New army chief plays it cool on way to top

General Wiranto keeps his cards close to his chest. Will he be a reformist or old wine in a new bottle? DERWIN PEREIRA reports from Jakarta.

WHAT do United States President Bill Clinton, Thailand’s King Bhumibol Adulyadej and Indonesia’s rising military star General Wiranto have in common? They all play the saxophone. For Gen Wiranto, who was appointed army chief a month ago, music is a cultivated passion.

His friends from the Indonesian military academy in Magelang, where he graduated with top honours in 1968, recall that he used to play for popular musical group Lokananta Drumband.

“He has a good voice and loves singing. One might even think he is a professional singer,” says an academy peer, Major-General Agum Gumelar.

But music is not the only love for the 50-year-old Javanese Muslim. He also plays bridge, a game he enjoys for its strategy.

Besides heading the Indonesian Bridge Association, he is involved in a variety of sports organisations, including the Jakarta chapter of the Shooting Club, the Indonesian Boxing Council and the Indonesian Taekwondo Association. The general rears birds as a hobby, and has found time, while carrying out his military duties and other activities, to acquire diplomas in law and business administration.

His public image, however, gives few hints about his broad range of interests, lively intellect and quick wit, which is shared only with close friends and family.

He shuns interviews with journalists and projects a picture of discretion. The face shown to the public is an austere, even intimidating one.

Notes a senior armed forces (Abri) officer: “I think over the last few years, in particular, he has become very conscious of his position and of the possibility that he is being groomed for greater things.

“Like playing bridge, he is keeping his cards very close to his chest and does not want to reveal too much. It is something he has learnt from the President.”

The son of a school teacher, Gen Wiranto was born in Yogjakarta, central Java.

His rise up the military ranks has been fast, particularly after serving as President Suharto’s adjutant between 1989 and 1993.

He spent most of his early career in north Sulawesi. From 1969 to 1976, he served exclusively with the Menado-based 713th Infantry Battalion.

From there, he moved on to a four-year assignment at the headquarters of the 18th Brigade, the airborne component of the Second Army Strategic Reserve Command (Kostrad) division in Malang, east Java.

In 1983, he became commander of the 713th Battalion, later moving on to serve under current Abri chief Feisal Tanjung at the Army Infantry Weapons Centre.

The turning point in his career was clearly his appointment in 1989 as Mr Suharto’s adjutant.

He emerged from the palace to take over as chief of staff of the Jakarta Command, and a year later to head the prized regional command.

In March last year, he was promoted as Kostrad commander and given his third star – the first time a Kostrad chief had attained such a rank. A year later, he was given his fourth star in four years to become army chief.

He is now widely tipped to replace Gen Tanjung as Abri chief next year and is even talked about as a future vice-presidential candidate.

Many see Gen Wiranto acting as a bridge between the ’60s-era military academy graduates and the younger generation of officers, represented most notably by Major-General Bambang Yudhoyono and Major-General Prabowo Subianto.

Says Major-General Agus Widjojo, who has known Gen Wiranto for more than 25 years: “He is a soldier’s soldier and represents the ideals of many young officers who have high hopes in him leading the military into the 21st century.”

Gen Wiranto’s strengths, according to many Abri officers, are his low profile and carefully cultivated neutrality. Says Major-General (Ret) Z. A. Maulani: “He is cool and detached. He listens more than he talks and has an independent mind.”

Another big attribute is his command presence and penchant for being a team player. Referring to the success of the combined armed forces exercise around the Natuna islands last year, Gen Wiranto said that it would not have been possible without the cooperation of the various units involved. “I live by the motto: One for all and all for one,” he said.

This professionalism is also seen in his hard-headed attitude towards indiscipline and Abri personnel who break the law.

He said: “We must be transparent. If an Abri soldier breaks the law, we must take firm action. There will not be any forgiveness.”

His vision for the Indonesian military is that it should be “professional, effective and modern” and have sufficient power to deter potential external or internal threats.

He is also conscious that the military must keep pace with rapid changes in a society increasingly being affected by globalisation.

Some believe, however, that there will be very little difference between Gen Wiranto and his predecessors, in terms of the hard-core values they hold with respect to Abri’s role in society and politics. In other words, old wine in a new bottle.

SAYS one analyst: “Given his own way, he can be a reformist. But he is in a very delicate position and has to balance independence of mind with political considerations.”

Critics also point to his lack of international exposure, which could be a handicap when handling sensitive issues like human rights and calls for greater democracy in the country.

His only overseas stint was a 1979 course under the United States International Military Education Training programme.

But others stress that this pales into significance when compared to the “education” and exposure he received as Mr Suharto’s adjutant.

Says a senior Abri officer: “That was a strategic appointment. He has learnt a lot from Pak Harto and in the process built up a trust with him.”

That trust was seen when Mr Suharto presented him with the Bintang Dharma, Indonesia’s highest military efficiency award, during the annual Abri day parade last October.

It has been many years since it was conferred during a parade which is usually reserved for celebrating the armed forces anniversary, rather than an individual officer’s achievements.

Notes the Abri source: “Pak Harto sees him as a confidant and someone who will meet the military’s drive for greater professionalism.”

As in the parade square, Gen Wiranto espouses the same values of discipline and loyalty to the nation at home.

But his wife, Rugaiya S.H., stresses that he is never hard on the family and has never lost his temper.

He also tries to spend time with his three children, despite his tight schedule. She also disclosed that at home, her husband often breaks into song.

She met the young Wiranto in Gorontalo, north Sulawesi, when he was a second lieutenant. After three years of courtship, they got married.

“He is very romantic,” she said. “He is so calm and says very little. That is why I fell in love with him.”

GENERAL WIRANTO, a Muslim, was born on April 4, 1947 in Yogjakarta, central Java. He is married to Rugaiya S. H. and they have two daughters and a son.

1968: Graduated from the Indonesian military academy in Magelang
1979: Took part in the United States International Military Education Training programme
1983: Attended the Command and General Staff College in Bandung
1996: Graduated top of his class from the National Defence Institute.
He also holds diplomas in law and business administration.

1989-93 Adjutant to President Suharto
1993: Chief-of-Staff, Jakarta military command
1994-96: Commander, Jakarta military command
March 1996 – June 1997: Commander, Army Strategic Reserve Command
May 1997: Indonesian Army Chief-of-Staff

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