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Obituaries

Indonesia's former President Habibie dies, aged 83

Widely respected figure is credited with democratizing the nation

Bacharudin Jusuf Habibie, former president of Indonesia, died on Wednesday, aged 83.   © Reuters

JAKARTA -- Bacharudin Jusuf Habibie, former president of Indonesia, died on Wednesday, aged 83. He was known as the leader who led Indonesia through its transition from a country ruled by a dictator to a democracy.

"He [died] due to old age and because he suffered from heart failure," Habibie's youngest son, Thareq Kemal Habibie, told a news conference on Wednesday evening.

Born on June 25, 1936, Habibie was vice president of the country when Suharto's authoritarian New Order regime fell in 1998, and was promoted to become the third leader of the country after Suharto was forced out of power.

He is widely credited for the democratization of the country, allowing freedom of speech and overseeing the country's first democratic legislative election in 1999. One of his most important -- and controversial -- decisions was approving a referendum for what was then East Timor province, which led to its independence from Indonesia.

His tenure as president lasted only a year and a half, but he remained influential in Indonesia's political sphere. He was also largely seen as a clean and respectable figure in the nation, many of whose politicians are regarded as corrupt.

Before entering politics, he was a renowned aviation engineer, having studied at RWTH Aachen University, in what was then West Germany, where he received a doctoral degree in 1965. He served as the vice president of the German aerospace manufacturer Messerschmitt Bolkow Blohm, now part of Airbus. As an aviation engineer, he was widely respected in Germany, which he called a second home.

He was widely respected in Indonesia, and was the nation's only technocrat leader. He was also renowned for starting the national aviation industry from scratch. He founded both Indonesia's state-owned aircraft manufacturer Industri Pesawat Terbang Nusantara -- now Dirgantara Indonesia -- in 1985, and the Agency for the Assessment and Application of Technology, or BPPT, Indonesia's first state-funded research agency dedicated to science and technology.

A respected Muslim intellectual, Habibie founded and served as the first leader of the Indonesian Muslim Intellectuals Association in 1990. He is also credited with helping establish Indonesia's first Islamic bank, Bank Muamalat, the following year. President Joko Widodo's meetings with him ahead of the April presidential election were widely seen as attempts to woo Muslim voters to support his re-election bid.

Widodo, visiting the hospital where the former president was being treated, said, "Please allow me on behalf of the people and the government to express my deep sorrow, to express my deepest condolences at the passing away [of Habibie]."

"We know [Habibie] as a world-class scientist as well as the father of Indonesian technology.... He was a statesman who deserves to be a role model."

Habibie is survived by two sons. His wife, Hasri Ainun, died in 2010. A 2012 film about their romance, "Habibie & Ainun," was a major hit in Indonesia.

Nikkei staff writer Shotaro Tani in Jakarta contributed to this report.

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