The second president after Indonesia's independence, Suharto (born 1921) was a strong anti-Communist who drew Indonesia closer to the West and presided during a period of economic improvement in the country. Notwithstanding, his tenure was plagued with negative publicity regarding suppression of opposition and serious human rights violations, particularly in East Timor, a former Portuguese colony that Indonesia forcibly occupied starting in 1975.

Suharto was born in the village of Kemusu near Jogjakarta, Central Java, on June 8, 1921. His father was a low-ranking agricultural technician, and Suharto's early home environment was quite poor. It also was unstable, alternating between the separate homes of his mother and his father who, having divorced when he was quite young, each had remarried and had additional children. At times Suharto also lived with other family friends and relatives in homes which were typically Javanese.

As Suharto completed high school and took his first job, in a small bank, the Dutch colonial government in Indonesia was hastily trying to build a defense force. Suharto was among the large number of Indonesian recruits to the Royal Netherlands Indies Army. By March 1942 Suharto had spent a year and a half in training and active duty under Dutch commanders and had been promoted to the rank of sergeant; but when the Netherlands, already occupied in Europe by Germany, surrendered the colony to Japan later in 1942 after mounting only minimal resistance, Suharto returned to his village.


A Professional Soldier

Shortly thereafter Suharto volunteered for service in a Japanese police organization in Jogjakarta. He then joined the PETA, the Japanese-sponsored Volunteer Army of Defenders of the Homeland, and, after receiving additional formal military training at Bogor, became a company commander. When the Japanese surrendered and the Netherlands sought to reestablish control over the Dutch East Indies, PETA units and officers provided the framework for a People's Security Corps which was forerunner to the Indonesian National Army. Among these officers Suharto acquired a reputation for able leadership and sound strategy in opposing not only the Dutch military forces but also various Indonesian factions—including Communists and Islamic extremists—which were challenging the political leadership of the embryonic Republic of Indonesia.

Indonesian independence was proclaimed in August 1945, and the Dutch finally abandoned their effort to retain sovereignty four years later. The new nation was so geographically far-flung, culturally diverse, and economically disadvantaged that the government under the presidency of the forceful nationalist leader Sukarno had difficulty maintaining constitutional norms and procedures. The army inevitably came to be viewed as a key political actor, all the more so as Sukarno declared martial law in 1957 and a struggle for succession accelerated in the early 1960s.

During this period Suharto was advancing through the ranks of the Indonesian National Army. As a lieutenant colonel he participated in 1950 in an expedition which succeeded in suppressing an incipient rebellion in South Sulawesi. Most of his infrequent command assignments were in Central Java, somewhat removed from the more dynamic center of national politics and administration in the capital, Jakarta. In 1957 Suharto was promoted to the rank of colonel; in 1960 he became a brigadier general; and in 1963, as major general, he assumed command of the Army Strategic Command.


Providing Leadership in a "New Order"

Although he was not highly visible among the military elite, Suharto had developed close associations throughout the army and was especially supportive and protective of his staff. In addition, he cultivated an unyielding anti-Communism along with vigorous economic enterprise by army units under his command. These qualities were especially characteristic of the Indonesian army in the years leading up to 1965, and they became increasingly associated with the state under Suharto's presidency.

Ironically, Suharto would not have been in a position of such influence if the organizers of the "30th of September Movement"—a dramatic if politically confused coup attempt—had deemed him important enough to include in their list of generals targeted for execution. As it was six generals were abducted and, either immediately or soon thereafter, killed on the night of September 30, 1965. In the ensuing hours and days Suharto gained control of the military in Jakarta and successfully portrayed the generals' assassination as an operation of the Communist Party of Indonesia. President Sukarno, whose role in the so-called coup was not clear, sought to protect the Communists from the military's retaliation, but Suharto was relentless. In March 1966 President Sukarno was maneuvered into a transfer of executive powers to Suharto. A further series of official acts, culminating in the March 27, 1968, decree of the People's Consultative Congress, formalized Suharto's assumption of the presidency. Sukarno, under close surveillance at his Bogor palace, died in June 1970.

Meanwhile, the Communist Party of Indonesia had been banned and large numbers of Communists and alleged Communist sympathizers were killed or imprisoned throughout Indonesia. Suharto, as president, reversed some of the previous regime's foreign policies, such as confrontation with Malaysia and general hostility to the West, and displayed a sober, problem-solving style in his approach to domestic problems. The "New Order" regime, as it came to be called, also drew legitimacy from leading roles assigned to the Sultan of Jogjakarta, Hamengku Buwono IX, and Adam Malik, an "Old Order" politician. In addition, Suharto augmented his trusted personal staff with a corps of "technocrats, " highly-placed economists trained in the United States.

Partly because of a surge in oil revenues during the 1970s, Indonesia's economic situation improved substantially during Suharto's presidency. Beginning in 1968 he was re-appointed to the presidency every five years with virtually no opposition. Yet his tenure was not free of controversy. Allegations of favoritism and greed were directed at the palace and, among other relatives, involved especially his aristocratic Javanese wife, Tien Suharto. In the 1980s government corruption and repression combined with international trends to fuel Islamic political activity. In 1990, Suharto created the Indonesian Association of Muslim Intellectuals (ICMI) to accommodate growing concern over the potentially strong political force of the Muslim groups. President Suharto and his military supporters were able to contain these and all other political rivals, and he began to give more attention to preparation of a successor regime.

In the 1990s, continued corruption and oppression of opposition presented a growing obstacle to sustained economic growth. Nonetheless, Suharto was elected to his sixth five-year term in 1993.


Further Reading on Suharto

Some of Suharto's speeches and proclamations are reprinted in Focus on Indonesia, a quarterly publication of the Embassy of Indonesia in Washington, D.C. A full length and semi-official biography is available: O. G. Roeder, The Smiling General (1969). The "New Order" is the subject of Hamish McDonald's highly readable Suharto's Indonesia (1980); and David Jenkins focuses more narrowly on the role of the military in Suharto and His Generals: Indonesian Military Politics, 1975-1983 (1984). See also, Schwarz, Adam, A Nation of Waiting: Indonesia in the 1990s (Westview, 1994).

Several surveys place Suharto's presidency in a more historical and cultural perspective, ranging from the relatively introductory work by J. D. Legge, Indonesia (1980), to Benedict Anderson and Audrey Kahin (editors), Interpreting Indonesian Politics: Thirteen Contributions to the Debate (1982). Several periodicals have also published articles on Suharto's handling of East Timor, e.g., Eyal Press's article, The Suharto Lobbyin The Progressive (May, 1997).