This is Wendy Tanoto.
When I was six years old, my father, Polar Yanto Tanoto died in GA152 air crash on his way flying back to our home in Medan, Indonesia on Sep 26th 1997. I can still vividly remember the day when I learned the news. It was a typical Friday afternoon when the kids were expecting dad to join the dinner at 6pm.
For those who don’t know what happened, I’m here to tell you the story of a family who survived from the abuse by the Indonesian richest man, Sukanto Tanoto, the Chairman of RGE.
Right after my father’s death, Sukanto Tanoto, my father’s 30 years business partner/ brother skillfully contemplated actions to steal my father’s estates and today, he is celebrated as the richest man in Indonesia.
It happened so quickly and so skillfully that I remember how everything started to go against my family after my father’s death. It was scary. My mother only realized things started to go wrong when Sukanto asked her to sign over my father’s estate to him 1 week after my father’s funeral. Personal attacks, humiliations and death threats started to come to my mother when she refused to sign the document. Little do we come to expect that they all come from the closest person to our family, my uncle Sukanto.
For as long as I could remember, my uncle is like the Lord Voldemort. He became very mean and distanced toward my family after my father’s death. I hate when my uncle accused my mother for born with bad luck that caused my father to die even though he knew that his words would devastate my mother even more. I didn’t like how he undermined my father’s contribution to the company. I didn’t understand how he can possibly tell the world that my father, his business partner who built a billion company with him own nothing. I didn’t expect all bad things to come at once. I thought every uncle would react this way to their nieces when their father passed away in a sudden accident.
All of his actions, accusation, humiliation toward my mother was just a way to make her breakdown, so she would not be able to manage the battle against him.
After long legal battles, my mother decided not to pursue the estate case further. It was exhausting for a single mother with 4 children and no financial income to fight against one of the most powerful men in Indonesia. There were always lawyers from around the world willing to defend him and make up things to accuse my mother. Every time my mother tried to protect us, the lawyers can always twist my mother’s actions as a gold digger who used her children as a leverage. But the truth is that we were at the edge of poverty, and my mother can no longer afford our school fees. When every wife in Indonesia was allowed to access their husband’s public records, my mother was not able to. The officials told my mother that he could not give her my father’s public record unless she resolve the problems with Sukanto and got his permission. Yes, he has influences in the government.
The fact that Sukanto got away from what he did to my family haunted me as I grew up. I couldn’t stand the tortures my mother has to go through after my father died. I couldn’t understand why my mother had to tell me that she could not sign the settlement offered by my uncle in 2000 as our guardian to give up my father’s estates because she knew my father owned much more. Even though people around her pressured her to sign the settlement, my mother knew that what Sukanto offered was purely humiliating to her husband and her family. I couldn’t understand why my grandmother told me that my mom could not be with me when I was sick because Sukanto bribed the police to arrest her in Indonesia. I was horrified at that time because I just lost my father. Every time I saw a news article on Sukanto, an interview with Sukanto, and people praising his fortune as the richest man in Indonesia, his philanthropy work and receiving the highest honor of the Dean Medal by Wharton School of University Pennsylvania – I would wonder how they would react if they know how Sukanto has taken advantage of widow and orphans of an air crash passenger/ his closest brother.
For so long, Sukanto Tanoto’s success restrained me from telling the truth. My family was asked to give up many things after my father died, but this time I decided not to give up my rights and speak my story.
Today, I think I’m fortunate. What happened to my family has brought us closer together. We support each other and appreciate each others’ existences for that difficult time. Most importantly, I have a mother who support and love us unconditionally.
However, there are people around the world suffering from abuses by powerful men who still struggle to tell their stories. They give me the courage not to be silence anymore.
I want to ask the Board of UPenn who awarded Sukanto Tanoto the Dean Medal if they know what Sukanto has done to the family of an air crash victim before honoring him.
I want to ask the people who helped Sukanto to abuse our family what if their daughter has to go through all these at young age.