Living Dangerously

Suharto was born into a devout Muslim family on June 8, 1921, on the island of Java. One of 11 children, he grew up in extreme poverty. He attended high school and later worked as a bank clerk, a job he had to give up because he ripped his only sarong and could not afford to replace it.

He went through basic military training in 1940, and became an assistant police chief in Yogyakarta, Java. He welcomed the Japanese, who invaded Indonesia in 1942, as liberators from Dutch colonialism, and joined a local Japanese military unit. By the end of World War II, he concluded that the Japanese were no better than the Dutch, and he joined the fight against them.

When the Dutch tried to reclaim the country after the war, Suharto joined the Indonesian independence movement under the nationalist leader Achmed Sukarno. He led the troops that expelled Dutch troops from the city of Yogyakarta, and when Indonesia became independent, he was promoted to lieutenant colonel in the new Indonesian army.

Suharto rose quickly through the ranks, eventually becoming commander in chief of the army's Strategic Command in Jakarta. Immediately following the incidents of September 30, 1965, when a group of senior officers were killed in a coup attempt, Suharto led a counterstrike that ended the rebellion. During this period, President Sukarno had been hanging on to power by balancing between the Communist Party and the military -- the two most powerful organizations in the country.
Video Clip

Suharto's cleansing campaign.

General Suharto took advantage of the opportunity to consolidate power, and began a ruthless military campaign to wipe out the Communist Party. He oversaw a bloody purge of Communists and suspected Communists between 1965 and 1966 that resulted in mass murders in villages and towns across the country. The exact number of people killed may never be known, but estimates range between 500,000 and three million.

THE NEW YORK TIMES, on March 12, 1966, referred to these events as "one of the most savage mass slaughters of modern political history." The American embassy followed these events closely, and offered both money and information to help rid the country of Communist influences.

On March 11, 1966, General Suharto took emergency control over the country. Two years later, he was formally elected President of Indonesia. Suharto was rewarded for his bloody efforts with loans and technical and military assistance from the West. He allowed the army to play a role in all levels of government, which suppressed all forms of political and civil dissent. He also removed large numbers of landless farmers from Java, the most populated island in Indonesia, and settled them in other parts of the country.

Enriched by Western aid and oil revenues during the 1970s, Suharto began an ambitious development program that built roads, established medical clinics, and brought electricity to small villages. Despite these advances, rampant corruption and the ruthless suppression of dissent created simmering pockets of discontent around the nation.

The invasion of East Timor in December 1975, shortly after the island gained independence from Portugal, revealed that the basic character of Suharto's regime had not changed. The Indonesian military, determined to annex East Timor, tortured and brutalized its population. Amnesty International has estimated the civilian casualties during the Indonesian occupation were as high as 200,000 people -- more than one quarter of the population.

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Photo of General Suharto
This photo shows General Suharto in a characteristic pose and wearing his military uniform.
Photo of murdered man
A victim of the September 30, 1965, coup. In all, five generals were murdered.
The exact number of people killed may never be known, but estimates range between 500,000 and three million.
Video Clip John Hughes

General Suharto and the army plan the takeover of government.

Photo of Indonesia farmers
Indonesia has been, and remains, a largely agrarian society.

© 2002 Educational Broadcasting Corporation. All rights reserved.

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