JAKARTA, Indonesia — Former President Suharto, an army general who rose to power in Indonesia with the slaughter of hundreds of thousands of people and ruled for 32 years over an era of rapid economic growth and extraordinary graft, died Sunday in Indonesia. He was 86.
Suharto’s unyielding opposition to communism won him the backing of the United States during the height of the Cold War, although he was one of the most brutal and corrupt rulers of that era. He governed the world’s fourth-most-populous nation with a combination of paternalism and ruthlessness from 1965 until he was ousted in spring 1998.
Like many Indonesians, Suharto went by only one name. He had been in poor health for years after suffering several strokes and other ailments. He was rushed to the hospital Jan. 4 with anemia and low blood pressure. By Sunday morning, he had suffered multiple organ failure, and his family gave doctors permission to take him off life support.
Many people in Indonesia express a nostalgia for the Suharto days as a peaceful time when rice was plentiful and beggars few. Economists generally credit him with cutting poverty from almost 60 percent to 15 percent by 1990.
He died without being held formally to account for the deaths of hundreds of thousands of Indonesians during anti-communist purges of 1965-66. His claims of ill health, backed by a Supreme Court ruling, shielded him from prosecution on charges of embezzling almost $600 million during his presidency.
Estimates for the number killed during his bloody rise to power range from a government figure of 78,000 to 1 million cited by U.S. historians Barbara Harff and Ted Robert Gurr, who have published books on Indonesia’s history. It was the worst mass slaughter in Southeast Asia’s modern history after the Khmer Rouge killing fields in Cambodia.
A frenzy of anti-communist violence stained rivers with blood and littered the countryside with the bodies of teachers, farmers and others.
“They used to dump the bodies here,” recalled Surien, a 70-year-old woman who lived near a bay used as an execution ground. “People called it the beach of stinking corpses because of the smell.”
The CIA provided lists of thousands of leftists, including trade union members, intellectuals and schoolteachers, many of whom were executed or sent to remote prisons.
Another 183,000 died due to killings, disappearances, hunger and illness during Indonesia’s 1975-1999 occupation of East Timor, according to a U.N. commission. Similar abuses left more than 100,000 dead in West Papua, according a local human rights group. Another 15,000 died during a 29-year separatist rebellion in Aceh province.
In recent interviews around the city of Blitar, a former communist stronghold, survivors of the atrocities recounted a life on the run, living in caves, being beaten and beheadings of other captives.
“I am disappointed. I saw great cruelties and am lucky I am not dead,” said Talam, whose simple two-room home overlooks a valley dotted with overgrown mass graves.
He described how he was detained by police but escaped. He stumbled across dead bodies in shallow graves and slept in dank caves with hundreds of others, eating what the jungle had to offer for 50 days, until being picked up.
Talam, a former member of a left-wing union for park rangers, said he was tortured and beaten repeatedly during interrogations while detained on remote Buru island, where about 12,000 political prisoners were held, 1,100 miles east of the capital, Jakarta.
“Why has no one been put on trial?” he asked.