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Wednesday, Oct. 6, 1999

Back to the brink in Indonesia

Struggle for control of the future turns on the role of the military


Special to The Japan Times

"What we have now in Indonesia is the same old New Order without Suharto. Nothing is really changing."

With these words, a 21-year-old student activist named Yongki summed up the frustration and cynicism being expressed at a marathon emergency meeting in Malang, East Java, last month to protest the proposed new state security law. Yongki and his fellow students believe that whoever becomes president of Indonesia in the election scheduled for November will be no more than a puppet of the military -- a perception shared by Indonesians of all ages, classes and professions. One thing is certain: People who are optimistic about the prospects for meaningful political reform in Indonesia are thin on the ground.

What went wrong? Since the toppling of President Suharto in May 1998, Indonesians have enjoyed expanded civil rights, a robustly critical press, free and fair parliamentary elections and the defeat of Golkar (the widely detested ruling party during the New Order). Moreover, President B.J. Habibie has been taking a whipping in the media. So, given all this good news, why all the pessimism and skepticism?

For one thing, the Bank Bali political-fundraising scandal swirling around Habibie's inner circle, along with the botched high-level coverup, has reminded Indonesians of Watergate, a sign that dirty politics is still the name of the game. Revelations that Megawati Sukarnoputri's Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle (PDI-P) has dubious links with Bank Lippo (owned by the Riady family of Clinton campaign-finance notoriety) has further dashed hopes for real reform. In addition, an audit of the state-owned oil conglomerate Pertamina recently found that about $6 billion has disappeared, and suspicions are rife that it slipped into the pockets of military leaders.

Add these tales of malfeasance to the glacial pace of the probe into corruption allegations against Suharto, and it is easy to understand why a weary citizenry is collectively shrugging its shoulders. Justice seems as elusive as ever. Moreover, there is scant confidence that any of the potential political leaders will be able to deal with the country's devastating economic crisis.

Those with an interest in preserving the status quo are also trying to claw back some of the power lost during the wave of reforms. The new state security legislation brought the students back onto the streets of Jakarta, but observers say the odds are now stacked in favor of the military. The legislation has been temporarily suspended in a bid to quell street protests, but this is a stopgap strategy. The students appear determined not to accept anything less than repeal, while the military and the government appear equally resolute that the bill will be enacted. Military sources confirm that the new legislation is mainly aimed at dealing with an expected storm of protest after the presidential election in November, triggering speculation that the powers that be are preparing an outcome that will be unacceptable to the public.

Bad memories

Why is the emergency-powers bill being so fiercely contested? There are several reasons. It runs counter to popular demands for the military to return to their barracks and stop meddling in politics. The president is granted extraordinary discretion to decide unilaterally whether or not to declare a state of emergency in a particular region. He or she does not need to get permission from Parliament and does not need to account for any decision. There are no time limits or requirements for renewal of the declaration of a state of emergency. There are also no criteria for determining what constitutes a state of emergency. Once the president declares a state of emergency, the military is sanctioned to use whatever force it deems necessary to restore stability, and all civil rights can be suspended at the military's discretion. It is exactly this concentration of unaccountable authority that plagued Indonesia during the New Order (1966-1998).

Remarkably, neither of the two leading contenders for the presidency, Megawati and Gus Dur, has spoken out against the new legislation. In the media and on the streets, this bill is considered a major political issue, but the deafening silence from these two leaders is interpreted as a sign of their unwillingness to confront the military leadership. Few doubt that the military still holds the keys to the presidential palace and is being wooed and cultivated accordingly.

The Jakarta rumor mill is generating several scenarios. The expectation of street demonstrations associated with the presidential elections may mean there are plans to derail the candidacy of Megawati, the leader of the most popular party in Indonesia. Armed Forces Chief Gen. Wiranto may feel his interests lie in supporting Habibie's re-election in exchange for the vice-presidential post. He could then move to oust Habibie in a constitutional coup d'etat. Given his concerns about being indicted as a war criminal over East Timor, his personal interest in such a scenario cannot be lightly dismissed. Of course, he could also do a deal with Megawati, but ousting her would be more problematic.

It is this climate of apprehension about the military's intentions that explains why the "parliament of the streets" has turned violent. Feri, the only avowed optimist I met, is a journalist who sees hope in an assertive military.

"Look," he said, "the military is the only strong institution we have and if Indonesia is going to cope with its problems it will need the military to play a central role. It will be crazy if they return to the barracks."

In Indonesia, such benign views of the military are as rare as pigs in a mosque. Interviews with a wide spectrum of Indonesians indicate scant support for the new bill, simply because the military is not trusted. Virtually all Indonesians I met want the military to stay out of politics. There is widespread sentiment that the military itself is the most dangerous threat to peace and stability. At the same time, it is true that the sad legacy of the New Order is atrophied political institutions and a concentration of relative administrative competence in the armed forces.

