Sunday, March 15, 1998

The Man in Suharto's Shadow

Andreas Harsono
The Nation

There is no guarantee that Indonesia's new vice-president, BJ Habibie, will eventually succeed Suharto. Despite being elected in a carefully-scripted vice presidential election, many believe that BJ Habibie may not succeed President Suharto although Habibie's supporters, who are mostly members of the influential Association of Indonesian Muslim Intellectuals (ICMI), vow they will do their utmost to champion the 61-year-old engineer.

Lt Gen Yunus Yosfiah, the chief of socio-political affairs of the Indonesian military, has openly displayed the military's support for Habibie.

"It's a big mistake if the nation does not take advantage of one of its best sons who has an excellent mastery of science and technology," he said.

Yosfiah, who led a delegation of officers to meet Suharto to discus Habibie's nomination, said, "He [Suharto] also underlined that Habibie has a vision on national and international affairs."

But many others doubt whether Habibie has the quality to be the No 1 man in the world's fourth most populous country. Retired general Hasnan Habib said in an interview with German magazine Der Spiegel that Habibie is a "100 per cent yes man".

Television host and political commentator Wimar Witoelar added that the power of President Suharto is "so absolute" that whoever is the vice president will be "overshadowed", adding that Habibie is not a political factor to be considered seriously. He believed Habibie will have difficulties in getting the support of the powerful Indonesian military should Suharto be incapacitated some day.

Suharto, however, is among those who favours and speaks highly about Habibie. He once said that Habibie is a "great blessing" to Indonesia.

Born in a remote village near the southern Sulawesi town of Pare-pare, Habibie won a scholarship from the Indonesian government in 1954 to study aircraft construction engineering in Aachen, Germany. After obtaining a doctorate in 1965, he joined the Hamburg-based Messerschmitt Boelkow Blohm (MBB) aircraft manufacturer.

In 1974, Suharto, who had known Habibie since the energetic engineer was a teenager in the southern Sulawesi capital of Ujungpandang, asked him to return home to help develop Indonesia's hi-tech industries. With Suharto's support, Habibie set out to build costly "strategic industries" ranging from steel plants to biotechnology in 1978. His pet project was the IPTN aircraft-manufacturing company, which is building a turboprop commuter plane and developing a US$2 billion national passenger jet.

But it wasn't until 1991 that Habibie's role in politics skyrocketed when he was elected ICMI chairman. Critics said the influential Muslim group was created to balance the Indonesian army which has shown growing opposition to Suharto's rule.

He soon became the busiest cabinet member in Indonesia, holding 26 different positions, from the Islamic organisation to Golkar's ruling party, from hi-tech firms to the honorary chairman of a cancer hospital. However, most of his projects, including the PAL ship-building company and IPTN, became a massive drain of state resources, resulting in an ocean of red ink.

"All of his projects have failed," said Witoelar, adding that he "cannot see what Habibie can do after Suharto passes from the scene".

And Habibie has other problems. Indonesian academician-cum-dissident George J Aditjondro, who conducts a special project to monitor corrupt officials in Indonesia, alleged recently that Habibie's wife, sons and siblings had used Habibie's influence to win tenders in projects under Habibie's patronage.

Muslim columnist Adi Sasono, a close associate of Habibie who looks after the day-to-day affairs of ICMI, conceded that such an allegation did exist but said he had once asked Habibie about it.

"Only two per cent of the contracts are going to his family," said Adi.

Both Adi and Muslim leader Ahmad Sumargono, an ardent supporter of Habibie, also admitted that Suharto's children had initially opposed their father's choice, saying that the influential children, who have the ear of their father, doubted whether Habibie could protect their interests in the post-Suharto period.

Sumargono said it is normal that Habibie spends a lot of money for his projects. He said these projects - from the development of Batam Island to the construction of the airplanes - are huge in nature.

"IPTN has recently won tenders to sell its planes in the US," boasted Sumargono, adding that there were only two countries in the world which could penetrate the US airplane market - Israel and Indonesia.

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