Musical chairs in Indonesia


The country’s military chief General Wiranto revamped his senior command last week. DERWIN PEREIRA, our correspondent in Indonesia, sorts out the implications of the reshuffle

WATCHING the Indonesian military is much like watching the Soviet Kremlin of yesteryear. Obscure generals swapping positions within a labyrinthine armed forces (Abri) bureaucracy are perennial affairs. But Indonesia watchers find it fascinating, and military chief General Wiranto obliged earlier this month by announcing a revamp of his senior command.

During the New Order, the major periodic reshuffles, or mutasi as it is known in the country, carried little real significance. They were only meaningful in terms of former president Suharto’s power plays.

He liked shuffling the deck and playing “musical chairs” to keep opponents at bay and forestalling the development of any countervailing power centre. It was a successful strategy that kept him in power for 32 years.

In the new environment that is supposedly free of Mr Suharto’s baleful will, Gen Wiranto is trying to fashion an Abri to meet the challenges of the times.

But what were the pressures and political demands that shaped the changes?

Ideologically, Gen Wiranto is perceived as the standard bearer of the secular-nationalist or merah-putih officers, whose loyalty is symbolised by the merah-putih or red and white colours of the Indonesian flag.

It is this group which has benefited most from the latest changes.

Possibly less obvious but a winner, too, was former president Suharto. The Muslim-oriented generals and those associated with the disgraced former head of the Strategic Reserve Command and Suharto son-in-law, Lieutenant-General Prabowo Subianto, were the main losers.

Among the 100 officers who were rotated, fewer than 10 had any real political significance.

The well-regarded Christian general Johny Lumintang was made the army’s deputy chief, replacing Suharto loyalist Sugiyono, who moved to the position of chief of general staff.

Lieut-Gen Sugiyono in turn replaced the Muslim-oriented Fachrul Razi who was “kicked upstairs” to the traditionally-ineffective position of secretary-general of the Defence Ministry. Other important changes include the replacement of Abri intelligence chief and one-time Prabowo ally, Zacky Anwar Makarim. His powerful position was taken over by Major-General Tyasno Sudarto, the Central Java commander.

The reshuffle will, on balance, increase the likelihood that the military will be managed in a less partisan and more professional way as it faces political uncertainty in the months ahead.

But other interpretations are possible. The freer hand Gen Wiranto has been given in making appointments may require a quid pro quo to President B. J. Habibie.

The changes certainly consolidate Gen Wiranto’s grip on the military and will, to some extent, give encouragement to the secularist-type generals who, in the last six months, have been concerned about the rising influence of the Muslims. The precarious power balance, for now, is in their favour.


TRADITIONAL and long-standing socio-cultural and ideological divisions are still pervasive in Indonesian politics. At issue is how much the state should give special consideration to the purest Muslims, or santris, and their interests.

Abri politics has mirrored this trend at national level.

There are two broad strands of thinking in the military top brass.

The first has its adherents among officers like Lt-Gen Fachrul Razi, Maj-Gen Zacky Anwar, chief of the Strategic Reserve Command (Kostrad) Djamari Chaniago and staff officers Maj-Gen Kivlan Zein and Brig-Gen Adityawarman. Others include three retired generals in Cabinet – Coordinating Minister for Security and Political Affairs Feisal Tanjung, Information Minister Yunus Yosfiah and state intelligence chief Z. A. Maulani. They are known sometimes as the hijau or green generals. Political scientist William Liddle of the Ohio State University in the United States argues that these men want to give Muslims their rightful place in Indonesian society.

“They are Muslim modernists and concerned that a new Benny Murdani might push them out,” says Prof Liddle. Gen Murdani, a Catholic, was the former Defence Minister and intelligence chief who, they allege, discriminated against Muslims.

Some of these generals have formed ad-hoc links with Cabinet ministers of the Muslim modernist ilk and radical Islamic groups like Kisdi, Dewan Dakwah and the newly-formed political party Bulan Bintang.

