Asia

As Singaporean lawsuit begins, Suharto clan loses prized amusement park

JAKARTA – A Singaporean management consulting company is suing the children of Indonesia’s former president, Suharto, seeking millions in compensation as well as land in a case thought to have hastened the loss of one of the former ruling clan’s prized businesses.

In early March, privately-owned Mitora filed suit in a South Jakarta court seeking 584 million rupiah ($53,800) in compensation for “illegal acts”, as well as 20 hectares of land and buildings located in Taman Mini Indonesia Indah – a vast Suharto-era amusement park in East Jakarta. The suit also seeks property in the upscale Jakarta neighbourhood of Menteng.

A Disney-styled 146-hectare park, Taman Mini dates back to the 1970s and was the brainchild of Suharto’s wife, Ms Siti Hartinah, known universally as Ibu Tien.

With its pavilions, bumper cars and man-made lake festooned with islands in the shape of the archipelago, the park’s mission is to give visitors a chance to “go around Indonesia in a day”, as billboards there promise.

But just weeks after the suit was lodged in court, the government of President Joko Widodo seized control of Taman Mini, which sits on government land, arguing that the Suharto foundation that ran the amusement park, Harapan Kita, had failed to pay taxes since it opened in 1977.

Taman Mini loses as much as 50 billion rupiah a year, the government said. Wedged into the most densely populated city in Southeast Asia, the land and business is worth 20 trillion rupiah by the government’s measure.

Unaudited and opaque, the park amounts to a business yielding a steady stream of income to the Suhartos, say anticorruption activists. Its sudden loss underscores the family’s fall from the pinnacle of power during the patriarch’s 32 years in power.

“It’s a huge loss to the Suhartos,” said Mr Adnan Topan Husodo, coordinator with Indonesian Corruption Watch. “It shows they no longer have a grip on politics.”

“Mr Harto’s Footprints”

It’s difficult to overstate the significance of Taman Mini and its association with the Suhartos. The names of the one-time ruling family adorn its buildings and pavilions. A glass and steel library behind the administrative offices displays portraits of the former first couple and fawning biographies.

One such publication, kept in a glass case, is entitled, Mr Harto’s Footprints: 1 October 1965 to 27 March 1967, is about the period when anticommunist purges are thought to have cost hundreds of thousands of lives and marked Suharto’s rise to power.

Still, with its fairytale castle, waterpark, shady picnic areas and museums, Taman Mini is a staple for Indonesian households and schools looking for an affordable day out.

Despite Covid-19, over the recent Easter weekend, the park had 15,500 visitors. During the same period in 2019, it drew 50,000, according to data provided by park spokesman Mr Hadi Widodo.

For three-year-old Abdurrahman, or Yahya to his mother and grandparents, the best parts of Taman Mini were the vintage trains, a Garuda jetliner and a becak bicycle rickshaw at the transportation museum.

“He loved it,” said Yahya’s mother Ms Hermin Rahayu, 28. The family was visiting from Palembang, South Sumatra. “If we were living here we would visit every weekend,” Ms Hermin said.

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Taxes and losses

For the government, the park and the family who runs it have been less of a delight.

It has never paid taxes. In 2018 local authorities from the municipality of East Jakarta, seeking nearly 2 billion rupiah in back taxes resorted to sealing off its cable car, the aquarium and the IMAX theatre to force the park to pay up.

Taman Mini’s managing director, Mr Tanribali Lamo, says the park is cooperating with authorities during the handover. He has said Taman Mini makes money except during the pandemic.

Mr Hadi said the park will pare back renovations to cut costs. “Those reports that we lose money are untrue,” Mr Hadi said.

For now there are few details about the Mitora lawsuit. Hearings were twice rescheduled because the defendants failed to show up – a common tactic here while opposing sides hash out differences outside court.

It’s not the first time Mitora has lodged a suit against Taman Mini. In 2018, it levelled a 1.1 trillion rupiah action before eventually submitting to mediation, according to court documents.

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Retaining influence

While relegated to the sidelines the Suhartos remain involved in politics, putting them at odds with the administration.

During the 2019 presidential election Suharto’s second daughter, Ms Siti Hediati Hariyadi, 60, campaigned for her ex-husband, Mr Prabowo Subianto. In February, Suharto’s youngest son, Hutomo Mandala Putra, 58, better known as Tommy, regained control of his political party, Berkaya, which took 2.1 per cent of the vote in 2019.

At the height of their power, their interests ranged from toll roads to telecommunications to school uniforms, helping the family squirrel away billions.

And while down, the Suharto’s are definitely not out. Tommy Suharto’s fortune is estimated to be worth more than US$600 million. In 2016 he participated in Indonesia’s tax amnesty which allowed citizens to repatriate previously undeclared wealth at attractive tax rates.

“They retain influence,” said Andreas Harsono, Indonesian representative with Human Rights Watch. “The one thing they have is money.”

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