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JUNE 19, 2000 VOL. 158 NO. 24

Don't Cry For Suharto
The Indonesian government gets tough on the former President, but student activists worry he may never be called to account

By ANTHONY SPAETH


Charles Dharapak/AP
Indonesian student demonstrators burn a defaced portrait of former Indonesian President Suharto during a protest near his home in Jakarta.

It's not easy living on Jakarta's leafy Cendana Street, longtime home of former President Suharto. When he stepped down two years ago after more than three decades in office, the military piled on the security and residents were required to clear checkpoints to get in and out of the neighborhood. "I had to have a permit to hold a birthday party for my child," recalls one resident. Yet the security measures don't seem to get in the way of the demonstrators who now gather regularly at the nearest entrance to Cendana to demand that Suharto stand trial for corruption. The soldiers do nothing to stop student activists from venting their rage at the former strongman, in voice and graffiti. More than two weeks ago, protesters torched five military vehicles on the street. Last Thursday, Suharto's 79th birthday, they staged another rally, leaving even more graffiti on the walls of his neighbors' homes.

What do these angry people want? On the surface, Indonesian President Abdurrahman Wahid is taking a tougher stance on Suharto than his predecessor, B.J. Habibie, who tried to shield his onetime mentor from prosecution. Wahid's top law enforcer, Attorney General Marzuki Darusman, has rescinded a Habibie order blocking an investigation into Suharto's wealth. Marzuki has had the former President interrogated four times and has even promised to put Suharto on trial before Aug. 10. Less than a week after the burning of the military vehicles, Marzuki placed Suharto under formal house arrest. If that wasn't enough, the Central Jakarta District Court last week dismissed a $27 billion defamation suit Suharto had filed against Time for its May 24, 1999 story on his family's wealth. Suharto's lawyers promised to appeal the decision.

Despite those reversals of fortune, however, there is ample reason to believe that Suharto may yet escape serious punishment--which is what has inflamed the students near his house. "They have lost trust in almost everything, including institutions like the Attorney General's office," says Jakarta political analyst Salim Said. It doesn't help that President Wahid has repeatedly promised to pardon Suharto if he and his clan hand over their ill-gotten wealth. Said Wahid recently: "The West will not understand our determination to make national reconciliation the nation's priority."

Many Indonesians view Wahid as naive on the issue. "Somehow he is convinced that Suharto and his family will surrender their riches to the state," says Muhaimin Iskandar, a legislator and a leader of Wahid's National Awakening Party. To the demonstrators near Cendana, "reconciliation" seems like a cover for the kind of cozy political dealmaking that flourished during the former President's time in office. "Without Suharto declared guilty," insists Bambang Widjojanto, chairman of Indonesia's Legal Aid Foundation, "his cronies will be freed from accusations of corrupt practices. They will hide behind the argument that blame should be put on the appalling system created by Suharto."

For now, the spotlight is on Marzuki. His investigation of Suharto has concentrated solely on the charitable foundations controlled by the former First Family and their friends. Those institutions were the root of the Suharto empire, but there are other branches the investigation could pursue. For example, Suharto's children have faced little official scrutiny, and many of the businesses they operate are still thriving. Marzuki is chairman of the central committee of the Golkar party, Suharto's former political machine, and even his decision to place the former President under house arrest is widely questioned. Some think the move was aimed largely at avoiding an escalation of the protests around Jakarta in late May. Those anti-Suharto rallies died down temporarily, until 300 activists descended on Marzuki's office in south Jakarta last week carrying a white banner containing 4 million signatures calling for Suharto's trial. The 2 km-long banner was wrapped around the Attorney General's headquarters building. Student activists say the former President shouldn't be allowed to stay in his comfortable home and should instead be detained at the Attorney General's lockup. That is the current residence of Suharto's longtime friend Mohammad "Bob" Hasan, once one of the country's most powerful businessmen, who is currently under investigation for corruption.


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Meanwhile, other potential woes are stacking up for Suharto. An official investigation into the violent takeover of the Jakarta headquarters of the Indonesian Democratic Party by pro-Suharto rowdies in July 1996, an event that touched off major riots, has led to some arrests and the interrogation of army and police personnel. News reports say Suharto may be questioned about his possible role in the takeover. Last month, Budiman Sudjatmiko, chairman of the radical Democratic People's Party, met with Marzuki to demand that Suharto be investigated for both alleged corruption and various atrocities that took place when he was in power. If the Attorney General doesn't follow up, Budiman warns, he'll raise Suharto's alleged human-rights abuses before the International Court of Justice at the Hague. In addition, Suharto reportedly suffered two strokes last year, and his lawyers say he is unable to answer questions intelligibly. Though some Indonesians are suspicious of that claim, doctors have cut short several of Marzuki's interrogation sessions for fear of straining the former President's health. Two weeks ago, the national police chief announced that anyone who wanted to visit Suharto would need a permit from the Attorney General. That raised the possibility that Suharto might be sealed off from the outside world in the same way that he isolated the country's first President, Sukarno, 32 years ago following a coup. According to Suharto associates, that's a fate he has feared since relinquishing power. His lawyers have challenged the police chief's decision.

For Wahid, meanwhile, the question of what to do with Suharto gets trickier by the week. "I'm absolutely sure that Suharto will never be brought to court," says Arief Budiman, professor of Indonesian studies at the University of Melbourne. "The President will be too reluctant to do that." (Similarly, Suharto made sure that Sukarno was never put on trial.) But in August, Wahid is due to speak at the annual meeting of the People's Consultative Assembly, Indonesia's highest political institution, where he will detail--and defend--his accomplishments. Without progress on the Suharto front, he risks appearing as ineffective as Habibie was.

Wahid himself has been engulfed in some Suharto-esque scandals. In early May, his younger brother Hasyim Wahid was revealed to be working for the Indonesian Bank Restructuring Agency, or ibra, a state institution set up to revive or sell bankrupt companies. ibra's chairman at first denied it, but the younger Wahid told media that he was employed by ibra as a korak, which translates as "thug," to force errant businessmen to settle their debts. He later resigned from the organization. At around the same time it was also revealed that the President's personal masseur and spiritual adviser, Suwondo, managed to extract $4.7 million from a government agency by identifying himself as "Private Assistant of the President of the Republic of Indonesia." Suwondo has since disappeared, along with most of the money.

To Jakarta's student activists, it all adds up to a pattern of corruption and nepotism that can be stopped only by vigorous prosecution, starting with Suharto. "That would be a precedent for our future presidents," says former student activist Budiman. But the demonstrators on Cendana Street doubt that will happen. "The government has no guts to do it," says a university student. "Suharto has to be tried by the people." Which suggests that those angry placards and graffiti spray cans won't be retired anytime soon.

Reported by Nuraki Aziz and Zamira Loebis/Jakarta

Write to TIME at mail@web.timeasia.com

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