In the rival camp are the merah-putih officers or the Pancasilaists. The influence of these officers had been on a slow decline since Mr Suharto’s cultivation of the Muslim ground in the ’80s.

Gen Wiranto’s appointment as commander last year reversed the process. They began to gain ground and Abri’s ideological compass began to move slowly to the centre after tilting to the right for some time.

The Pancasilaists include a group of intellectuals like territorial chief Bambang Yudhoyono, Governor of the National Resilience Institute Agum Gumelar, the new head of the Abri staff and command college Agus Widjoyo and the just-named strategic and policy planning chief Agus Wirahadikusumah. They received their degrees and military training in the United States and Australia.

But intra-military rivalry does not just cleave along the religious-secular fault line. Attitudes towards reform in the post-Suharto era cuts across the Islamic and non-Islamic divide in Abri, producing three separate camps:

* CONSERVATIVES: These are officers who served under Mr Suharto at some point in their military career as his adjutant or in the elite presidential security guard unit (Pasukan Pengamanan Presiden) and are bound by an esprit de corps and a desire to maintain the political status quo.

Besides Lt-Gen Sugiyono and Maj-Gen Tyasno, the group includes army chief Subagyo Hadisiswoyo and staff expert Sjafrie Sjamsuddin.

* REFORMERS: The reformers appear to be larger in numbers. Heading the list are Pancasilaists like Lt-Gen Bambang, Lt-Gen Widjoyo and Maj-Gen Wirahadikusumah.

But they also include Muslim-oriented generals like Lt-Gen Maulani and Lt-Gen Fachrul. Both groups want gradual democratisation but under their respective ideological banners.

The secularists want the Pancasila state doctrine to remain intact. The Muslim faction also wants this but with greater representation of Islamic interests in political and economic areas.

* FENCE-SITTERS: They form the silent majority. Many of them are colonels in the provinces and have poor prospects of further promotion.

They are ambivalent about reform and are concerned about the potential loss of money-making opportunities, dwifungsi appointments and Abri’s general standing in society.

Where does Gen Wiranto fit in the constellation of forces?

Senior Abri sources say the 51-year-old general prides himself as being a unifier of the different groups.

Three things matter most to him – stability, hierarchy and harmony – key elements that reflect the Javanese world view and are in synch with the thinking of his long-time mentor, Mr Suharto.

He is trying to balance factional interests. He is moving on political reform but not quickly enough for the reformers. And he is defending dwifungsi and Abri privileges but not strongly enough for the vulnerable colonels.

His political survival is very much dependent on how he manages these contradictory demands.

With the ouster of rival Lt-Gen Prabowo, there was expectation that he would be the Abri strongman, manoeuvring different groups to suit his interests.

But evidence suggests otherwise.

A number of military appointments were forced on him in the weeks after Mr Suharto’s fall last May.

For example, his choice of Lt-Gen Johny Lumintang as Kostrad chief was rejected by the Islamic “green” generals like Feisal
Tanjung andmembers of the Association of Muslim Intellectuals (ICMI).

They also vetoed the proposed appointment of Lt-Gen Luhut Panjaitan, another Christian, to replace Maj-Gen Muchdi as head of the Special Forces (Kopassus).

He has also succumbed to pressure to use civilian-armed volunteers during the special session of the People’s Consultative Assembly (MPR) in November.

If the balance of power in the armed forces in the last six months was veering towards the Muslim generals, that has changed now with the reshuffle.

The consequences of the re-balancing could be to strengthen Gen Wiranto’s hold within Abri and it certainly would have diminished the risk of troublemakers undermining him in the way many believed Lt-Gen Prabowo had done before.

Notes an army general: “Gen Wiranto has expressed privately on a few occasions that he did not have the full support of some of his senior officers. The recent changes were in the offing for some time but he held back and did not want to be seen to be carrying out a purge.”

