Govt Still Seeking Suharto’s Billions

JAKARTA ~ Ten years after president Suharto stepped down following 32 years in power, questions remain over the billions he allegedly looted from the state and the culture of corruption he left behind.

His death in January has only fueled debate about the whereabouts of the fabled billions the strongman is said to have pocketed or doled out to his friends and family during three decades of military-led rule.

“Going after Suharto (his ill-gotten wealth) requires the goodwill of the government. Does the government really want to go after it?” asked political analyst Aswi Warman Adam, of the Indonesian Institute of Sciences.

In a 2004 report, the anti-corruption watchdog Transparency International alleged Suharto and his family had amassed a fortune of between US$15-35 billion during his presidency from 1966 to May 21, 1998.

Suharto’s defenders dismiss such claims as defamatory hearsay.

Indeed, an Indonesian court last year ordered Time magazine to pay libel damages of more than $100 million to Suharto for a 1999 article putting his family’s wealth at some $15 billion. The magazine is appealing.

And earlier this year a court acquitted Suharto in a civil corruption case in which the government had sought $1.4 billion in damages for money he allegedly stole from the state.

Adam said such cases against Suharto and his youngest son, Tommy, while largely fruitless, showed at least the desire to be seen to be doing something about the late strongman’s massive fortune.

“But is this an earnest move to go after the family’s wealth or just a symbolic move?” he said.

“Our problem is that we are very reticent to reopen past wrongdoings when it concerns a leader or former leader. It is in the culture. One respects elders when they are still alive, and even more so after their death.”

Beneath the headlines over Suharto lies a broader culture of corruption which the dictator allowed to flourish to cement his position at the top of a pyramid of patronage.

“The truth is there has been a lot of progress… but there is still resistance from the political elite to throw their full support behind anti-corruption efforts,” Indonesia Corruption Watch coordinator Teten Masduki said.

The progress can be seen in the anti-corruption infrastructure that has been established, including the Anti-Corruption Committee, the Anti-Money Laundering Committee and the Corruption Court, he said.

“But so far, about 80 percent of the cases only concern officials from the middle level down. Very few, if any, are the big fish,” he said.

“The battle against corruption is still very much selective. This kind of fight needs funding and time.”

Corruption fighters point to the prosecutor’s office as one area that still needs a lot of work.

Earlier this month a court ordered the attorney general to reopen a probe into Syamsul Nursalim, one of Indonesia’s richest men, over missing billions his defunct bank owes the government.

Shortly after the attorney general’s office decided in February to drop its 10-year investigation into the missing money, the chief prosecutor on the case was arrested with $660,000 in cash as he left Nursalim’s Jakarta home.

The prosecutor remains under investigation and has not been charged with any crime.

Questioned about such cases, senior officials say it is wrong for outsiders to expect Indonesia to suddenly clean up its act in the post-Suharto era.

Defense Minister Yuwono Sudarsono said it would take another decade, and the key was “better pay for all levels of the bureaucracy.”

“It has to do with money,” he said with a smile, adding that corruption would remain endemic until Indonesia quadrupled its Gross Domestic Product per capita to bridge the gap between rich and poor.

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