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Seizing the Suharto Billions: An Issue Dividing Indonesia

Protests rose this week demanding that Habibie go after the ex-autocrat's wealth.

Indonesia's people power is going one step further.

Popular protest bumped former President Suharto from office, now many citizens are calling to try the fallen autocrat and seize his family's estimated $40 billion fortune.

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This week thousands of students crammed into and on top of buses to tour Jakarta and spread their demand to "take Suharto to court."

Adults are taking a less boisterous approach, shunning businesses associated with the family. At the opulent Grand Hyatt Hotel, owned by a Suharto son, the usual lunch rush has slowed to a trickle. These days, "a family tie is not an advantage," a waiter says dryly as he surveys a room full of empty tables.

The government has announced an investigation into the Suharto family's extensive holdings, even as it urges restraint. The probe is part of President B.J. Habibie's drive to distance himself from the corruption of the past. But critics are already asking how effective reform can be. The roots of collusion go deep, they say, and major players of the old system are still in power. Some suggest the probe is simply a shadow play designed to placate an empowered public. Others question whether it can work at all.

"It lacks credibility," says Marzuki Darusman, deputy chairman of the National Commission on Human Rights, of the planned investigation. He points out that the attorney general's office hasn't done much to address corruption cases in the past and that the attorney general himself is a Suharto appointee.

In his 32 years in power, Suharto liberally doled out lucrative appointments, contracts, and monopolies to family and friends. His six children amassed fortunes through monopolies that strangled competition and stifled growth.

The pervasiveness of collusion and corruption dismays reformers. People here quip that business, indeed much of daily life, is ruled by the "five Ds": datang, duduk, dengar, diam, duit, a mouthful that translates as "come, sit, listen, silence, money."

If you want your driver's license processed promptly (by a company owned by Suharto's daughter), it's understood that a neatly folded bill should accompany the application form. "You'll get it much faster, everyone knows," shrugs Peter Picaulima, an unemployed hotel manager.

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Mr. Habibie says he'll put an end to this. In his first speech to the nation as president, the German-trained technocrat said corruption was "crippling the life of the nation." This was clearly an attempt to establish his independence from Suharto, who has mentored Habibie since age 13. But persuading people he is not another crony will be difficult.

HABIBIE'S family wealth is estimated in the tens of millions of dollars and at least some of it is due to Suharto's help. In 1978, Suharto made Habibie chairman of an industrial park on Batam Island near Singapore. Habibie immediately began bringing in family to businesses there.

Habibie argues that his family's talent and education accounts for their fortune, and has urged Indonesians not to dwell too much on the past. That call for restraint has been echoed by government, opposition, and military figures who also maintain that they are pro-reform.

"Digging for past dirt will only disturb our concentration in trying to move to a future filled with many problems," armed forces chief Wiranto said this week.

"They're trying to gain a measure of control," says Donald Emmerson, a political scientist at the University of Wisconsin.

Many politicians have jumped on the anticorruption bandwagon. But now that the public has embraced the cause, maintaining control over the reform movement has become a worry. "It's like having a team of 17 wild horses and a very small whip," says Mr. Emmerson.

There has already been a fallout at the corporate level. The government and private firms are cutting ties with Suharto businesses, reviewing tax breaks, and canceling contracts.

As the authorities urge restraint and cut collusive ties, economic hardship is likely to fuel greater demands for change.

Like many Indonesians, lawyer Antonio Pragasto is already fed up. "Suharto's wealth is wealth that belongs to Indonesia and we need to get some of it back," he says, pointing out that estimates of Suharto family wealth almost match the $41.2 billion international bailout cost. "If we can get $1 [billion] or $10 billion from him, at least we won't have to start from zero," he adds.

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