Monday, May 08, 2006

Suharto at death's door?

No matter how powerful a man is, his common destiny with other men is age, infirmity, and death. Reports from Jakarta state that Indonesia's 84 year old former dictator Suharto* has undergone an operation, his fourth in the past calendar year, to remove a 25 inch section of his intestines. Time is obviously not on Suharto's side, and even if he does recover, he's facing a criminal trial on corruption charges.

Suharto's rise to power began in a time honored way after overthrowing the incumbent "President for Life" Sukarno in military coup d'etat in 1965. For the next 33 years, Suharto became the world's most successful kleptocrat, embezzling incredible sums estimated to be as high as $35 billion US dollars. On the domestic front, Suharto famously repressed the independence movement in the former Portuguese colony of Timor Leste ("East Timor"), for which Suharto earned the eternal disapproval of the Noam Chomskys of the world.

Not surprisingly, Suharto had much more to worry about than the finger waggling of crackpot American academics, as his nation was constantly wracked with economic crises, guerilla insurgencies, and ecological disasters that would stretch the governing skills of any dictator, much less one more interested in looting his nation's coffers than than steering the ship of state. Yet through it all, he managed to keep his grip on for over 30 years, an astounding length of time for a dictator in a such a politically unstable region.

Ironically, the daughter of the dictator he had deposed on his way to the top proved instrumental in Suharto's political collapse, but perhaps the sad fact of the matter is that time had passed Suharto by. Once upon a time, Suharto could count on political and economic support from Washington, but with the end of the Cold War, Washington stopped going steady with Jakarta and decided to "just be friends". While this was obviously bad news for Suharto, it was excellent news for Indonesia and East Timor, and you would now be hard pressed to find anyone alive or dead who yearns for the return of one man rule to Indonesia.

Before he dies a feeble and powerless old man, let us take a moment to remember him as one of the richest, most powerful, and most loathesome men to live in the 20th century while he's still alive, shall we?

* Most Indonesians go by a single name - see here for details.