Civil suits put brutal Suharto era and his children back in public eye

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 21 April, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 21 April, 2011, 12:00am


Since the downfall of their strongman father 13 years ago next month, the adult children of the late Indonesian dictator Suharto have studiously avoided the public spotlight.

And with good reason: Suharto himself never appeared in a court to face charges of embezzling billions of dollars during his corrupt and authoritarian regime, so why would his children willingly risk public wrath in today's democratic Indonesia by reminding everyone that they remain extremely wealthy?

But there are exceptions to every rule. Last Friday, the face of Siti Hardiyanti Rukmana, the oldest of Suharto's six children, was plastered across television screens and the front pages of newspapers after she won a US$78 million civil lawsuit against a former business partner in a media company. Two days earlier, a separate court in Jakarta heard testimony in a civil suit brought by Suharto's youngest son, Hutomo 'Tommy' Mandala Putra, who is suing state-owned flag carrier Garuda Indonesia's in-flight magazine for daring to mention in a travel article that he is a convicted murderer.

The simultaneous return of two Suhartos to the spotlight raised eyebrows. 'They are not good businesspeople - that's another point to make about the Suharto family - but they kept at it despite the fall from power,' said one long-time Indonesia political observer who asked not to be named. 'They have tried to manipulate the legal system to get back things that they thought were theirs.'

Rukmana, popularly known as 'Tutut', was Indonesia's 115th-richest person last year, according to Globe Asia magazine's annual survey, with an estimated worth of US$95 million. Oldest son Bambang Trihatmodjo was ranked 94th, with US$131 million, and Tommy Suharto was 42nd, with US$365 million.

Tommy Suharto's US$2.9 million lawsuit against Garuda is more about anger and lost face than any business dispute, as he is undoubtedly a convicted murder, for ordering the 2001 gangland-style drive-by shooting of a Supreme Court judge who upheld a corruption conviction against him. The fact that the airline mentioned it in a story about a Bali holiday resort owned by the youngest Suharto was the grounds for the lawsuit.

But Tommy Suharto has been battling the Indonesian government for years, both within the country and abroad, over hundreds of millions of dollars he is alleged to owe the state for failed business ventures, including a defunct national carmaker. To date, he has not returned a cent.

Suharto himself avoided trial by claiming he was mentally unfit due to a series of strokes. Tommy Suharto is the only member of the family to have been convicted of corruption, but his 18-month sentence was overturned while he was in hiding for the murder of the Supreme Court judge. He eventually surrendered, but after an appeal and sentence reductions for good behaviour, he was allowed free on parole in 2006 after spending less than five years behind bars.

Thus the Suhartos have kept their place among a small oligarchy of privileged Indonesian political and business families. And after nearly 13 years of democratic reforms, some of it messy and violent, the Indonesian public has largely been indifferent to the Suharto children's latest antics.

In fact, there remains a certain nostalgia for their father and his 32-year reign, in particular among the masses in this developing Southeast Asian nation of 237 million people.

'Many people in the lower socio-economic class nowadays are often comparing the current economic situation with the Suharto economic era. They consider that Suharto's economic era is better than the present period,' said Hari Nugroho, head of the sociology department at the University of Indonesia.

'They feel longing for that stable economic period: controlled, stable staple food prices, controlled oil and electricity prices, and the availability of health facilities provided by the government in urban as well as rural areas, contrary to current market-based socio-economic policies,' he said. 'Moreover, amid the growth of democratisation, people are now ironically excluded from the elite's political discourse.'

So could the younger Suhartos tap into this nostalgia and democratic growing pains to make a political return? It would seem a long shot. Tutut Suharto twice backed new political parties to contest national parliamentary elections in 2004 and 2009, but they did not win a single seat. Tommy Suharto's bid in 2009 to take over the chairmanship of the powerful Golkar party, his father's political vehicle for 32 years, failed spectacularly when he was eliminated in the first round without a single vote.

In October last year, on the eve of the 1,000th day after Suharto's death, Tommy Suharto hinted that he would consider running for president in 2014. He was dismissed by some political analysts as having little appeal among voters. The same can be said of prominent business tycoon Aburizal Bakrie, chairman of the Golkar party, who made his political and business fortunes during the Suharto regime but has polled in single digits.

Unlike in the Suharto days, Indonesia now has free and fair elections, including direct polls, for president all the way down to local mayors.

'One of the things the oligarchs can't manipulate is how people vote,' said Douglas Ramage, a Jakarta-based political analyst.