Planned chaos

East Timor has done nothing to bolster the military's credibility. Even pedicab drivers and food stall vendors talk openly about the military orchestrating the recent spate of violence there and in Aceh, Ambon and Irian Jaya. The military is seen as the enemy of the people even as it tries to convince the public that the climate of instability requires stronger security measures.

It is true that the wave of nationalism sparked by international criticism of the military's role in the scorched-earth policy in East Timor and calls for a war-crimes tribunal have somewhat improved the military's standing. In time-honored tradition, the discredited forces of the status quo are wrapping themselves in the flag to obscure their failings, but many view this as little more than political theater and see no lasting impact on popular distrust of the military. The director of an arts foundation told me that the military distrusts a public they have long repressed.

"The political leadership always warns that the people are not ready for democracy," he went on to say, "but in reality it is the political and military leaders who are not ready. They fear the prospect of sharing power."

The military's institutional interests require a state of chaos that will enable it to indefinitely postpone real "people power." Such a scenario suggests escalating violence.

Aceh is a case in point. Arman, a local businessman, echoed comments in the press that blamed the growing violence in this resource-rich region on military excesses. He said that the separatist Gerakan Aceh Merdeka movement enjoys widespread sympathy and support among the Acehnese only because the military polarizes the political situation by relying solely on violence. He suggested that the separatist problem would disappear if the military left, but will only intensify if the government proceeds with plans to re-establish a command headquarters there.

One political scientist who requested anonymity argues that Indonesia is viewed as a virtual occupying power in Aceh, where villagers are subjected to frequent military sweeps and men are often brought in for interrogation, intimidation and torture. GAM makes the most of this ham-fisted policy, pointing out that Aceh contributes immense revenues to the government and only gets an army of occupation in return. Allegations are rife that the military runs various lucrative business enterprises, including narcotics and arms smuggling in Aceh.

Reviving 'dwifungsi'

Given the climate of suspicion and animosity directed against the military, why did Wiranto lobby for the emergency-powers legislation? It is all the more puzzling since there had been some optimism that more progressive elements in the military were busy rethinking the "dwifungsi" (dual function) doctrine that is the ideological basis for the military's twin roles in both security and politics. The drop in its (unelected) representation in the new Parliament from 55 to 38 had also been seen as a sign that the military was willing to accept a diminished political role and was trimming its sails to accommodate the winds of reform. But now it seems that its willingness to tolerate generally hostile media may have been misinterpreted as a sign that it is ready for change.

Outside the military and the New Order old guard, the security legislation is being universally pilloried as a dangerous revanchist gambit. Kristiadi, a researcher at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Jakarta, was quoted in the weekly Gamma recently as saying that it suggests that the military leadership has lost its mind. Or perhaps it merely shows that reformist elements are not yet strong enough to carry the day. It is not lost on observers that dwifungsi has facilitated the growth of massive business interests that might be threatened by a return to the barracks and professionalization of the military. One Sumatran economist said, "In America you have the mafia, in Japan the yakuza and here we have the TNI (the armed forces)." Still, the question remains: Why is the military going on the offensive now?

Political experts say that it is actually playing its cards adroitly, fomenting a climate of unrest, raising the specter of a nation unraveling at the peripheries and using the lame-duck New Order parliamentary session to shore up the legal basis for military oppression. Rather than meekly returning to the barracks, the military is seeking to determine the pace and extent of reforms affecting its future prerogatives and role.

Mochtar Pabottingi, a political expert at LIPI, a Jakarta think tank, likens the military leaders to desperados. In his view, the military and its political minions in government are seeking to extend their political domination and rein in the reform movement via the new state security bill. In a recent article, he denounced the emergency-powers legislation in very blunt and unambiguous terms as a power grab aimed at putting the military above the law and rendering it unaccountable for its abuses of power.

"The biggest victims of the political machinations by these desperados will be our nation and our republic," Mochtar writes. He accuses the militarists of responsibility for a spate of crimes against the nation, beginning with the slaughter of hundreds of thousands of fellow Indonesians in 1965-66 up through the Bank Bali scandal that now envelops Habibie. The story of the desperados, the men who have held power in the New Order, is a tragic one of massacres, oppression and corruption. The prospect that the emergency legislation will help revive their power is what has prompted Mochtar to call for the students to man the barricades and defend their hard-won freedoms.

