Former Indonesian president Habibie dies at 83

Former Indonesian President B. J. Habibie. Photo: Twitter (@bj_habibie)
Former Indonesian President B. J. Habibie. Photo: Twitter (@bj_habibie)

Former Indonesian president B.J. Habibie, who ushered in an era of democratic reforms after the downfall of long-time dictator Suharto, died on Wednesday at the age of 83 in Jakarta, his family and officials said.

Habibie died at a military hospital in the capital after suffering from heart failure.

In a televised speech announcing Habibie’s death, President Joko Widodo called the former aircraft engineer and politician a “world-class scientist” and “the father of Indonesian technology.”

Habibie was born in June 1936 in a small town in South Sulawesi, and studied aviation and aerospace engineering in Germany and the Netherlands before returning home in the mid-1970s.

Suharto asked him to help industrialise the country. He chaired the state-owned aviation company Industri Pesawat Terbang Nusantara and then served as minister of research and technology for 20 years.

Habibie was sworn in as Indonesia’s third president in 1998, just two months after becoming vice president to Suharto, who ruled for three decades until mass protests forced his resignation.

Habibie helped usher in a transition to democracy for the world’s most populous Muslim nation and stabilise the economy, which was reeling from the Asian financial crisis and decades of corruption.

In a surprise move in 1999, Habibie announced a referendum on independence for East Timor, a former Portuguese colony ruled by Indonesia.

The vote was held later that year and the East Timorese overwhelmingly voted for independence, sparking a wave of deadly unrest.

Habibie served for just 17 months as president — he withdrew from contention in the October 1999 election and was succeeded by Abdurrahman Wahid.

He is survived by two sons.

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