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Suharto Still Struggling to Cope With Fall From Grace

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Ignored by old friends and reviled by a citizenry that once paid him homage, former Indonesian President Suharto has been cast adrift into a life of idleness and humiliation, an aging widower intent on keeping his fortune now that his reputation is lost.

Suharto is protected by a 30-man military detail and five armored personnel carriers hidden in the bushes around his home on Cendana Street, where he spends his days watching TV. He has few visitors other than his children and a handful of still-loyal retired generals. He ventures into the outside world only for Friday prayers at the mosque.

Suharto, 77, who was forced to resign in May amid a student uprising against his 32-year rule, is unrepentant and remains perplexed by his sudden fall from grace, said a knowledgeable government official. “He keeps saying, ‘I did so much for Indonesia,’ ” the official said.

But in an age of reform, Suharto--who stifled opposition and amassed a vast fortune while in power--is a political liability. Even his successor, President B. J. Habibie, has distanced himself from his former mentor. Habibie has given in to a groundswell of public anger by ordering a government investigation into how Suharto and his six children managed to accumulate holdings that some economists estimate at $40 billion.

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Justice Minister H. Muladi says that if Suharto is found guilty of corruption, the former president will go to prison. As part of the probe, all Cabinet ministers who served under Suharto have been told to declare their personal wealth.

Still, Indonesians are not convinced that the government intends to investigate the Suharto fortune with gusto.

“The investigation is a joke,” said Mochtar Pabotinggi, director of the Indonesian Institute of Sciences think tank. “How can Habibie really push it? He’s part and parcel of the old regime, and how do you think he got rich?”

Habibie’s wealth is estimated at anywhere from $60 million to $100 million. Virtually all of Suharto’s ministers--many of whom are still in government--have amassed huge fortunes through deals that are now being called into question.

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With the public clamor for accountability growing, Suharto broke his silence earlier this month and, in a recorded message played on a TV station partly owned by his eldest daughter, Siti Hardiyanti Rukmana, denied that he is a wealthy man or that he had broken the law.

“I don’t have one cent of savings abroad,” he said, “don’t have accounts at foreign banks, don’t have deposits abroad and don’t even have any shares in foreign firms, much less hundreds of billions of dollars.”

Some economists say it is possible that the Suharto family put together its fortune in a manner that was technically legal. With a rubber-stamp parliament, Suharto was able to legalize any transaction according to his whim. His money was shifted through 100 family-run “charitable” foundations, and he issued at least 57 decrees and regulations that directly benefited his children’s business interests.

His children--three sons and three daughters--have been forced to give up many of their business interests in the past three months and to step down from boards on which they served. But they have hardly been cast in poverty and still control huge blocks of the companies’ stock. They have always maintained that their wealth was accumulated legally through savvy business deals.

“I am not a thief,” son Bambang Trihatmodjo told reporters after authorities forbade him from leaving the country pending an investigation into his failed Bank Andromeda.

Even if Suharto was tried on corruption charges and found guilty, finding and returning his money to Indonesia would take years. “That would be the difficult part,” said Bambang Widjojanto of Corruption Watch, one of several independent investigative groups that have sprung up recently.

Barron’s magazine reported that David Hale, chief economist for the Swiss investment firm Zurich Insurance, said he estimated that $8 billion was moved from Indonesia to Austria on Suharto’s orders just before his regime fell.


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