Indonesia’s Abri goes into soul-searching

INDONESIA’S President B.J. Habibie has now been in power for 42 days. Top leaders of the influential armed forces (Abri) have pledged to crack down on pro-reform groups that threaten to undermine the new administration.

But analysts say that Dr Habibie’s ties with the military are at best a marriage of convenience. They believe that any possibility of an emerging Habibie-military nexus has faded and senior Abri officers are now setting their own agenda to shape the post-Suharto political format.

A concept paper, outlining the military’s analysis of the prevailing problems and its recommendations, gives the Habibie government a year more to sort out the country’s political and economic mess.

The paper calls for a special session of the People’s Consultative Assembly (MPR) to revise existing laws and state policy guidelines in October this year. General elections could be held six months after and presidential polls in June 1999.

Dr Habibie wants the process completed at a slower pace. He wants the MPR session to be held at the end of this year and general election in mid-1999 with presidential elections in December – a full six months later than the military plan.

Abri’s socio-political chief Lieutenant-General Bambang Yudhoyono, who was responsible for drafting the paper, subsequently downplayed the military proposal a week after it was given to the President, saying that it would abide by Dr Habibie’s reform timetable.

Military sources here, however, said that despite giving such assurances, there are deep-seated concerns among several officers that the President was “really buying time” to shore up his weak political base. Delaying the MPR and polls would breed more instability for Indonesia.

Notes a senior Abri officer: “The main aim is to restore stability and we cannot get that if there are groups still questioning the legitimacy of the new government. Political stability is fundamental for economic recovery.

“The situation is getting worse. We cannot wait anymore and keep promising support for Habibie indefinitely.”

Indeed, the euphoria engendered by Mr Suharto’s downfall in May has begun to dissipate as Indonesia confronts the harsh reality of economic abyss.

The rupiah has devalued by more than 80 per cent and a Indonesian military intelligence source estimates that there could be at least 100 million people living in poverty in Java and the outer islands of the sprawling archipelago at the end of this year if the crisis is not resolved.

Such problems generated debate and “soul-searching” within Abri. A team of 30 senior officers, headed by Lt-Gen Yudhoyono, met for a month to brainstorm and draft the 36-page reform paper.

Abri sources involved in the deliberations said that there was no consensus with a polarisation of views on the pace of democratic reforms.

Two camps have emerged in the process – one pro-reform and the other anti-reform. This blurs the conventional divide in Abri between the “merah putih” (red and white) officers who are said to be more secular in orientation, and “hijau” (green) officers who are Muslim-oriented.

The pro-reform faction includes mainly “merah putih” officers like Lt-Gen Yudhoyono, army chief-of-staff Lt-Gen Fachrul Razi and strategic policy and planning head Maj-Gen Agus Widjoyo.

They are keen to hold a special MPR session and general election soon and also revise Suharto-era political laws to prevent too much power in the hands of the executive.

This group is also not predisposed to Dr Habibie, given his links to Islamic groups and more importantly his continued association with the “old political forces”, in particular Mr Suharto.

Sources said that the anti-reform faction was a composition of “merah putih” and “hijau” officers held together not by any ideology but more by its vested interest of the past regime and personal ambitions.

Said the senior Abri officer: “They openly support reform. But this is just lip service. They know that they will be hardest hit when reform takes place given their involvement in Suharto’s patronage system where corruption, collusion and nepotism prevailed.”

The second faction, which includes officers who had personal links with Mr Suharto like former Jakarta commander Maj-Gen Sjafrie Sjamsuddin, were stronger backers of Dr Habibie given his ties to the former president.

Sources said there is a third group of officers: the “fence-sitters”. They include the enigmatic Abri chief General Wiranto who, given a choice, would probably side with the reformers given his ideological predisposition.

But he has maintained a neutral position because of his focus on Abri unity, particularly after locking horns recently with Lt-Gen Prabowo Subiantio, Mr Suharto’s son-in-law, in a duel for control of the military. Speculation is rife that the reformers are disappointed with Gen Wiranto for slowing down the pace of reform and being too close to Mr Suharto.

Where does the balance of power lie between the factions? On paper it would seem that the reformers have the upper hand. Many of their opponents have recently lost their jobs. The removal of Maj-Gen Sjamsuddin together with the heads of the air force, navy and police, completes a purge of top officers with ties to Mr Suharto. All of them were replaced by reform-minded “merah putih” officers.

Abri insiders said that the next chief of the powerful military intelligence agency (BIA) was also likely to be a reformist officer from a non-intelligence background.

Nevertheless, the reform faction is not guaranteed an easy victory. The reason is that the fence-sitters are also products of the old regime and may not prove as flexible as the reformers might hope.

Abri’s concept paper mirrors the differences between the groups over the pace of reform. “It was really a compromise, give and take,” said a military source. “It also had to do with Javanese culture. It is taboo to really be so ‘frontal’ in our recommendations.”

Besides calling for early polls, the paper suggests:

* transparency in decision-making
* separating the executive and judiciary
* modifying the election system to broaden the base of representation
* encouraging a multi-party system of only three to six parties to prevent a single majority from appearing and also preventing “uncontrollable numbers” of smaller parties emerging
* preventing government interference in the activities of political parties
* revising press laws and subversion laws
* eradicating corruption, collusion and nepotism.

But in the same vein, it calls for reform to be implemented in a “controlled manner”.

“In order to succeed, we have to learn from the experience of other countries,” it said. “Reform must be implemented in a constitutional and gradual manner. Failure in doing so will result in another disaster.”

The paper touches little on Abri’s future role except that it would remain above all political parties, accept a reduction of numbers in parliament and most importantly remain involved in politics.

The last point is really the tie that binds all the factions. Continued military engagement in the political process is perceived as a must for reasons that vary from maintaining national unity to preserving vested interests.

The principle of civilian democracy has never really taken root in Indonesia. Some Abri officers still remain contemptuous of the role played by civilians in the independence struggle. Civilian intellectuals in the country, on the other hand, are skeptical of Abri’s dwifungsi or dual function that allows the military to maintain a pervasive political apparatus right down to village level.

“They need to return to the barracks and leave politics to the civilians,” said a member of the Habibie-linked Indonesian Muslim Intellectuals Association (ICMI).

But other observers maintain that the military is vital. A Cabinet minister said that despite the crisis, more than 70 per cent of Indonesians who live in rural areas want dwifungsi retained because they see no other alternative for now that can guarantee ethnic harmony.

Indonesia’s middle class, which number 15 million, was also too small to be a force for political change in the short run.

Said the minister: “Whatever its weaknesses, Abri is the largest and most effective of all the organisations in the political arena.

“Civilian reformers have yet to translate their ideas into institutions and might well realise in time to come that they cannot go alone.”

He said that dwifungsi will “die a natural death” in 10 to 15 years in the face of social and economic changes. But given Abri’s perception of itself as a tentera rakyat and its historical role in shaping Indonesia, the military will want to remain engaged in politics for some time more.

Dr Habibie is well aware of that.

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