The strangest moment of the elongated théâtre de mort of the billionaire Indonesian dictator Suharto came islands apart on the day after the old crook died.
In Central Java, the remains of the despot the United Nations last year declared to be the 20th century’s biggest thief were interred in his family’s crypt in a funeral that blended Javanese mysticism with the pomp of state. Indonesia’s elite attended in mourning dress, uniform or ceremonial sarong. Foreign ambassadors and head of state bowed in reverence, following the hypocritical lead set by Singapore’s Lee Kuan Yew: the Asian statesman acclaimed for his aversion to corruption had earlier rushed to honour his dying neighbour, who stole more than $1 billion for each of his 32 years in power of one of the world’s poorest countries. New Zealand’s doughty Helen Clark stood apart, staying home and refusing to sign a condolence book.
While much of this was broadcast live on state television, in Bali delegates to a UN conference broke talks to observe a minute’s silence for the 86-year-old tyrant’s passing. Their conference was convened in a luxury hotel — believed to be owned by a Suharto sibling — to debate how to confiscate ill-gotten loot from kleptocrats like, well, General Suharto. Indonesia’s President Yudhoyono was supposed to be the host, except he was in Central Java leading the state funeral. One has to get the presidential priorities right.
Ah yes, you say, but this is the ‘Mysterious East’, where things are rarely as they seem. Perhaps, but grinding poverty is no illusion to the one third of Indonesia’s 240 million citizens the World Bank says earn two dollars a day or less. Suharto’s legacy was a collapsed economy, dysfunctional institutions, a putrid judiciary, radicalised mosques, a nation in advanced state of break-up and a graft culture so deeply embedded that it will take generations to purge.
The ratings agency Moody’s ranks Indonesian debt a woeful three levels below investment grade — but Suharto could steal and kill with industrial efficiency. His militias murdered more than 500,000 of his political opponents after seizing power in 1965, and another 200,000 East Timorese who opposed Jakarta’s rule. Today, Yudhoyono could really use the $35 billion the UN tallied that the ‘Father of Development’ and his rapacious rentier relatives ripped off during their three decades in the Istana Merdeka, Jakarta’s Dutch-colonial confection of a presidential palace. That’s almost as much as the IMF had to raise in 1998, Suharto’s last year in power, to keep Indonesia afloat after he’d trashed the economy; or, put another way, 80 per cent of Yudhoyono’s budget this year.
But Yudhoyono may yet get his hands on some of the loot. Another telling moment of Suharto’s month-long death throes came when Indonesia’s attorney-general visited the bedside of the comatose ex-president. He whispered respects and then had a quiet word with Suharto’s eldest daughter, Siti Hariyanti. He told her the family shouldn’t think that when ‘Bapak’ dies we’re not coming after you, citing a civil case that alleges $1.5 billion was channelled through the central bank to a Suharto-controlled charity. The six children agreed a settlement, only to have their lawyer renege the next day. When Suharto finally slipped the mortal coil, Siti sobbed, ‘We ask that if he had any faults, please forgive them.’
Coming from the despised Siti, the remark drew scornful laughs from Indonesians. A forgiving people, they have been remarkably charitable to her father: eulogies have mostly been infused with the warmth reserved for a favourite uncle. But Indonesians have no time for his grasping children. In Suharto’s heyday, there was barely a business they did not monopolise; transport, mining, agriculture, property, telecoms, media, airlines, car-making, hotels. Time magazine tallied the children’s wealth at $5.4 billion a year after Indonesia’s economy collapsed from the Asian financial crisis. Bankers who knew them well said Time was conservative.
For three decades, it was almost impossible to spend rupiah and not make a Suharto richer, even in mundane matters of state. Issuing driving licences were outsourced to Siti and ID cards to eldest son Sigit’s wife, while grandson Ari collected alcohol tax, a nice little earner which ended only when boozers boycotted beer in protest.
Suharto’s wife Tien was inevitably known as ‘Madame Tien Per Cent’. The family controlled massive slabs of Borneo, plundering it for timber, coal and palm oil. They owned a third of Timor — East and West — and stripped timber and coffee from both. Their greed was most egregiously expressed in 1997, when they seized the supposedly massive Busang gold deposit in Kalimantan, which had been setting share markets alight. Eggs splattered over family faces when it was revealed that the mine’s samples were salted with a Canadian fraudster’s gold dust.
Indonesians nicknamed Siti ‘Tutut’, to acknowledge the foreign-funded tollroad monopoly she owned. In artful mouths, it sounded like a car horn, and was punned into an acronym in Bahasa that neatly captured how the family accumulated its wealth, Tanpa Usaha Tapi Untung Terus: ‘without effort but always gaining riches’.
The larceny finally ended in 1998. At least that’s what the family want Indonesians to believe — that what little they had disappeared in the collapsed economy that followed Suharto’s fall from power. Were it true, it would mean there was no need for the state to make good its threat to go after their loot.
Except it’s not true. The children endured Indonesia’s fall fairly well. Bali, a Suharto branch office where the family own a string of hotels, helped keep them afloat. Its hard currency-based tourist economy turned it into the family’s private ATM, as other Indonesians suffered an 80 per cent plunge in the value of the rupiah.
Those who know the family say ‘look behind the curtains’ — where you will find people such as Hary Tanoesoedibjo, an ethnic Chinese businessman who is close to Suharto’s second son, Bambang Trihatmodjo. The 43-year-old Hary emerged from nowhere to take control — seemingly — of Bimantara, Bambang’s empire of television, banking, property, toll roads, telecoms and transport. Hari insists he’s self-made but Bambang remains a ‘commissioner’ of the company and admits to a 13 per cent stake, an interest believed to be much understated.
Youngest son Tommy is the only Suharto so far called to account for the family’s excess: in 2002, he was sentenced to 15 years in jail for ordering the murder of the judge who convicted him for corruption. He served only four years, running his company, Humpuss, from a luxury prison cell. He’s now a major player in shipping, oil, mining and agribusiness.
While the patriarch was alive, the children were virtually untouchable. But his death could herald a new push on their wealth and next year’s elections may provide a spur. President Yudhoyono was elected in 2004 on an anti-graft ticket, and though he is thought weak and indecisive, he is generally regarded as bersih, or clean. As Indonesian democracy and civil society matures, that reputation may be the President’s most potent weapon in getting re-elected — and getting on with the business of purging the Suharto poison before the kids head to the airport with their loot.
This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated February 2, 2008