-wing camp.
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