B.J. Habibie Dies at 83; Ushered in Democracy in Indonesia

JAKARTA, Indonesia — B. J. Habibie, who as president of Indonesia ushered in an era of democracy that ended the rule of Suharto, whose 32-year dictatorship is considered one of the most brutal and corrupt of the 20th century, died on Wednesday in a hospital in Jakarta. He was 83.

His son Thareq Kemal Habibie confirmed the death, and said the cause was heart failure.

“Please allow me on behalf the Indonesian people, and the government, to convey our deep sorrow,” Indonesia’s president, Joko Widodo, said. “We know Mr. Habibie as a world-class scientist, the father of technology in Indonesia and the third president of the Republic of Indonesia.”

In 1974, Mr. Habibie was working for the aerospace manufacturer Messerschmitt-Bölkow-Blohm in Germany when Suharto persuaded him to return to Indonesia and develop the country’s technology.

He held several posts before Suharto named him to his cabinet as minister of research and technology in 1978. Twenty years later, he named him his vice president and successor.

At the time, Indonesia was struggling to recover from the Asian economic crisis and Suharto’s government was facing mounting opposition. Suharto stepped down barely two months later and Mr. Habibie became president.

Though he served as president for only 17 months, the shortest of any Indonesian president, Mr. Habibie played a crucial role in laying out the foundation for a democratic Indonesia.

ImageMr. Habibie in 2018 at the presidential palace in Jakarta for a ceremony marking Indonesia’s 73rd Independence Day.
CreditBeawiharta/Reuters

He called the first free elections in a generation, released political prisoners, protected freedom of the press and women’s rights, reduced the role of the military in politics, and moved to decentralize the government.

He also paved the way for the former province of East Timor — once a Portuguese colony — to become an independent island, a highly unpopular move in Indonesia at the time.

“It’s fair to say that Habibie proved the skeptics (like me) wrong,” said Sidney Jones, director of the Institute for Policy Analysis of Conflict in Jakarta. “In his short tenure he managed to leave a stronger reformist legacy than any other post-Suharto president.”

At the same time, Mr. Habibie was unable to break completely with Suharto, who had become his mentor. To his own political detriment, Mr. Habibie halted a corruption investigation into allegations that the former dictator and his family members siphoned off vast amounts of wealth from the government.

In October 1999, days before an electoral assembly was scheduled to select a new president, Mr. Habibie withdrew his candidacy, recognizing that defeat was inevitable.

“I was satisfied by my term in office,” he told reporters at the time. “I was given the opportunity to devote myself to this nation. I’m happy that democracy has started in Indonesia and I hope this will continue whoever the new president is.” He was succeeded by Abdurrahman Wahid.

In rolling back the Suharto dictatorship, Mr. Habibie freed the East Timor independence leader, Xanana Gusmao, who had served seven years in prison. Mr. Gusmao became East Timor’s first president in 2002 and later served as its prime minister for seven years.

A video clip that circulated on the Internet on Thursday showed Mr. Gusmao bidding an emotional farewell to Mr. Habibie’s at his hospital bedside. Last month, on Aug. 30, the 20th anniversary of the vote that granted East Timor independence, the island nation named a bridge after Mr. Habibie in Dili, the capital.

Bacharudin Jusuf Habibie was born on June 25, 1936, on the island of Sulawesi in Eastern Indonesia.

In 1955, he traveled to Europe to attend university and spent most of the next two decades earning a degree in engineering and a Ph.D. in aerospace engineering in Germany and working in the aeronautics industry there.

In 1962, he returned to Indonesia for three months, reuniting with and marrying his high school sweetheart, Hasri Ainun Besari, who returned to Germany with him. Their 48-year marriage became the subject of two popular movies in Indonesia. She died in 2010.

In addition to his son, Thareq Kemal Habibie, Mr. Habibie is survived by another son, Ilham Akbar Habibie, and six grandchildren.

Mr. Habibie advised at least two of his successors as president, Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono and Mr. Joko.

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