BJ Habibie obituary – President of Indonesia in 1998-99 who oversaw a successful if turbulent transition to a greater degree of democracy

John Gittings
Tue 17 Sep 2019


BJ Habibie in his office in Jakarta, Indonesia, in 1999. Photograph: Andres Hernandez/Getty Images

Bacharuddin Jusuf (BJ) Habibie, who has died aged 83, became president of Indonesia by default in 1998 when his patron Suharto could no longer cling on after three decades of dictatorial rule. Though Habibie’s tenure was a mere 512 days, he oversaw a successful if turbulent transition to some form of democracy – though to what extent he actively sought out that goal or was obliged to pursue it through his own weakness and the growing strength of popular protest remains in question.

When he came to power Habibie pledged to lift restrictions on political parties, to recognise “democratic aspirations” and to tackle the “corruption, collusion and nepotism” of the past. On National Day, 17 August 1998, he also apologised for widespread human rights violations under the Suharto regime, admitting that these had been committed by “individuals from the state apparatus”.

Yet he could not fully discard Suharto’s mantle: on the previous day he had presented the nation’s highest award to the dictator’s wife, Raden Ayu Siti Hartinah, and youngest son, Hutomo Mandala Putra (Tommy Suharto), who were both tainted by corruption.

One of Habibie’s most important legacies was his intervention on East Timor (now Timor-Leste), the former Portuguese colony that had been illegally occupied by Indonesia under Suharto in 1975. Habibie initially offered East Timor the special status of “extensive autonomy”, then went further by granting its inhabitants a referendum on self-determination.


Categories: Asia, Indonesia

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