Is there a power struggle in Abri?

THE resignation of President Suharto last Thursday after weeks of student-led protests resolved only one issue, albeit a significant one, in the Indonesian political endgame.

There are many sub-plots still to be played out. One of the most watched recently involves the armed forces (Abri) and its two most prominent career officers: military chief Wiranto, and former army strategic reserve (Kostrad) commander Prabowo Subianto, who is also Mr Suharto’s son-in-law.

It is a fact that there is much talk of a deep split between the two. This view has gained currency as local and foreign analysts scrutinise the two men’s recent and past actions, along with the movement of the commanders and troops under their charge.

Indeed, every reiteration by General Wiranto, in the wake of President B. J. Habibie’s ascendency, that Abri is solid, compact and united – and firmly behind the country’s new leader – has strengthened the opinion that all has not been well within the ranks, and between the two men.

The replacement of Lieutenant-General Prabowo as Kostrad commander on the day Gen Wiranto was reappointed Abri chief and defence minister, his new assignment as head of the military’s training school, his apparent unhappiness with it and desire to be considered for an ambassadorial post instead, as well as other command changes affecting his allies, have been fodder for discussion.

However, the 47-year-old, at one time the military’s fastest-rising officer, has yet to make any public statement about his move from the helm of the 27,000-strong Kostrad.

The Abri chief, on his part, has been measured in his comments, both about the younger man’s new assignment, as commander of the Staff and Command College (Sesko Abri) in Bandung, and the speculation that he is unhappy with the move.

Gen Wiranto told reporters last Saturday that the change had long been in the planning.

“The reason is that Prabowo has always been assigned to mainstream military activities, never to any educational institution; so the move is to give him a fulfilling experience for his career,” he said.

Analysts note, however, that Lt-Gen Prabowo was appointed Kostrad chief only in March. On Monday, Gen Wiranto said he was aware of talk about the transfer to Bandung, and commented: “People are just spreading rumours to cause problems.”


Such comments have not put a lid on the widely-held view, from within and outside Indonesian military and political circles, of a battle that has been brewing between the generals in the powerful military.

Military analysts have long believed that with Lt-Gen Prabowo in charge of Kostrad, backed by allies Major-General Muchdi Purwopranjono as Kopassus chief and Major-General Syafrie Syamsuddin as head of the Jakarta garrison, former President Suharto had been able to play his “princes” off against one another.

The odds had appeared stacked heavily against Gen Wiranto, given that his rival had control of key military units in Jakarta – Kostrad, Kopassus and the Jakarta garrison – and the loyalties of some commanders in Java.

There was even widespread speculation last week that the military chief was to be replaced as Abri head in Dr Habibie’s new Cabinet.

But the 51-year-old, a Muslim born in Yogyakarta, one of the centres of Javanese aristocratic culture, has instead emerged stronger through sheer military talent and political level-headedness.

He made the lightning leadership reshuffle involving Lt-Gen Prabowo and Maj-Gen Muchdi 36 hours after Mr Suharto’s resignation, and then sent troops early on Saturday morning to clear out 7,000 student demonstrators, who had been occupying the Parliament compound for four days.

By the end of Saturday, he had undisputed control of Abri.

But a high-level military source told The Straits Times that his clout had been kept in check in at least one instance by advisers to the new Habibie government, who were pushing for a stronger Islamic stamp on Abri.

It signalled, the source said, an “emerging battle on the horizon” between moderates and radicals, within and outside the military.

The incident involved his appointment of Major-General Johny Lumintang, a Christian, as successor to Lt-Gen Prabowo in Kostrad.

The source said the appointment was overturned because of the unease among some government officials and advisers that the new man was from a minority group.

According to the source, a two-star general, it is “not enough to be just ‘green’ now. They want us to be ‘greener’ to relect Islamic aspirations”.

“Green” here refers to Abri officers who are Muslim-oriented, as opposed to those who are “merah putih” – red and white, the colours of the Indonesian flag – who are regarded as being more secular in their outlook and orientation.

Thus, after only 18 hours in his new post, Maj-Gen Lumintang passed on the baton of Kostrad to West Java commander Djamari Chaniago, an ally of Lt-Gen Prabowo.

The move has led analysts here to again speculate that a “battle is emerging on the horizon” between the two factions.

Some observers note that even though Mr Suharto’s son-in-law has been transferred out of Kostrad, he still wields influence with other senior officers. That would explain why the Abri commander has moved his allies up to key positions to bolster his flanks.

