Washington Times, March 24, 1998
JAKARTA, Indonesia – Cronyism and nepotism may appear to be running Indonesia, but in the political chess game to determine what comes after President Suharto, it is the military that casts the longest shadow.
The 450,000-strong force, known by its Indonesian initials ABRI, holds a critical role in Indonesian politics and society. Along with the 75 seats it holds in the 1,000-member parliament, the military has traditionally dominated diplomatic, gubernatorial and Cabinet posts.
“ABRI is the strongest, most disciplined, most well-organized entity in this country,” said James van Zorge, an American consultant and author of a study of Indonesian politics. “It is the glue that holds the place together.”
Suharto and his “inner circle may look strong now, but when the old man is gone, it is ABRI that will decide everyone’s fate,” said a political analyst.
Patriotic television commercials in recent days have portrayed Suharto in the uniform of a five-star general, a reminder that he was brought to power in what official history accounts call a military response to a Communist coup attempt against President Sukarno.
Since then, the armed forces have been governed by a policy of “dwifungsi,” or dual function, protector of both the nation’s defense and its domestic stability.
That role was vividly illustrated earlier this month when ABRI units clashed with student protesters while 75 military officers sat as voting members of the assembly that re-elected Suharto.
The goal of the dual-function policy is to ensure the unity of this sprawling archipelago of 200 million people, more than 17,000 islands and scores of ethnic groups.
Its officers have never been afraid to flex that muscle, whether in the military’s long campaign against insurgents in East Timor, its battle against primitive spear-wielding rebels in Irian Jaya, its suppression of Islamic secessionists in Aceh, or in storming an opposition party headquarters on the streets of Jakarta.
The military has long been dogged by reports of torture, disappearances, illegal detentions and murder.
But neither the old guard, who came to power with Suharto, or the new generation show any signs of sparing the rod or doubting their role.
“If people are hot-tempered and ready to cut down the symbols of the state, yes, I will gladly prohibit them,” Gen. Wiranto, recently appointed defense minister and armed forces chief, told an Indonesian magazine.
“If they are still determined, I will be determined. The difference is they are breaking the law, I am protecting the law.”
Neither is the military shy about playing a role in the economy.
The ABRI-owned “foundations” have vast holdings in real estate, banks, agriculture, timber, transportation and other sectors.
Many of these enterprises can trace their roots to the traditional links between garrisons in the field and local businessmen, usually Chinese.
It was by doing favors for a junior officer named Suharto that Indonesia’s new minister of trade and industry, Mohammed “Bob” Hasan, managed to parlay a provincial trading company into a $3 billion empire.
Until recent years, when a more professional civilian talent pool emerged, the armed forces also dominated diplomatic, gubernatorial and Cabinet jobs.
But as Indonesia looks toward the post-Suharto era, it is in politics that the military makes it presence felt most.
Behind every potential scenario looms the question, “How will ABRI react?”
Early talk that Research Minister B.J. Habibie might be selected as vice president initially raised eyebrows, both for Mr. Habibie’s lack of military credentials and because he was known to be unpopular among sections of the officer corps.
Four of the country’s six vice presidents have been army officers. But grumbling in the ranks quickly fell silent when it became clear Suharto had made up his mind.
The reason: After 32 years of rule, the president’s word remains law.
Through frequent shifting of key officers and by cultivating rival power centers, Suharto has kept the military off-balance, making it difficult for any nascent opposition to coalesce.
“They derive their powers from the president but are in no position to unite against him,” according to Kusnanto Anggoro at Jakarta’s Center for Strategic and International Studies, a think tank.
“The real test comes when Suharto dies or resigns,” said a Western diplomat. “No one becomes president without ABRI’s support.
Credit: SPECIAL TO THE WASHINGTON TIMES
Copyright Washington Times Library Mar 24, 1998