A Javanese warrior waiting in the wings?
HE DID not flinch when reporters booed his declaration that Parliamentary Speaker Harmoko’s May 19 call on President Suharto to resign was an individual’s point of view, and illegal.
When he spoke at a late night armed forces (Abri) press conference just hours after the parliament leader’s bold ultimatum, his taut features and steel-like glare left few in any doubt about where his loyalty stood.
The four-star general could have used the chaotic political situation to launch a bid for the presidency of the world’s fourth most populous nation, but he chose instead to stand by his boss, even when that meant going against the tide of resentment which was building up to a boiling point.
“There was pressure on him to take advantage of the instability. But he refused to jump on the bandwagon,” said a senior military source.
Gen Wiranto’s conduct and handling of events in the two weeks surrounding Mr Suharto’s resignation leave little doubt that here is a man to watch – if not for the intriguing question of whether he has political ambitions, at least for his mastery of control over recent events.
He is almost certain to be one of the key players in Indonesia’s unfolding drama of leadership succession, which remains in a state of flux despite Dr Habibie’s accession to the presidency on May 21.
But while the world watches with bated breath to see if this general does another Suharto and makes a bid for power, the man is giving nothing away.
His style and behaviour have been quintessentially Javanese, whose culture dictates that power should be earned, not wrested. It is considered bad form to exercise power crudely and to impose a public defeat on an opponent.
His treatment of Mr Suharto amidst the volatile political situation and jockeying for power taking place in what turned out to be the President’s final hours, was instructive for what it said about the man’s adherence to the constitutional process, his rejection of the notion of a violent overthrow, and for not kicking a man when the chips are down.
It was demonstrated again in his handling of the removal of Lieutenant-Gen Prabowo as commander of the Strategic Reserve Command (Kostrad). By avoiding a very public and humiliating exit, he worked to maintain the unity of the 475,000-strong armed forces.
Gen Wiranto’s loyalty to Mr Suharto, whom he served as aide between 1989 and 1994, was unfaltered even after the 76-year-old leader stepped down.
He vowed to protect the former first family and gave the military’s full backing to the new President, Dr B.J. Habibie.
Sources said that his actions were less than popular within the powerful Abri establishment, where some hawks were even calling for military intervention as the capital descended into an orgy of violence.
But watched by an expectant audience at home and internationally, and under the glare of media attention, General Wiranto did not blink, nor give in to the hawks. He trod his own middle path, steady and unflinching.
Born in Yogyakarta, one of the two centres of aristocratic culture in Java, Gen Wiranto grew up in the 1940s in the shadow of one of the last semi-divine monarchies in South-east Asia.
The strictly hierarchical court society was – and still is – considered the crucible of Javanese cultural refinement and patriotism.
According to Abri sources, he would meet the former President at least once a week to play golf and discuss political issues.
The trust that Mr Suharto had in him was seen in 1996 when he presented Gen Wiranto with the Bintang Dharma, Indonesia’s highest military award, at the annual Abri Day parade. It was the first time in many years such an award was conferred at the parade, which celebrates the military’s anniversary rather than individual officers’ accomplishments.
But while these ties bound Gen Wiranto to Mr Suharto in a moral obligation, they did not blind him to the urgency of the political situation. Sources say he met Mr Suharto at least 10 times over a period of three days to advise him on the best way to step down.
In contrast to the open calls made by Mr Harmoko and Lt-Gen Prabowo, his was the restrained approach. Said an Abri officer and a friend of the general: “He wanted to find the best way out for Pak Harto so that he could resign without loss of face. I doubt Gen Wiranto had ever suggested he should go.”
At Mr Suharto’s request, and within the three-hour deadline set by the former leader, Gen Wiranto summoned seven academic experts on constitutional law to his Jakarta office to find a way out for the President. Several options were discussed.
One was for Mr Suharto to stay the course, hold elections and then retire. But this had been rejected by the nine Muslim leaders he had called in and asked to lead the reform effort.
Another option was for Mr Suharto to resign immediately, and at the military’s behest, take Vice-President Habibie with him. A ministerial council would hold power until new polls were held. Gen Wiranto could also ask Mr Suharto to grant him supreme political powers as the latter had asked Sukarno in 1966.
But the general rejected the plan because it smacked of military interference.
The group finally concluded that there was not much of a choice. For a constitutional succession, Mr Suharto had to yield power to his number two.