Obviously, one significant motivation is a natural desire to put in place his own team. What we are seeing now might be thought of as Phase Two of a long-term plan to put in place the team, and at some point down the road we could even expect another round of changes.

Like Mr Suharto in the mid-’60s, Gen Wiranto appears to be following the Javanese principle of alon alon asal kelakon (slow but sure) in dealing with his military rivals, though his success in doing so has been mixed and predicated largely on luck. Another reason is one shared by Abri and the national leadership, namely, to have in place a military that is in a position to meet the dangerous challenges of 1999.

A fractious and floundering Abri is not good for Indonesia, which is suffering bouts of political convulsions and sporadic violence.

The senior officers around him now are clearly a group that will serve him well in his role as Abri chief. Equally, it is a team that could be supportive of him if he were to seek a political role outside the military.


ON THE surface, it would appear that Gen Wiranto was on the offensive against the Muslim-oriented generals and Prabowo allies. But there could be another compelling reason.

Insiders say that insofar as he can, he would be inclined to protect Mr Suharto, under whom he served for five years as adjutant.

His motivations are driven by a promise he made to his longtime mentor in May that the military will make sure no harm falls on him or his family.

This is the view put forward by some secularist reformers that could signal new fracture lines and tensions in the armed forces.

While pleased that the Muslim elements are being weeded out, they are cautious about the reshuffle, saying that they suspect “the hidden hand of Suharto” at work.

There is no conclusive evidence of this but speculation is rife that Suhartoist, Gen Subagyo Hadisiswoyo, was due to be replaced but that this decision was overturned at the 11th hour because of “external pressures”.

The feeling among reformers is that with the elevation and continued retention of Suharto loyalists, Abri will not be able to make a break with the past and that political openness and investigation of the excesses and corruption of Mr Suharto’s family may be held back.

“It is not just Muslims versus secularists here,” says one army source. “It is power play and protecting the interests of Suharto, who sees the reform movement as a threat.

“The conservatives are moving into the inner circle. If Wiranto were genuine about reform, then officers like Bambang Yudhoyono and other reformers would have gone up.

“The secularist reformers are now in the middle. They are between the evil and the more evil. The reshuffle is one step forward and two steps backwards.”

There is thus dismay among some senior officers over the continuing “filial” relationship between the nation’s two most powerful men – Dr Habibie and Gen Wiranto – and the fallen dictator.

One source described Dr Habibie and Gen Wiranto as the “twin sons of Suharto who would have a common interest in protecting him to protect themselves”.

No doubt, Gen Wiranto showed the reshuffle list to his Supreme Commander, the President. A palace source said they met twice last month to discuss the matter. Dr Habibie “had no objections to Wiranto’s choices”, he said.

But the question is why Dr Habibie did not make changes to the list to mollify the Muslims as he has done on previous occasions last year.

The answer, some generals suggest, is that there was no need for him to do so because it had already been given a “father’s blessing” by Mr Suharto.

The palace source concedes that it was plausible the latter could have exercised an indirect influence on Dr Habibie and Gen Wiranto, given the emotional ties and self-interests that bind them both sometimes to take decisions in his favour.


BOTH president and military commander need each other. Gen Wiranto cannot afford to risk dismissal by Dr Habibie, while the President needs his military chief to ensure that no challenge emanates from Abri.

By the end of last year, a symbiotic relationship was established, but one on the President’s terms, particularly after Abri’s disastrous handling of security in Jakarta during the special session of the MPR (the People’s Consultative Assembly) in November.

Three events since May – the reversal of military appointments, the support for Dr Habibie’s candidate in the Golkar congress, and the use of Muslim “volunteers” during the MPR session – illustrate how Gen Wiranto has subordinated the military’s interests to the President’s.

Not a king but a kingmaker

Although Abri had been far from enthusiastic about Dr Habibie as the nation’s third president, the military leadership recognised him as the constitutional successor.

Indonesia watcher Harold Crouch of the Australian National University argues that Gen Wiranto’s acquiescence to the President’s authority gives an indication of “new thinking” within Abri.

