Joget with the Generals


Intense rivalry among Indonesia’s generals is spilling over into national life. As the country goes through the upheavals of transition, acts of terrorism and thuggery are being linked to politically ambitious military commanders. From Jakarta, DERWIN PEREIRA of Sunday Review’s Indonesia bureau looks at the military factions jockeying for power and the President’s uneasy relations with them

THE rumour mill went into overdrive in Indonesia in recent days with whispers of army generals preparing to gather in the capital.

This gained further credence when a 19-page document – with the official stamp of the Indonesian Armed Forces (TNI) and an attachment with the names of 286 generals – was circulated selectively just days before the midweek meeting.

It would appear that the gathering, on the orders of army chief Tyasno Sudarto, was aimed at uniting the military, an institution whose credibility is at its lowest ebb in 30 years.

Those spreading the word about this secret meeting – to be held in the heart of the city in Balai Kartini, where the rich and famous are married – let it be known that the real motive was to shore up General Tyasno’s power base before a major military reshuffle.

It was to signal to President Abdurrahman Wahid that he was a force to be reckoned with in the TNI. Any thought of replacing him would be met with strong army resistance.

Indonesia watchers braced themselves for the event. But it never happened.

It was a classic disinformation campaign. The suspects behind it? Reformist army elements out to discredit Gen Tyasno by portraying him as a power-hungry soldier plotting to seize the crown.

Ironically, the meeting that never was was scheduled for the very day that a bomb ripped through the Jakarta Stock Exchange, killing 15 people.

If the meeting’s chief aim was to unify the TNI, quite the opposite was achieved, exposing the intense personal rivalries among Indonesia’s generals – generals who are willing to disrupt national stability through their proxies in order to further their political ambitions.


FOR a long time, military politics has tended to mirror long-standing ideological divisions in Indonesia.

The split was essentially between the merah-putih officers, whose loyalty is symbolised by the red and white colours of the Indonesian flag, and the hijau (green) officers, so called because of their identification with modernist Islamic teachings.

Factional rivalry in the armed forces for much of the Suharto era cleaved along such fault lines.

In the waning days of the former president’s rule, the military seemed clearly divided into two competing factions – one represented by military chief General Wiranto, the standard bearer of the merah-putih (red-white) officers, and the other by Lieutenant-General Prabowo who linked himself with several radical Islamic groups.

But this colour distinction became blurred as political discourse in the post-Suharto era focused exclusively on reformasi. As Indonesia moved further down the serpentine path of democracy with Mr Abdurrahman Wahid’s election last year, ambitious senior army officers saw it expedient to reject it altogether or ride on the reformist bandwagon.


THE rebel reformers form the smallest faction in the TNI. But far from being insignificant, the 20 generals known as “Kelompok 20” have proved to be a thorn in the side of a conservative military establishment.

Their radical ideas to reform the military have proved to be somewhat popular with the palace inner circle, civilian politicians and non-governmental organisations crying to evict the TNI from politics.

They are also reportedly close to several leaders in the student movement.

At the height of student demonstrations in May 1998, before the fall of former president Suharto, members of this group provided information and logistical support for them in their battle against the New Order regime.

Their vision is clear: They want the military to disengage from politics and develop into a conventional fighting force.Central to this idea is giving up the TNI’s much vaunted 38 seats in parliament and dismantling the military’s pervasive intelligence apparatus and territorial command structure.

Nearly all the members of “Kelompok 20” are 1973 and 1974 graduates of the military academy.

The leader of the group is the Harvard-trained Agus Wirahadikusumah. He is backed by two prominent officers – Major-General Saurip Kadi and Colonel Romulo Simbolon.

Lieutenant-General Wirahadikusumah tells the Sunday Review that the key to reforming Indonesia is to overhaul what he considers “the old and conservative mindset” of the military.

“TNI’s legitimacy is already fast eroding with all these reports of human rights abuses and the failure to contain sporadic violence throughout the country,” he says.

“The TNI has to look inwards to recognise its weaknesses and make changes. Otherwise we will become irrelevant.”

Politics is a dirty word for the reformers. But it seems rather ironical that their move up – and down – the power hierarchy has been largely due to political patronage.

Mr Bondan Gunawan’s appointment as State Secretary and close aide to Mr Abdurrahman after his presidential election was the single most important factor for their rise to power, albeit temporarily.

Lieut-Gen Wirahadikusumah, who was initially sidelined to an inconsequential commander’s post in South Sulawesi by his chief critic, General Wiranto, was elevated to head the elite Army Strategic Reserve Command (Kostrad).

Maj-Gen Saudip followed suit by also moving to Kostrad despite not having the pre-requisite infantry or cavalry background.

This only incurred the wrath of many officers who felt bitter about civilian intervention in the military promotion system.Mr Bondan’s downfall over corruption allegations three months later triggered a domino effect among his followers in the army.

Both Lt-Gen Agus and Maj-Gen Saudip were dropped from Kostrad barely weeks after he resigned from his post.

But their political links continue with Mr Bondan and other members of the palace inner circle. They also have sympathisers in parliament among members of the Indonesian Democratic Party – Struggle (PDI-P).

Within the armed forces, however, they are perceived as rebels.

Their critics question their reformist credentials, saying that these generals are riding on the bandwagon of reform in pursuit of their own interests.

“These are not reformers. They are rebellious individuals who have violated the code of military ethics by challenging the chain of command,” gripes an army general.

“They have to ask themselves how they got to where they are now. How did they get their ranks and privileges? It certainly did not fall from the sky.”

The reformers’ ideas for change are fine but there is a glaring omission. They make little or no reference at all to dismantling the TNI’s extensive economic links with businesses.

The answer is simple. The generals in “Kelompok 20” too have lived off the fat of the land at some point in their careers and that makes it difficult for them to cast the first stone at their comrades in arms.

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