Is Abri likely to give up power?


As public disillusionment with the Indonesian army deepens, pressure mounts on it to reduce its role and control of other state functions.

THE writing is on the wall for the Indonesian armed forces (Abri). Literally.

At the renowned Gadjah Mada University in Yogyakarta, students have written on campus walls: “Go to hell with Abri.” They are not alone in castigating the military these days. Many other Indonesians hold views, to varying degrees, about the organisation they once regarded as the nation’s soul and saviour.

Abri’s reputation is at its lowest ebb in 30 years. An independent survey by the Centre for the Study of Development and Democracy (Cesda), a Jakarta think-tank, bears this out.

Nearly 75 per cent of 1,000 people polled in August want the military to stay out of politics. Half say they do not believe “Abri and the people are one” anymore.

The reasons are many. Perhaps the most damaging is Abri’s inability – or unwillingness – to stop the devastating May riots. Also, many believe units within Abri fomented the unrest.

Then came revelations about military atrocities in Aceh. Mass graves were unearthed. The Pandora’s box for more disasters was open.

On a less high-profile level, many ordinary people have experienced the army’s heavy hand – in the way officers and men deal with simple traffic violations, or handle labour unrest and land disputes.

Equally significant is concern within the military that Abri’s sharp end has been blunted. With Indonesia’s purchasing power collapsing by over 70 per cent with the economic crisis, Abri has been unable to maintain high-tech equipment, let alone make new purchases. Its role has been weighed down and undermined by military obsolescence and, under former President Suharto, by its role as his tool for political oppression.

Critics charge that dwifungsi, or dual function, lies at the heart of Abri’s problems. This doctrine began in the late ’50s, when the army was hemmed in by increasingly left-leaning civilian politicians close to then-President Sukarno, and threatened by regional revolts. Then-army chief General A. H. Nasution called for Abri to be given a role in running the government. It earned the label of jalan tengah or “middle way”.

With the transfer of power to Mr Suharto in 1966 and with military officers moving into key political positions, the ideological justification for Abri’s role was made clearer in dwifungsi. At the core of this, made law in 1982, it would play a role as defence force and socio-political organisation, allowing it to extend total control over all government agencies and instruments of state.

Today, by its territorial structure, Abri is represented at every level of society – down to the villages – in all Indonesia’s 27 provinces, creating a de facto shadow government.

Many civilian intellectuals resent this. They argue that it gives the military a “free hand” to conduct “innumerable excesses” by interfering in politics at the President’s behest. Islamic scholar Amien Rais and his National Mandate Party (PAN) are chief proponents of this view.

So is the Indonesian Institute of Social Sciences (Lipi), whose members do not question the basic principle of dwifungsi but see the central issue as redefining the parameters of military intervention in society.

This view is shared by a number of reform-minded officers led by Abri’s socio-political affairs chief, Lieutenant-General Bambang Yudhoyono. They feel the armed forces’ role in politics has hindered its development as a modern fighting force and want the doctrine re-fashioned to meet contemporary developments.

In a paper presented at a recent Abri seminar at its Staff and Command College in Bandung, the military’s Strategic and Policy Planning chief, Major-General Agus Widjojo, acknowledged that the armed forces had “exceeded its role” during Mr Suharto’s New Order regime.

“President Suharto gave Abri the leeway to operate in the political system to further his political interests,” he said. “We now have to find a different role to adapt to this new and fast-changing environment.”

His views apparently represent a minority in the military. Observers believe a larger number of army men only pay lip service to reform and actually want to maintain the status quo.

It is easy to understand the resistance to change. For many, it is more than just a doctrine at stake. Dwifungsi has helped guarantee income and jobs after retirement.

Officers could look towards becoming district or provincial chiefs – and reap material benefits from such office. Others could expect to become MPs or serve in important positions in the bureaucracy under the kekaryaan system – or, translated loosely, “cadre-isation”.

By the late ’70s, half the Cabinet and over two-thirds of regional governors were military appointees. At district level, 56 per cent of officials were ex-Abri members. In the bureaucracy, it was 78 per cent of director-generals and 84 per cent of ministerial secretaries.

In recent years, their representation in Cabinet has plummeted. But kekaryaan appointments in other areas have not – although Lt-Gen Bambang has promised to reduce their numbers.

Another controversial issue is Abri’s support for the ruling Golkar party. Dwifungsi was used in the last three decades to maintain the political status quo. The Abri-Golkar nexus meant that the military became associated increasingly with the state – demonstrated most acutely in 1995 when then-army chief Raden Hartono donned the yellow Golkar jacket and publicly pledged Abri’s support.

To prop up Golkar, Abri also meddled in the affairs of other parties, most notably the Indonesian Democratic Party (PDI).

In the post-Suharto era, however, senior Abri officers have been more circumspect in giving unqualified support to Golkar or any other party. Lt-Gen Bambang has also given an assurance that the military will not take sides in next year’s May election.

But this is easier said than done. Analysts say Abri’s own interests dictate that it should stay engaged in politics. The political arena might no longer be its exclusive preserve now, but its ability to influence the grassroots remains unquestioned.

