Note: In Javanese tradition, individuals often have only one name. Suharto is his full and only name.
Suharto was born on June 8th, 1921 to a peasant family on Java, in the Dutch East Indies. Suharto’s upbringing is anomalous compared to many that of many other dictators; he had no interest in politics or nationalism, instead living out his early life quietly. This changed in 1940, when he joined the Dutch Army in the East. The Dutch government, in exile with the homeland under German occupation, had opened the army for the first time to large numbers of East Indians, and Suharto’s unemployment at the time made it seem an attractive option. Once the Dutch East Indies surrendered to Japan in 1942, Suharto switched sides to the Japanese-sponsored and organised militia. He rose rapidly within its ranks, and by the time of the Japanese surrender in 1945 was a company commander. Almost immediately after Japan’s capitulation, Sukarno and Hatta declared the independence of the Dutch East Indies, which was to be renamed Indonesia. Suharto was kept on in his military positions in order to fight the returning Dutch. Although Suharto fought well, the capital of the newly independent Indonesia was captured in 1949. Suharto played a large role in its recapture, although it is unknown how central he really was due to his regime’s later propaganda obfuscating his true role. In any case, Suharto assisted in the capture of the capital, and Holland withdrew from Indonesia later that year under UN pressure. His actions in the last phase of the war of independence reflected well on him, and by 1950 he was a full colonel. Through the 1950s, Suharto was active in putting down various Communist and religious insurgencies, until he was implicated in a corruption scandal in 1959. Consequently, Suharto was transferred to the army’s staff school, away from an active command; this did not deter his rise, and he made his way to the position of deputy chief of staff in 1960, as well as commanding Indonesia’s rapid-response air contingent.
In the early to mid 1960s, the Indonesian economy collapsed, and Sukarno, the president, was confronted by rising anti-government feeling in the army, as well as a massively powerful Communist Party. The crisis came to a boil in 1965, when renegade army elements kidnapped and assassinated 6 leading army generals in Jakarta. In response, Suharto led a military crackdown on the Communist Party, which was blamed for the events. His role in the crushing of the rebellion made Suharto effectively the army’s number one man, and in his campaign against the Communists, hundreds of thousands were killed and over a million arrested. Suharto and Sukarno began a power struggle; in 1966, unidentified troops appeared around the capital building, forcing Sukarno to flee. The cabinet, in his absence, passed a presidential decree which authorised Suharto to take any action necessary to quash the disorders which were still plaguing all of Indonesia. Using this decree, Suharto banned the Communist Party, and purged the entire government of Sukarno supporters, replacing them with his own people. This done, Suharto felt sure enough of his position to begin proceedings to impeach Sukarno, which was duly carried through. Sukarno was placed under house arrest, and Suharto made acting president. He began his first term in 1968.
Suharto moved to skillfully co-opt various elements of society, and to subtly sideline his political opponents. The army, the leftists, the diplomatic corps, religious groups; all were either marginalised or joined Suharto’s regime. Suharto took over a moribund NGO named Golkar and made it his party. Facsimile elections were held, in which intimidation and government controlled media always produced Suharto victories, every five years all the way through to 1998. Domestically, Suharto implemented highly repressive policies to Indonesia’s Chinese minority, brought labour unions within government, and exercised selective state control of the economy in order to protect domestic producers while still having access to foreign capital. Combined with the growth of labour-intensive manufacturing and oil money, Suharto’s regime produced economic progress, with falling poverty rates, a rising GDP and encouraging human development statistics. The large corporations which profited from these policies became some of the largest financial backers of the regime. In foreign policy, Suharto officially embraced neutrality in the cold war, while really being closer to the West. His violent suppression of the Communist Party led to suspension of diplomatic relations with China in 1967, and relations with the USSR were extremely strained. The West, willing to support anybody who wasn’t a Communist, traded extensively with Indonesia. Times were good for Suharto until the mid to late 1980s, when many had begun to tire of the civil repression which characterised his government. As the decade progressed, Suharto had to rely more and more on the army to maintain control, which fed the cycle more. The West slowly withdrew its support following the end of the Cold War in 1991, which left Indonesia without international economic support. Suharto’s hands were gradually being tied. Indonesia was devastated by the Asian Financial Crisis of 1997-1998, and Suharto was blamed; massive demonstrations escalated into violence, and Suharto was forced to resign, having lost control of the situation. Now retired, Suharto spent the remainder of his life in isolation, trying to evade corruption prosecution. He finally died on January 27th, 2008, at age 86.
Suharto’s legacy is fairly straightforward. He came, he took over, he helped the economy, he repressed he left. He was a fairly typical western-aligned Cold War dictator: massively corrupt and repressive, but economically helpful to the country. He was also a fairly atypical military ruler. Military rulers are often known to go back to their barracks when public order, or whatever crisis compelled their political involvement, ends; Suharto kept ruling for 30 years. Suharto, then was both different and completely ordinary.