New military chief spells change for Indonesia

News Analysis

Army may take a back seat in politics.

GENERAL Wiranto’s elevation to the top armed forces (Abri) post in Indonesia, along with other high-ranking younger officers to key positions, could signal changes in the military’s role in politics in the years ahead.

Better educated and foreign trained, analysts said that they represent a new wave of professionalism in Abri with different perceptions of their place in Indonesia.

They are seen to be more open-minded on sensitive issues such as human rights, tolerant of debate and believe in greater interaction between the military and civilians in running the country.

Many also feel that Abri’s socio-political role has been over-emphasised in the past.

Through the constitutional principle of “dwifungsi” or dual function, Abri maintains a nationwide administrative apparatus down to the village level.

Indonesia expert Harold Crouch believes that more than 60 per cent of the army battalions, for example, are assigned to “territorial” rather than combat duties.

Responsible for maintaining internal security, they are organised in units that parallel the civilian apparatus.

The younger generation, in particular, feels this has been to the detriment of the armed forces.

Indeed, observers see the young generation, a number of whom attended the US International Military Training Programme, as “non-political generals” compared to their predecessors who earned their spurs in the political battlefield.

Said retired Major-General Z.A. Maulani: “They represent a different breed altogether, earning their spurs in examinations and professional tours of duty.

“Their values are still grounded in the military creed but their approach to handling problems is different.”

This shift in thinking and attitude had coincided with other developments in Indonesian politics, such as the more-assertive role played by civilians in government, a confident private sector and a growing urban middle class.

This could also explain why Abri, under a younger core of officers, seems predisposed to having a civilian vice-president in the form of Research and Technology Minister B.J. Habibie.

A senior intelligence officer, a two-star general, acknowledged this shift in attitude towards civilians which Abri has long distrusted.

“The military has reached a stage where it is now ready to accept a civilian for the No. 2 post. That was unthinkable 10 years ago,” he said.

But analysts feel the military will not release its grip on power too soon. Many are still uncomfortable with a civilian-led leadership, given the experience of the 60s and 70s.

Said a senior government official with close links to the younger officers:

“They want change but it has to be gradual. There is still a certain distrust of civilians. They feel that civilians are not up to the mark in meeting the problems of society.”

One view here is that Abri is willing to take a back seat temporarily to make way for a civilian vice-president until such a time when it will groom a replacement for the post-Suharto era.

According to this view, Gen Wiranto’s appointment as armed forces chief would act as a counterweight to any civilian vice-president, given his extensive political base and support in the military.

The ultimate goal is for him or another young general to take over the reins of power in the long run.

Military insiders said some of them were already envisioning an Indonesia without Mr Suharto in charge.

But the process is inhibited because any open debate would be regarded with deep suspicion by the President who has handpicked them.

In the short term, one major problem for these officers will be to balance “independence of mind” with their links to the palace.

Said a high-level government official: “They are all the President’s men and they follow what he wants them to do without any questions.”

He said that Mr Suharto was moving younger military officers to key posts to get their backing ahead of the presidential poll and thereafter to consolidate his power.

“He is selecting people who are loyal so that the status quo can be maintained,” he said.

“Officers being promoted to the top are those who have worked for him at some point in their career. Personal loyalty is the catch-phrase now.”

Indeed, all the officers just promoted have served the President previously.

Gen Wiranto, for example, was the President’s adjutant from 1989-1993 before shooting up the military ranks.

The new army chief, Lieutenant-General Subagyo Hadisiswoyo, served in the presidential security guard before moving up.

Analysts believe the political inexperience of the younger generals will see them conceding ground and retreating until such a time when they are prepared to take over the reins of power.

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