Tommy Suharto


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Notorious as a playboy rally driver who travelled around Jakarta in a sparkling royal-blue Rolls Royce, much of his wealth has been amassed from cigarettes, fast cars and airplanes - underwritten by the Indonesian people.

Tommy Suharto

Tommy Suharto poses one of the greatest challenges facing Indonesia’s new president, Megawati Sukarnoputri. Megawati says that the law should apply to everyone irrespective of his or her position in Indonesian society. Justice for the wronged. Punishment for wrong-doers, without fear or favour. So it was ironic that, as the Presidential Palace was being prepared for her to move in at the start of her term, a Supreme Court judge was gunned down in a professional hit a kilometre from his Jakarta home. And it was also ironic that the dead judge had 10 months earlier headed the panel that sentenced the youngest son of former President Suharto to 18 months’ jail.

Hutomo ‘Tommy’ Mandala Putra was the first of the Suharto clan to face prosecution for corruption. After being unsuccessfully prosecuted in lower courts, in September 2000 he was found guilty by the Supreme Court of defrauding Indonesia of $10.7 million by swapping a tract of swampy land for a prime site belonging to a state organization. After his lawyers successfully stalled his prison sentence until early November 2000, he took off, and has evaded the police ever since. So, he wasn’t around in October this year to celebrate when another Supreme Court panel used widely criticized grounds to overturn Tommy’s conviction.

Tommy’s father was Indonesia’s second president, forced to resign after violent uprisings in May 1998. During General Suharto’s 32-year rule, his clan amassed a financial empire through a series of monopolies and corrupt deals. No-one knows how much the Suhartos are worth. Estimates run as high as $45 billion: enough to repay Indonesia’s debt to the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank. By 1997, Business Week reported, it was ‘well-nigh impossible’ for US firms ‘to get a deal done without a Suharto clan member as ally, agent, or partner’.

Even though Suharto is no longer president, the tentacles of the clan’s business octopus still envelop Indonesia’s politics and economy. Take the palm-oil industry. Land and forest burn-offs to clear the way for palm plantations in Indonesia are blamed as main contributors to the smoke and haze blankets almost annually drifting across to Singapore and peninsular Malaysia. The Suharto clan, together with the generals, bureaucrats and businesses loyal to them, have systemic control of the palm-oil industry. Despite international and national critcism, three consecutive political regimes in Jakarta have been unable to douse the flames.

Tommy Suharto’s share of the Suharto family fortune is estimated to be between $800 million and $1,500 million. Notorious as a playboy rally driver who travelled around Jakarta in a sparkling royal-blue Rolls Royce, Tommy dated a string of starlets until his 1997 marriage. His business interests and assets spread from the US to Aotearoa/New Zealand, and from Nigeria to England. In Indonesia, much of his wealth has been amassed from cigarettes, fast cars and airplanes – underwritten by the Indonesian people. He operated his own private airline, Sempati Air, from a terminal in Jakarta. The Indonesian press repeatedly reported rent debts to the Government for his airline’s hangars and offices. His 1990 monopoly on cloves – the key ingredient in Indonesia’s popular kretek cigarettes – cost the Government close to $350 million in bailouts. His dream was to turn Indonesia into an economic world power by developing a domestic automobile industry. In pursuing that dream, the greatest gift he received from his father was the exclusive production franchise for Indonesia’s national car, the Timor, which he was forced to relinquish under the terms of the IMF’s 1998 bailout of the Indonesian economy. A billion dollars in subsidies planned for that firm were also cancelled at the IMF’s request.

So now that Tommy’s been cleared of the land fraud charges, can he now be convicted of helping to kill one of the judges who previously sentenced him? Evidence is mounting. The judge’s wife claims that her husband had refused a $200,000 bribe from Tommy before her husband convicted him. Police say the two men they’ve arrested for the drive-by shooting have admitted to being paid $10,000 by Tommy, as well as being supplied with the gun.

Tommy’s not taking chances. Still underground, he says he’ll give himself up if he’s given general immunity. Indonesia’s third president, Abdurrahman Wahid (who succeeded Tommy’s father), refused Tommy’s request for a pardon. Indeed, Wahid accused Tommy of a series of Jakarta bombings coinciding with Indonesia’s attempt to try his father, General Suharto, on corruption charges amounting to $570 million. One of those bombings – at the Jakarta Stock Exchange – killed 15 people.

Wahid has fallen from presidential grace. His successor, Megawati, says she will pursue the rule of law. Her resolve remains untested. What she does with Tommy Suharto – and the Indonesian courts and police which appear to be protecting him – will provide that test.

Sources: Papers and articles by Dr G Aditjondro; Foreign Control Watchdog (NZ);
BBC News; Time Asia; ABC News (US); The Guardian; The Australian.

sense of humour

After he had been on the run for two months, the Indonesian police finally caught up with Tommy in East Java. He told the police that he had evidence on tape that would embarrass (then) President Wahid. The police went away to phone Wahid. When they got back, Tommy was gone.

Questions are being asked in the Aotearoa/New Zealand parliament about the 1999 sale of Tommy's New Zealand luxury resort - Lilybank Lodge - to his Singaporean business partner for one dollar. The concern has been that Tommy may have been parking his assets with a mate until the heat generated by his trial has lessened. The property is reportedly being offered for sale in the US for $10 million.
animal cunning

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New Internationalist issue 341 magazine cover This article is from the December 2001 issue of New Internationalist.
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