Ten hours later, Dr Habibie was sworn in at the state palace. Gen Wiranto released a statement vowing that the armed forces would back the new President.
Diplomatic sources say he made an “informal agreement” with Dr Habibie to support him in return for retaining his position as military chief.
According to sources, Dr Habibie initially had other names in mind for the post, including Lt-Gen Prabowo (to whom he owed a debt of gratitude for backing him for the vice-presidency in March), army chief Subagyo, one-time Jakarta military commander A.M. Hendroprijono, and former Abri socio-political chief Lt-Gen Yunus Yosfiah. Gen Wiranto was to be relieved of his job as Abri chief, but would keep the less significant post of Defence Minister.
The scenario changed however on May 21, when Mr Suharto told Dr Habibie: “Appoint Gen Wiranto, or anyone else, except Prabowo.” Mr Suharto, and his children too apparently, turned against the son- and brother-in-law after seeing his naked attempts to force the President to step down.
For the new President, what made him decide on Gen Wiranto was Lt-Gen Prabowo’s attempt to force his hand by turning up at his house in Kuningan with Kopassus chief Muchdi Purwopranjono and a security escort on May 21.
“He was very angry and violent,” said one source. “The President was scared but he did not cave in. Instead it made him drop Prabowo for good.”
Senior Abri commanders threw their weight behind the Javanese general too. Troops loyal to him from the East and West Java commands arrived in Jakarta to bolster his forces.
In a meeting with Dr Habibie in the wee hours of Friday – just hours before the new Cabinet was to be announced – Gen Wiranto got the President’s attention and agreement to retain him as Abri chief, and to shift Lt-Gen Prabowo to Bandung to head the military academy.
In the end, said a military source, “Habibie had really no choice. He risked alienating key elements in the military if he did not pick Wiranto”.
Round one to Gen Wiranto. But the contest within the military was not yet over.
Within 36 hours of Mr Suharto stepping down, Gen Wiranto made a lightning leadership reshuffle, removing Lt-Gen Prabowo and his Kopassus ally, Maj-Gen Muchdi.
He then sent troops early on the morning of May 23 to clear out 7,000 student demonstrators, who had been occupying the Parliament compound for four days.
By later that Saturday, he was in undisputed control of Abri.
What got him there? Political observers believe it was his “strategic sense” and a combination of luck.
“He was very calm during the crisis and avoided knee-jerk responses to problems like rioting and student demonstrations. Everything involved considerable calculation and planning. Like Suharto, he is a political general,” the Cabinet minister source said.
Sources say his “strategic sense” was most evident in the way he planned Lt-Gen Prabowo’s removal. “He knew what his rival was doing but did nothing except keep a close watch on his activities. He calculated that it would be better for Prabowo to dig deeper and bury himself rather than confront him head-on and risk an armed confrontation,” said one.
Some analysts believe that Gen Wiranto has an inner circle of military advisers, in particular sociopolitical chief Lt-Gen Bambang Yudhoyono, and strategic policy and planning head Major-General Agus Wijoyo, who were the “brains” behind his recent political success. According to one source, advice also comes from former defence minister Benny Murdani, who retains a watching brief on events despite his retirement from politics several years ago.
Will Gen Wiranto play an even bigger role in Indonesian politics in the future?
Analysts note some similarities between the situation confronting him now and Mr Suharto in the 1960s. “This is a transitional phase in Indonesian politics, and Gen Wiranto could be biding his time like Mr Suharto did,” says the Cabinet source.
For now though, observers do not see Gen Wiranto making a bid for power. His priority, they believe, is to help Dr Habibie restructure the government, and to firm up the constitutional framework for a peaceful evolution of democracy.
Only if the country resumes its slide towards chaos, and radical movements emerge to threaten national security, will Gen Wiranto step into the breach, they believe.
And even then, only through constitutional means. The latest information suggests that Gen Wiranto is one of two candidates Abri may put up if special elections are held. The other is retired vice-president Try Sutrisno.
A source said: “Gen Wiranto holds most of the cards in place, but he would rather play in the background. He is waiting for the opportunity to fall on him rather than to seize it openly.”
KEY PLAYER: Steady and unflinching
WATCHED by an expectant audience at home and internationally, and under the glare of media attention, General Wiranto did not blink, nor give in to the hawks. He trod his own middle path, steady and unflinching.
“He was very calm during the crisis and avoided knee-jerk responses to problems like rioting and student demonstrations. Everything involved considerable calculation and planning,” a Cabinet minister source said.