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Man with a Mission: Find Suharto’s Loot

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DAVID LIEBHOLD NewcastleWhen Suharto presented an environmental award to George Junus Aditjondro in June 1987, the President added some perfunctory words of advice: Continue with your work. Suharto might now regret that cursory counsel. Turning his attention from green issues to corruption, Aditjondro has made himself the world’s leading authority on Suharto family wealth. After years of analyzing Indonesian press reports, he estimates the fortune to be at least $25 billion (larger than the amount TIME ascertained through its reporting). Nowadays any research on the subject begins with Aditjondro, whose articles and interviews are reproduced on hundreds of Internet sites. He was the first guy to put together detailed information on the Suharto wealth and businesses, says Endy Bayuni, managing editor of the Jakarta Post. He felt that somebody had to do it.

Aditjondro’s interest in Suharto Inc. grew out of his work with conservation groups: he kept stumbling upon First Family companies. He says he discovered that behind almost every case of wanton environmental damage–from industrial pollution to destructive practices in mining, logging or tourism–lurked a Suharto firm. Rather than fight against myriad individual abuses, Aditjondro decided to attack the root of the problem. In 1994 he began collecting and cross-checking press clippings on the family businesses, painstakingly unraveling a complicated web of corporate interests. Though he fled to Australia in 1995 under police pressure, Aditjondro, 53, continues to investigate every Suharto-linked asset he can find. He insists it’s not personal. My fight is against the system, the oligarchy, he says. It’s larger than Suharto and more difficult to transform than simply removing him.

The son of a Javanese judge and a Dutch nurse, Aditjondro went to school in both Indonesia and the Netherlands. For most of the 1970s, he worked as a reporter for the newsweekly Tempo (banned by Suharto in 1994 and reopened last October). In the 1980s he got involved with non-governmental organizations, championing the rights of indigenous people–particularly in Irian Jaya, East Timor and Aceh–and working to build a network of conservationist groups across the archipelago.

Only months after he began researching the Suharto business empire, police started summoning Aditjondro for interrogations. With a lengthy jail term looming, he left Indonesia, giving up his teaching position at Satya Wacana University in Central Java and the home that he and his wife Esti had just finished renovating. He took a research fellowship at Perth’s Murdoch University and later a five-year teaching contract at the University of Newcastle, on Australia’s east coast, where he has developed a course on the sociology of corruption. Last year Aditjondro published From Suharto to Habibie: The Two Leading Corruptors of the New Order, which has sold 21,000 copies. He is now working on a book comparing the Suharto and Marcos oligarchies.

Both of Aditjondro’s favorite topics–the Suharto wealth and the rights of ethnic minorities, issues that were taboo only a year ago–are now at the center of public debate in Indonesia. But he is saddened by the way his academic colleagues played it safe for so long, embracing reformasi only after Indonesian students pushed it into the mainstream. Aditjondro’s identification with the underdog may be related to his ethnically mixed origins. The Dutch kids called me ‘nigger’ and the Indonesian kids called me ‘whitey,’ he says. If you’re a marginal person, either you become crushed by the majority, because you try to assimilate, or you use your marginality to understand all sides–the oppressed, the oppressor and the system itself.

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