Members of his inner circle regard some retired generals as locked in the past in their belief that the military could simply step in and take over the government.

“Gen Wiranto was unwilling to risk the political upheaval that would have accompanied any attempt by Abri to regain its dominant position. He had little choice, therefore, but to accept Dr Habibie’s orders,” said Dr Crouch.

But the relationship was not entirely one-sided, he said. The President could count on Gen Wiranto’s support only up to a certain point.

Dr Habibie seems to be aware that he could not afford to meet all the demands of his Muslim supporters without risking the alienation of Abri.

He thus refused to countenance inquiries into the massacres of Muslims in Lampung and Tanjung Priok in the ’80s. He was also unwilling to release all Muslim prisoners convicted during the New Order period.

The Muslim-oriented generals could have lost out in the reshuffle given the President’s possible calculation that his political standing might have been damaged by the ambitions of his Muslim supporters.

Ministerial and palace sources say that Dr Habibie is trying to distance himself from the Muslim modernist groups that he cultivated in the ’90s as part of his strategy to build up his power base.

He has become more centrist and moderate in his views as a result of his vulnerability.

A minister tells Sunday Review that the horrors of the church and mosque burnings in November were an “eye opener for him”.

During a Cabinet meeting with several security ministers, he pledged that Indonesia would never become an Islamic state. He had even indicated privately to some ministers that the Muslim radicals might have gone too far in their attempts to bring about change.

With the reshuffle, it is highly probable that the balance between Gen Wiranto and Dr Habibie has reached a more even keel, though the President still holds the initiative.

The relationship will be tested further as the general election looms in the background. The President will require the support of both Golkar and Abri at the very minimum to safeguard his political lifeline and be elected.

On both counts, he will need the blessing of Gen Wiranto to ensure that he gets the backing.

It is conceivable that the closer the elections, the more likely Dr Habibie will seek to strengthen his relationship with his military commander.

His comments made during recent Cabinet meetings that Gen Wiranto was “Abri’s best CEO” were not made in ignorance of their political significance.

In the next six months, this could mean acceding even more to the general’s request for further changes in the military command that could see the rise of more Pancasilaist officers.

For Abri’s part, it will need to be cautious about responding to Dr Habibie’s wooing. On paper and in rhetoric, it claims to be above politics and non-partisan. It will not seek to influence the outcome of the elections.

But the experience of the Golkar congress shows that when push comes to shove, senior Abri officers will back outcomes that suit their political interests.

By November this year, Gen Wiranto would have worked with Dr Habibie for nearly 18 months. That relationship would have become comfortable.

In this situation, the loyal and Constitution-abiding general may think twice before abandoning his political ally and making a leap into the dark with an untested new president.

But there are no permanent friends in politics, however. Only permanent interests. Gen Wiranto may have few choices, if Golkar is trounced at the polls and Dr Habibie fails to muster support from other forces in the new MPR.

Either way, it is probable that with the passage of time, Gen Wiranto’s own position could become more secure while the President’s becomes increasingly insecure.

The general might not become the king but he could be the kingmaker.


INDONESIAN history has shown that intra-military rivalry has tended to find expression through blood-letting on the streets. The May riots, the country’s worst in 30 years, were a dramatic example of what could go wrong.

Abri is not united despite the reshuffle. Alliances are still fluid. The “green” generals have taken a beating this round but they are by no means obliterated. If political circumstances change and Dr Habibie vacillates, they could make a comeback.

A presidential aide says that Gen Wiranto’s biggest challenge in the next few months would be to “neutralise” this group before “it strikes back in the field with the help of its civilian counterparts”.

Cutting across factional divides are pressures within the Abri institution – the air force, navy and police services – for greater independence from the all-powerful army.

Ultimately, the way in which the military manages its internal divisions will be the major influence on political and social stability in Indonesia.

Ironically, it may take a serious threat to the unity of this distended and diverse archipelago to bring Abri together.

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