Two broad coalitions have emerged in the run-up to next year’s election. The traditionalist Nadhlatul Ulama (NU) and the PDI have joined forces in most of Java. Golkar and the modernist Muhammadiyah have linked up in Sumatra, Yogyakarta and elsewhere.

With the exception of Golkar and NU, only Abri has such extensive reach into rural areas. Its support for either party would affect the political outcome. But it is still an open question whether Abri will remain impartial.

According to a senior Abri source, the military was “keeping a close watch” on how Golkar was shaping up for the polls and any support for it was dependent on a presidential directive.

He also said that some officers were “not too happy” with Abri chief Gen Wiranto’s decision to back State Secretary Akbar Tandjung for the Golkar chairmanship during the recent party congress. “In principle, it is not our call to support any party. That is our public pledge. Of course, it will be a different matter altogether if the President wants us to back Golkar. Gen Wiranto will follow his orders if he thinks it will benefit both sides.”

Dr Habibie’s relationship with Abri is at best complicated. Abri, which worked under a former general for the last 30 years, is now learning to deal with a civilian president who is also its supreme commander. Will it ride shotgun for him or serve broader interests of state?

Lt-Gen Bambang says Abri needs to review its relationship with the President as the 1945 Constitution was “cloudy” on this issue. “In future, the structural relationship between Abri and the supreme commander must be regulated clearly. It should also be clear when a president should function as the head of state, or head of government, or Abri supreme commander.”

Military insiders say his comments underscore sentiments among some senior officers who feel Abri is still used as a tool of state even after Mr Suharto’s fall.

Its role in the Golkar congress is a case in point. Insiders say there were moves to revive a plan – quashed by Mr Suharto in 1988 – to put distance the military from the President. The plan tried to “correct” the oath, sworn by every soldier, to ensure allegiance is to the Indonesian flag and Constitution – not to the head of state.

If the military is making moves to bolster its position, so is Dr Habibie, albeit more aggressively. Earlier this month, he put a trusted ally, Lt-Gen Z. A. Maulani, in place as head of the powerful state coordinating intelligence agency (Bakin) – thus over-ruling Gen Wiranto’s choice, Lt-Gen Arie Kumaat, and completing the circle of influential senior military men around him.

The other three are Coordinating Minister for Security and Political Affairs, Gen Feisal Tanjung: Home Affairs Minister, Lt-Gen Syarwan Hamid; and Information Minister, Lt-Gen Yunus Yosfiah. The move puts paid to conventional thinking that Abri is united in opposing Dr Habibie. Alliance fault-lines are still fluid within, and outside the armed forces.

The key to shifting the balance of power lies with Gen Wiranto who commands 500,000 troops. But he has been keeping his cards close to his chest. The Javanese cult of obedience and his adherence to the Constitution might explain his current political posture.

There are other plausible reasons. Some observers believe he is holding back because he has yet to fully consolidate his power base given the existing rifts in Abri. An army intelligence source estimates this will take a year.

More importantly, Abri officers say Gen Wiranto wanted to give Dr Habibie a chance to restore the country’s economy, so he pledged support for the new government. But what if the President fails to revive Indonesia’s flagging fortunes and there is widespread unrest?

A two-star army general said that if that happened, Abri “will have no hesitation siding with the people if they do not want this government. Forget it if you think we are going to sit on the sidelines and watch this country go down.”

Other senior officers are cautious, saying that if there is chaos they would “advise the President of the deteriorating security situation” and leave it to him to decide if he wants to step down.

In either case, should Dr Habibie leave, and given that there is no vice-president, there will be room for Gen Wiranto or another general to rise by default.

Gen Wiranto has maintained that the military is not blinded by power and would redefine dwifungsi to meet challenges: “Abri is developing a new paradigm in that it does not always have to be at the forefront of the nation’s political affairs and is ready to share its political role with non-Abri partners.”

Implicit in his comments is that the armed forces will continue to play a role in politics and not disengage completely. But some officers lament the slow pace of internal change. They fear that the Abri chief, who has said that the process could take five years, is not moving fast enough and “has his feet in different places” – including links to Mr Suharto.

Some officers talk of a 70:30 per cent divide for dwifungsi – with the larger portion allocated to a conventional defence role. This is possible, theoretically, if there is economic and political stability, they said.

The real test will be if the crisis deepens. Will Abri go alone or work with civilians?

Several younger officers, who graduated from the military academy in the ’70s and hold key appointments now, are pushing for modernisation and see eye-to-eye with their civilian counterparts.

But their basic world-view is still dominated by that drive to preserve national unity and stability – resorting to force if necessary.

If push comes to shove, democracy will have to take a back seat to prevent Indonesia from “collapse, anarchy and disintegration”.

Some argue that such thinking, shaped by developments over the last 50 years, reflects “the strategic realities of a bygone age”.

Abri is attempting to play the role of midwife in the country’s transition to a democracy. Its move in this direction, however, is being held back by history, doctrine and vested interests. It remains to be seen whether it can break from this mould.

Posted in Indonesia