Suharto under house arrest

Indonesia tightens curbs on strongman ousted two years ago

Response to protests

Embezzlement trial pledged

corruption may block conviction

May 30, 2000|By Frank Langfitt | Frank Langfitt,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

BEIJING - Bowing to public anger and street violence, Indonesia's attorney general put former President Suharto under house arrest yesterday and vowed to charge him with embezzlement in the next two months.

"This is to ensure the questioning continues," said Yusyar Yahya, a spokesman for Attorney General Marzuki Darusman. The government has ordered Suharto not to leave his home in a lush, wealthy neighborhood in downtown Jakarta.

For the retired five-star general who ruled Indonesia for more than three decades, yesterday's announcement marked further humiliation as he fights charges of embezzlement of millions of dollars from charitable foundations controlled by his family.

Suharto, 78, has said he did nothing wrong. His attorneys claim he is not able to answer questions from government investigators because of a stroke he suffered in 1999.

A popular movement led by students ousted Suharto - like many Indonesians, he has one name - from power on May 21, 1998, after the Indonesian economy collapsed during the Asian economic crisis and laid bare the system of institutionalized corruption over which the Suharto clan had ruled.

The significance of his house arrest remained a matter of debate yesterday. Authorities placed Suharto under city arrest a couple of months ago. So, to some, the house arrest decree seemed just a technical tightening of an earlier restriction.

Many observers saw it as a political gesture by Darusman to calm angry students who have been protesting near Suharto's home demanding his prosecution. Crowds of students burned five military vehicles Friday in apparent retaliation for a military raid on the campus of the University of Indonesia the day before.

"It's just reacting to this pressure from the student demonstrations," said Bambang Harymurti, editor in chief of Tempo, one of Indonesia's most aggressive news weeklies, which was shut down in 1994 and reopened after Suharto was forced from office.

Political solution

"I think [Darusman] is still looking for a political solution to this problem. It's more a matter of letting the steam out."

Others were hopeful that the house arrest decree might lead to an indictment and trial for the former strongman who held Indonesia's vast and disparate archipelago together for 32 years.

"It sends a message to his immediate family and also gives a ray of hope to the public at large," said H.S. Dillon, a member of the nation's anti-corruption team and a close ally of Darusman. "If he is found guilty, his progeny and all his associates can no longer hide behind presidential prerogative."

Nearly everyone in Indonesia agrees that prosecuting Suharto will be difficult. One of his most damaging legacies is a system of government riddled with corruption. If Suharto came to trial, many officials who worked and prospered under him might be implicated.

Vulnerable to bribes

Indonesia's courts are filled with underpaid workers who are vulnerable to influence and bribes. And tracking the transfer of funds alleged to have been embezzled by Suharto could be overwhelming.

It remains unclear how much public satisfaction a conviction would provide.

President Abdurrahman Wahid, a reformist leader and longtime politician, has said he will pardon Suharto if the former president is found guilty.

On one level, the fall of Suharto resembles that of the man he ousted from power more than three decades ago, Indonesia's founding father, Sukarno. After Sukarno was overthrown, pressure built for him to be tried. Instead, Suharto put him under house arrest where he died in 1970.

Bill Liddle, a professor of political science at Ohio State University and an Indonesian specialist, is skeptical of the government's attempts to bring Suharto to justice. He believes that Wahid is trying to avoid the political explosion a trial might ignite.

Wahid "is trying to ease him gracefully to the end of his life," said Liddle. "They certainly won't put him in jail."

The Associated Press contributed to this article.

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