Sources say that another military reshuffle could be expected soon, with long-time friend and confidant, Lt-Gen Bambang Yudhoyono, the current sociopolitical chief, likely to move up as army chief.

In the long run, analysts believe that Gen Wiranto’s almost total control of Abri will have significant political implications for President Habibie, whose previous base of support within the armed forces centred largely on Lt-Gen Prabowo.

The Habibie government is seen now as having to be reliant primarily on Gen Wiranto, as there are few, if any, alternative military figures waiting in the wings.

The military has long had a deep involvement in Indonesia’s body politic.

Abri is an institution that is far more than a standing army with a command structure. It is the largest political organisation in the country, and is perceived by its officer corps as the “soul” of the nation with a “birthright” to protect the state, having fought for Indonesian independence.

Analysts believe that Mr Suharto’s stepping down from centrestage could re-ignite a debate, both within Abri and among intellectuals here, about its political role.


The former President, especially in the last five years, had effectively neutered Abri as a political player and had bent it to suit his own needs – as the backbone supporting his governance.

With his dominating influence gone and the formation of a new government led by a civilian President, the question being asked is whether Abri will allow Dr Habibie the same degree of control, or whether it will withdraw from politics altogether.

Senior military officers contacted by The Straits Times said it was difficult to contemplate a succession plan during Mr Suharto’s rule, as that would have been tantamount to treason.

An army general said: “Some professional officers have quietly supported change. They could not talk about it openly because of loyalty to the President.

“The calls for change are just too strong now. There is a growing consensus among the officers that Abri will have to shed its image as a presidential watchdog and a fire fighting squad to win back the people’s confidence again.”

That is easier said then done, because many senior officers had a stake in the previous ruling establishment.

The signs for a military intervention may be inviting: The economy is in a mess and there is still a degree of domestic opposition to Dr Habibie, not just from students, but from elements within the military too.

A number of senior officers have been uncomfortable with him – despite Gen Wiranto’s pledge of support – because they resented his efforts, when he served as Research and Technology Minister under Mr Suharto, to wrest control of strategic industries and procurements from the military.

It was a move which resulted in Abri “losing much from the financial pie”.

Coupled with this is a certain degree of uneasiness among some officers that his advisers, some activists and Muslim-oriented, want to see a much more reduced political role for the armed forces, and an Abri that is more Muslim-oriented.

Observers believe that despite these concerns, a Wiranto-led military intervention “is a very remote possibility, now and in the near future”.

An army general who has known him for 20 years says that “it is not in his character to intervene or usurp power. He is a by-the-book person, who will defend the Constitution and whoever is the President”.

Thus far, Gen Wiranto has not given any indication of what the military’s role will be in a post-Suharto era.

Military insiders say his priority now is to unify the 475,000-strong Abri and to instill and meet the calls for greater professionalism from a younger officer corps.

Says one government source: “He wants to push the ideological bearing of the military back to the centre and remain neutral in politics.”

Military sources say he is not averse to the idea of political reform and, in fact, supports moves in that direction. His main argument is that the pace of reform should be gradual and not sudden, because that would have security implications for the distended archipelagic state.

However, a senior Abri officer also notes that there “are deep-seated fears in the military that Indonesia can go the way of the former Soviet Union and just break up, if there is no control on the process”.

He feels that the military will only step in if the country is “sliding towards chaos”, with widespread rioting and the rise of radical movements.

This, of course, would be complicated if alienated elements within the military exploited such an opportunity and struck back, though this possibility is fast receding, given Gen Wiranto’s growing power base.

In the view of one military source: “The next few months will be an uncertain period for Indonesia. The question on our minds is whether the civilians will make such a mess of things that Abri is forced to step in and save the nation.”

SPLIT: Abri chief and Suharto’s son-in-law

* General Wiranto, 51 (left): The Abri chief and Defence Minister, a Muslim born in Yogyakarta, has emerged stronger through sheer military talent and political level headedness. He made the lightning leadership reshuffle involving Gen Prabowo 36 hours after Mr Suharto’s resignation as president. Military insiders said his priority now was to unify the 475,000-strong army.
* Lt-Gen Prabowo Subianto, 47 (above): Mr Suharto’s son-in-law, at one time the fastest-rising officer, was removed from the helm of the 27,000-strong Konstrad and appointed head of the military’s training school in Bandung.

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