‘Tommy’ – the Enduring Symbol of Suharto Regime

JAKARTA ~ An amateur racing driver who reveled in a flamboyant playboy lifestyle, Tommy Suharto remains the enduring symbol of the corruption that plagued his father’s rule of the country, which ended in 1998.

On Monday, Hutomo “Tommy” Mandala Putra Suharto was freed from prison after serving just a third of the 15-year jail term he was originally handed in July 2002 for ordering the murder of a Supreme Court judge.

The judge, who convicted Tommy of corruption and weapons offences and sentenced him to 18 months in prison, was gunned down in broad daylight by assailants on a motorbike.

Despite losing one of their own to his machinations, the Supreme Court initially reduced Tommy’s sentence to 10 years, without explanation.

Then the 44-year-old received regular lengthy sentence remissions – normally handed out to well-behaved prisoners twice a year – which resulted in him serving enough time to warrant his parole on Monday.

Rumors swirled that even during the short time he was in prison, Tommy was sighted repeatedly at his own private villa.

In another soap operatic twist, one beautiful woman who visited him in prison later claimed he fathered her daughter, despite his incarceration.

Tommy’s release is set to draw the ire of activists, who will see his freedom as the latest evidence of little changing in Indonesia, even though former dictator Suharto has been out of power now for more than eight years.

The career of the youngest and favourite of Suharto’s sons did not survive the collapse of the former general, to whom he owed an empire worth an estimated US$800 million at its peak – an otherwise impressive achievement for a man who was not educated beyond high school.

During his heyday, Tommy liked to pose at the wheel of his racing cars, while also directing the Humpuss group, one of Indonesia’s principal conglomerates.

With interests in everything from oil and construction to forestry development and finance, Tommy was untouchable, as were his five brothers and sisters, whose business empires also reigned supreme.

The total fortune of the Suharto family was estimated at $15 billion by Time magazine, which listed 564 Indonesian companies that the family had a hand in.

For years Tommy lived the gilded life of a playboy, always appearing in public with his latest stunning conquest draped over his arm.

He married a young woman from a respected Javanese family in 1995, just as the steam of Suharto’s economy started to show signs of potential trouble. The behavior of the Suharto family and its cronies had become too conspicuous.

The Asian economic crisis of 1997 hastened the family’s fall – at least officially – when students in Jakarta launched unprecedented protests to denounce Suharto’s dictatorship and his family’s excesses.

More than 1,000 people died in riots that devastated the capital and the old leader was finally compelled to step down in May 1998.

Now 85, Suharto for his part has escaped any trial for amassing his own fortune, with the Attorney General’s Office abandoning its pursuit of him earlier this year on health grounds.

For Tommy, the collapse of the “KKN (corruption, collusion, nepotism) system” he came to epitomize triggered his legal troubles, as allegations of corruption surfaced.

Refuting the accusations, he responded dutifully to summons by prosecutors, escorted by a dozen bodyguards. But in November 2000, he fled in order to escape his 18-month prison sentence – which was later annulled.

The death of the judge who sentenced him, however, left him a marked man, leading to a massive hunt that included an unfruitful raid on a bunker at Suharto’s Jakarta residence.

Eventually he was tracked to a luxury house in South Jakarta, where he was being sheltered by the widow of a man who had worked for one of his companies.

He was tried and punished with the 15-year sentence in a verdict hailed for signaling, in one way, the demise of Suharto’s power.

But his release this week will leave many believing in the ongoing influence of the family name.

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