Indonesian Military Power Undimmed by Humiliations

Sander Thoenes on why the generals cannot be written off as a political force in Indonesia

Jakarta— Foreign troops restoring order in East Timor may represent a humiliation for the Indonesian military but the generals who ruled for more than 30 years cannot be written off, according to analysts in Jakarta.

It was a telling sign of the military’s grip on power that, just as Indonesian troops were withdrawing in disgrace to make way for Australian and Asian troops, its commander was being nominated for the vice-presidency. 

“Whichever way you look at it, the military form a source of leadership for us,” said Akbar Tanjung, chairman of the ruling Golkar party, as he suggested General Wiranto—ahead of three civilian alternatives—as running mate for President B.J. Habibie in November’s presidential vote. 

Many Indonesians believe Gen Wiranto may even replace Mr Habibie on the ticket and pose a challenge to Megawati Sukarnoputri, the popular opposition leader. 

These elections will prove a test of the military’s lingering strength in the face of humiliation and political reforms that have challenged their role in politics. Analysts said, however, that the military had been surprisingly effective in deflecting popular frustration and in reminding Indonesia’s elite that it cannot afford to alienate its army. 

“Their image has been damaged,” said Arief Budiman, an Indonesian sociologist teaching in Australia, referring to military leaders. “But they are not finished. They try to restore their image abroad by co-operating with the international forces but inside Indonesia they try to whip nationalism. That worked surprisingly well.” 

The destruction of East Timor also sent a chilling message that Mr Habibie was wrong not to consult the military before ordering a referendum there, he said, adding: “They tell the future president that they can’t rule without the military.” 

Ms Megawati has attacked Mr Habibie over East Timor but kept quiet on the military. Last week she upset supporters by ordering her elected city council members in Jakarta to support a military figure as speaker. 

Indria Samego, a military expert, said the elite’s tolerance towards the military’s failures was dictated in part by the swing-vote it controls in the new legislature that chooses the next president, but even more by an ingrained deference of many Indonesians to the armed forces. 

“It’s a psychological problem,” Mr Samego said. “Civilians, even intellectuals, still respect the military more than the civilians.” The Christian minority which is prominent in the elite, he added, also sees the military as a bastion against the Moslem majority. 

Conveniently for the military, there are plenty of distractions from its failure in East Timor. The newspapers have been filled with investigations and parliamentary hearings into “Baligate”, a corruption scandal involving a transfer of government funds to Bank Bali and subsequent transfer of some Rp546bn ($66m) to senior members of Golkar. 

Members of parliament and newspapers have mentioned Ahmad Arnold Baramuli, head of the Supreme Advisory Council and one of Mr Habibie’s most trusted advisers, along with several ministers and senior officials. The scandal is widely seen as the nail in the coffin of Mr Habibie’s re-election campaign, ahead of a session of the People’s Consultative Assembly, the country’s highest legislative body, which will choose a new president in November. 

An aide to Mr Habibie said the president was trying to move the investigation from the politicised parliament to the more pliable courts, which are likely to delay hearings until after the elections. The government has suppressed a 400-page audit of the case by PwC, the accountancy firm, held at the insistence of the International Monetary Fund, which lists a number of ministers and other officials who received a share of the pilfered funds. 

The IMF last week “again expressed its concerns to the Indonesian authorities regarding the need for full and prompt disclosure of the Price Waterhouse Coopers report”. The Fund has postponed its regular review of Indonesia’s reform programme, and thereby consideration of new loans, until the case is resolved. 

A new scandal has now surfaced. The president of Indosat, the partially privatised international telephone operator, resigned last week, soon after the government fired his finance director, after a report by the state auditing agency saying dividends had been illegally diverted. Indosat had delayed payment of Rp122bn in dividend to the government and the finance director kept the interest earned in the interval, Rp22.5bn, said a government statement.

(From the Financial Times, September 21, 1999)