Army chief pledges to avoid politics

Sutarto’s nomination as the armed forces chief has sparked criticism that Megawati is handing top military posts to loyalists.

Promising to boost professionalism in the Indonesian armed forces (TNI), army chief Endriartono Sutarto appeared before a parliamentary commission hearing yesterday to stake his claim to the coveted military commander’s post.

Amid quiet rumblings here that the army was creeping back into Indonesian politics, the four-star general outlined his vision to legislators in a 19-page document titled Building Professionalism in the TNI.

‘Professionalism in the armed forces is not just about improving our ability to perform our most basic functions,’ he said. ‘It is also about adhering to the law and respecting human rights. Soldiers need to put the country first before any personal or group interests.’

Observers said that his message appeared to be directed at critics who argue that the TNI is making a comeback in politics with its close links to President Megawati Sukarnoputri, who had given the generals an increasingly free hand, especially in the troubled provinces.

Some had criticised Ms Megawati for nominating Gen Endriartono for the top job as, under the rotation system for the three military services, the post should have gone to an air force official.

The 55-year-old leader, it is speculated, has given him the position and put in place a few other army loyalists in key posts as a quid pro quo for backing her for the 2004 election.

A three-star general told The Straits Times: ‘A pattern is beginning to emerge in which she is putting in place a number of generals to back her all the way. Endriartono is one of them.’

But legislators who attended the hearing did not seem too interested in political rationales. They were convinced that the general was the right man for the job.

Retired major-general Sembiring Meliala, deputy of the parliamentary commission, said: ‘We do not have any problems with him. His broad policy outlines are clear and good for Indonesia.’

Gen Endriartono, while being short on specifics, pledged that he would continue with reforms in the military. He also said that promotions would be made on merit and not through political connections as some still argue to be the case.

He also dwelt on the need to beef up the TNI’s operational readiness to handle ‘trouble spots’ in Indonesia. Touching on regional security, he said that he aimed to strengthen bilateral links with neighbouring countries to anticipate potential problems.

But the thrust of his message during the day-long hearing was aimed at wiping out perceptions of the Indonesian military returning to its Suharto-era role of dabbling in politics.

Indeed, his nomination has come under flak from several non-governmental organisations that have staged demonstrations to oppose the move.

The Indonesian Legal Aid Foundation – pointing to his links to the New Order Regime where Gen Endriartono served as head of the elite presidential guard unit under Mr Suharto in 1997 – said there was now ‘a conspiracy’ to give room for the military to make a comeback.

Despite Gen Endriartono’s promise to whip the TNI back into shape, analysts doubt that the military will return to the barracks in the near term.

They said that the approach for at least the next five years was likely to be tactical and defensive to keep their influence in the centre of government.

Helped by the transitional nature of civilian leadership, and the threats to law and order, the military will continue to exert substantial political influence.

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