Jakarta general tells troops not to vote in 2004

TNI chief Endriartono fears military will become divided if open support is shown to political parties

Fearing that military unity could shatter by open support for political parties, Indonesian armed forces (TNI) commander Endriartono Sutarto has called on his soldiers not to vote in the 2004 poll.

‘I realise that the right to vote is a basic political right for all citizens, including soldiers,’ he told reporters.

‘But since the country has failed to show political maturity, I’m afraid the election would affect my soldiers, who lack political experience.’

Political observers said that this view was coloured by real concern that drawing the TNI into the fray now would split the ranks.

Members of the military can exercise their right to vote in elections in 2004 as a trade-off to losing its seats in the House and the Assembly.

Military expert Salim Said of the University of Indonesia told The Sunday Times: ‘They are afraid it will destroy the TNI which until now has been the most unified institution in the country. The military wants to distance itself from any attempts by civilian politicians to encroach it.’

The last time soldiers were allowed to vote was in 1955, which saw the military backing different political parties. With the establishment of the New Order regime, then president Suharto banned the military from actively participating in elections and instead granted it seats in both the House and the Assembly.

But the dominant role of the military during this period prompted increasing pressure for it to give up its role. The TNI leadership appeared to recognise this now and in fact saw it as an opportunity to cast aspersions on the motivations of the parties.

Dr Salim said: ‘Gen Endriartono reflects the sentiments of the other senior officers who believe that playing politics now is cheap. Every party is only fighting for its own interests and not for the country.’

Was Gen Endriartono trying to underscore the professional credentials of the armed forces by seeking to keep it at arms length from the political process?

Some might think so. But some, even from within the military, think otherwise.

They point to two camps in the military these days: those who believe in complete disengagement from politics and those

in the mainstream who still believe in the right of TNI to intervene if Indonesia is on the brink of disaster.

Gen Endriartono, they said, fell into the latter camp.

Even if the military were not to take part in the election, its top leaders, including the four-star general, were very much involved in day-to-day politics by virtue of their links to the civilians.

Analyst Arbi Sanit said that despite some resentment at being ousted by legislators recently from Parliament and the national assembly come 2004, the generals had adapted quickly to their new positions as ‘bodyguards for political groups’. He said: ‘As long as there is vested interest in supporting them, the military will play on the sidelines to make sure that these parties and groups stay in power.’

Well-placed sources told The Sunday Times that the TNI was very much in favour of a predominantly nationalist-secular alliance revolving around President Megawati Sukarnoputri’s Indonesian Democratic Party – Struggle (PDI-P), Golkar and the Nation Awakening Party.

A top Golkar official said: ‘The military is giving all the appearances of being detached from politics. But the bottom line is that they are still very much involved in everything that goes on here.’

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