Recent images of Suharto showed a frail and seemingly helpless old man. Since his dramatic exit from power in 1998 he had to be rushed to hospital several times. But his ill health in later life did not overshadow his 32-year reign over Indonesia – a country he ruled with an iron fist.
Born in 1921, Mohammed Suharto liked to play on his role in the war of independence against the Dutch from 1945-49. He came to power after an abortive coup in 1965. The official explanation was that the army had foiled a plot by communists, but some suspected the uprising had been fomented by Suharto himself.
The coup served as a pretext for a violent anti-communist drive that saw up to a million suspected communist sympathisers murdered, and fed speculation over his links to the CIA. Officially sworn-in as president in 1967, Suharto proved himself to be an astute and pragmatic politician.
After Portuguese troops left East Timor in 1975, the Indonesian army invaded, kicking off a bloody guerrilla war. It was one of the many anti-government and separatist struggles across Indonesia that Suharto strove to crush, as he played on the country’s rapid growth and his stifling of the opposition to hold on to power.
But challenges to his rule grew throughout the 1990s, and in May 1998, amid protests as the country shuddered through the Asian economic crisis, he resigned. Opponents celebrated as he stepped down and was charged with corruption.
He was accused of having amassed a huge personal fortune – 12 billion euros accorded to Forbes, 27 billion according to the CIA. But the country was denied a judgement on Suharto, after judges decided his ill health meant he was permanently unfit for trial.