Suharto counts on the military to keep social harmony at home

IT WAS a massive display of military pomp and muscle. Some 25,000 Indonesian armed forces (Abri) personnel in full combat gear stood on parade near the country’s parliament house to demonstrate their readiness to deal with rioters in the capital.

Troops rappelled down from hovering helicopters as light armoured vehicles moved around in a show of force.

The display last month illustrated once again the central position Abri occupies in Indonesian national life – and its role in preserving President Suharto’s new order government.

Mr Suharto, himself a five-star general who was elected last week for a record seventh, five-year term in office, is all too aware that as Indonesia slides perilously towards economic paralysis and social unrest gathers momentum, he needs the backing of the military to keep together a distended archipelagic state from breaking apart.

That heavy responsibility has been given to General Wiranto, whose double appointment as Abri chief and defence minister in the new Cabinet, puts the 50-year-old Yogyakarta-born Muslim in a very powerful position to preserve the state, if centrifugal forces get out of hand.

As military commander, he has operational control of Abri’s 475,000 troops, including regional and territorial commands, spread over an area consisting of nearly 17,000 islands stretching more than 5,000 km from east to west, or roughly the distance from London to Baghdad.

His defence and security portfolios also mean that he has a large say in mapping out military strategy and doctrines, besides being tasked with manpower allocation.

The “soldier’s soldier” is now an administrator as well.

A two-star general noted: “Politically, his grip on the military has increased. He now has the power to plan and execute policy.”

Only twice in recent history have the two positions been held concurrently by one man.

General Muhammad Jusuf did so between 1978 and 1983. Gen Murdani, who took over, restructured the military organisation in the mid-1980s by splitting the posts of defence minister from the Abri commander.

General Edi Sudradjat, the former defence minister, also held the two posts, albeit for only three months in 1993.

Senior military officers said that Gen Wiranto’s appointment was in synch with the government’s efforts to streamline the new Cabinet to trim costs, given the monetary turmoil afflicting the Indonesian economy.

The thinking here, said a one-star general involved in preparing a concept paper on the subject, is that “it will obviously be less of a financial burden for the country if one man can do the job of two”.

But some believe that cutting costs was less important for Mr Suharto than maintaining a political hold over the armed forces and defence establishment.

Abri insiders say that he was upset with Gen Sudradjat for being critical of the government on many occasions.

Said one source: “It is easier for him to have a firm grip on on man he trusts instead of confronting two.”

Others said that it was also the President’s attempt to surround himself with loyalists. This explains the prominence of former presidential adjutants, relatives and their proteges in recent promotions, especially to the most powerful and sensitive positions in Abri.

Said a senior government official with links to the palace: “The deteriorating economic and political climate is enough justification for him to arm himself with special powers as well as give more powers to those he trusts.

“He is surrounding himself with people who will do his bidding when called upon, especially in a crisis.”

Gen Wiranto, whose rise up the military ranks has been meteoric after serving as presidential aide between 1989 and 1993, has made no secret that he will crack down on rioters and demonstrators if they threatened national security.

In an interview with the Forum Keadilan magazine recently, he said: “If the people are hot-tempered and ready to cut down the symbols of the state, yes, I will gladly prohibit them. If they are still determined, I will be determined. The difference is that they are breaking the law and I am protecting the law.”

His warning took place against a backdrop of demonstrations by thousands of university students in campuses in Jakarta as well as cities of Yogyakarta, Surabaya, Bandung and Ujungpandang.

By giving Gen Wiranto two positions in the Cabinet, some argue that the President would appear to be giving too much power to the four-star general – though the defence and security portfolio has traditionally been a pale shadow by comparison.

In the broader scheme of things, however, it suits Mr Suharto, because it allows him to maintain a delicate balancing act of factions within the military.

Says a high-ranking government official: “He wants to move the musical chairs around to keep everyone off balance, so that only he remains in control.”

Political alignments in the military have been a consistent feature under Mr Suharto’s rule, being fluid and difficult to assess accurately.

The conventional wisdom here is that the young Abri generals, who graduated from the military academy in the late 1960s and early 1970s, are roughly divided into two groups – along lines of personal ambition and interests.

One is represented by Gen Wiranto, who has the loyalty of senior officers in the military and defence headquarters and commanders in East, West and Central Java.

The other is headed by the very capable Lieutenant-General Prabowo Subianto, the new chief of the 27,000-strong Army Strategic Reserve Command and Mr Suharto’s son-in-law.

He is said to be very much in control of the capital, with close links to several other senior army officers. But his power base is confined to Jakarta.

Analysts believe that this division, together with the President’s direct control over senior appointments, fragmentation of the command arrangements and the pervasiveness of the intelligence system, mitigates any attempt by the military to challenge him directly.

Notes political analyst Kusnanto Anggoro of the Jakarta-based think-tank, the Centre for Strategic and International Studies: “They derive their powers from the President, but are in no position to unite against him.”

This would somewhat dilute Gen Wiranto’s powers. Still, observers say that it would be more instructive to view his appointment over a longer time frame.

His critics charge that he lacks international exposure to hold a key political office, like the vice-presidency or even number one post. His appointment as defence minister gives him scope to do that.

Notes an Abri source: “It will polish his diplomatic skills and give him greater confidence to stand on the international podium.”

How Gen Wiranto copes with rising social unrest will also be a crucial test for him to win Mr Suharto’s confidence.

Observers believe that the President has in fact kept his options open by promoting Gen Wiranto to the two positions.

By making him defence minister, he could in the future reshuffle Abri’s top posts to relieve pressure for career advancement among the younger generals, like General Subagyo Hadisiswoyo, Lt-Gen Prabowo and the Abri socio-political chief Bambang Yudhoyono.

Political analyst Salim Said, chairman of the Jakarta Arts Council, said that there are two choices for Mr Suharto.

One is to keep Gen Wiranto in the posts for the next five years. The other is for him to relinquish his position as Abri commander midway for another general, most likely current Army chief Gen Subagyo.

Diplomatic sources say any changes that take place would be dependent on the prevailing political and economic conditions and the power constellation within the military.

Any revision to the balance of power within Abri, however, must not pose a threat to its Supreme Commander – President Suharto.

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