The student movement

The students have vented their frustration on the streets of Jakarta, and the military has gunned down new martyrs of the reform movement, in an atmosphere fraught with tension and mounting violence. However, it is less certain that people power can prevail again, as it did in May 1998, because the military seems to be taking a hardline position. In addition, there are questions about the unity and strength of the student movement. The rhetorical jousting in the smoky debating room of those student activists in East Java in mid-September suggests that the unity of purpose that galvanized the student movement in the spring of 1998 is only a memory. Some students cite Che Guevara and Tan Malaka (a famous Indonesian communist active during the Dutch colonial era), but voices of moderation seem more prevalent. The meeting concluded with the students taking no collective position on the state security law or any plan for action, in distinct contrast to television images of their Jakarta counterparts marching on Parliament.

The 50 or so student leaders from Malang, a town with over 100,000 students, seem to agree that real reform starts with the military returning to the barracks, but nobody believes that will happen. Everyone also agrees that reconciliation must start with accountability, but if Suharto does not have to answer for his misdeeds, there is little prospect that others will. At this point, to borrow a metaphor from South Africa, law and justice in Indonesia seem like distant cousins no longer on speaking terms. The craving for justice is palpable, but the mood among students is neither optimistic or forgiving. The models of reconciliation in South Africa (open admissions of wrongdoing in exchange for amnesty) or Argentina (blanket amnesty) hold little appeal. The students -- like most people I met -- insist that the military must answer for its abuses of power. But it is apparent that the military is unwilling to open its checkered past to judgment and retribution.

Clearly, this is a turbulent and telling period for the future of military-civilian relations in Indonesia. In this context, it is not encouraging that students, the vanguard of reform, appear to be flailing about for a strategy to rebuild civil society at a time when their country seems headed for the abyss.

The radical fringe

The run-down headquarters of the Partai Rakyat Demokratik, little more than a two-room shack on the edge of Malang, sports the bright red party banner and a photo of Xanana Gusmao, the leader of the Free East Timor movement. There is an out-of-date sign in English calling for the freeing of Xanana, who had been freed just days before from house arrest, and of jailed comrades from the PRD leadership. The PRD is led by student activists who feel a responsibility to provide leadership for the majority of Indonesians struggling with poverty, although their efforts to reach out to downtrodden workers and peasants have met with with limited success. They are almost proud of their poor showing in the parliamentary elections, in which they failed to win a seat: The number 16, their place among all parties contesting the elections, is prominently displayed on their literature. The top party leaders languish in jail, accused of supporting communism and fomenting riots at Megawati's party headquarters in July 1997. Given the military's prominent role in instigating those riots, politics does indeed make for odd bedfellows.

The PRD are busy organizing workers, many of whom are not even being paid the minimum wage of Rp. 6,000 a day (less than $1). My own visits to cigarette and food-processing factories confirms this. According to both an NGO director and a political scientist at the University of Merdeka in East Java, the PRD has done better than the two national union organizations in winning the trust of the workers. Pedicab drivers vote for Megawati, but many of them express their admiration and sympathy for the young firebrands of the PRD. Indonesia's leading candidate for the Nobel Prize in literature, Pramoedya Ananta Toer, is perhaps their most prominent member.

Unlike many of those I interviewed, the PRD members take a long-term view, unsurprising for a party that has failed to mobilize broad support. In their view, no political leader today is untainted by connections with the New Order and the military still calls the shots. Their hope is to awaken the masses of Indonesians who have been left bobbing about in the wake of development and are now bearing the brunt of the economic crisis. These young men are articulate and well-informed, moving smoothly from a comparative analysis of political transition in other authoritarian nations to a discussion about the need for a debt moratorium. Indonesia's $150 billion-plus in debt gives it the dubious distinction of being the world's No. 1 debtor nation, but, according to the PRD, the international lenders have been coconspirators with the New Order and should take responsibility for looking the other way while borrowed funds were misappropriated. They ask why the people should shoulder the gambling debts of the rich while international bankers are insulated from the consequences of their dubious dealings.

The political and economic problems that have accumulated in Indonesia seem intractable. Whoever becomes president in November -- most analysts tap Megawati -- will not have a lot of room to maneuver. The people's demands for justice and the military's institutional interests cannot easily be reconciled. Under what terms and to what extent will the military "submit" to civilian authority? How patient will the parliament of the streets remain in the face of continued economic misery and halfhearted reforms? How can Indonesia regain international confidence?

There are no easy answers and the prospects are grim, especially for the urban poor. In these circumstances, the temptation to stir up and ride a wave of nationalism will be considerable. Megawati, after all, is popular precisely because she basks in the reflected glory and charisma of her father, the last leader to make Indonesians proud of themselves. One cannot expect that the consequences now will be any better than they were then.

Jeff Kingston, associate professor of history at Temple University Japan and a former Fulbright Scholar in Indonesia, recently spent a month in East Java.


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