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Challenged Megawati, happy military

Asia Times - July 27, 2001

Just 48 hours after banding together to oust Abdurrahman Wahid from the country's presidency on charges of "incompetence" (a most extraordinary article of impeachment) and install Megawati Sukarnoputri as his successor, Indonesian lawmakers' unanimity disappeared and it took a once again fractious People's Consultative Assembly two days and three rounds of voting to elect the leader of the Muslim-based United Development Party (PPP), Hamzah Haz, as vice president.

But if such fractious haggling bodes ill for the ability of Indonesia's new government to rule effectively and with competence, new president Megawati's untested – by many counts, sorely lacking – administrative and policy-making skills may prove an even larger challenge. At the same time, her close ties to the military, whose refusal to follow ex-president Wahid's orders brought her to power and whose links to the forces of the old New Order regime of former president Suharto persist, put her government's willingness and ability to pursue economic and political reform into serious doubt.

On June 8, 1999, Peter Mares of the Australian Broadcasting Corporation conducted an interview with Mochtar Buchori, a senior official of Megawati's Indonesian Democratic Struggle Party (PDI-P).

It contains these passages: "Mares: How close are the links between the PDI-P and the armed forces? Buchori: I do not know because it is a very, very secretive situation. Only people very close to Megawati know the situation. But the fact that Theo Syafei is there I think is also a contributing factor.

Mares: Perhaps you can explain for our audience who Theo Syafei is? Buchori: Well, Theo Syafei is a retired major-general of the army and at one time he was regional military commander of the eastern part of Indonesia, operating from Denpasar, and also responsible for the situation in East Timor."

And in an October 1998 interview with the Australian newspaper, Buchori had this to say about Megawati's competency: "I wish she was 10 percent as smart as her father, as educated as her father, then everything would be all right. But she is not even 10 percent of her father."

Asked how effective a Megawati presidency would be, he replied: "It depends on the staff who support her. That is why our job is to prop up Megawati. As long as she is willing to listen and to learn, that's okay. She does not understand many things too well." Mind you, that's not one of Megawati's sworn enemies talking. Buchori is one of her closest advisers.

What endears Megawati to the armed forces (TNI) is not that occasionally she dons military fatigues, visits an army camp and rides on heavy equipment. It's two inherently contradictory things: One, that she is her father's daughter and like the founding president who put national unity above all else and to that end, in an ethnically and religiously diverse nation, pursued a secular political creed, is expected to do the same. Two, that – more pronounced reform sentiment among many of her followers notwithstanding – she is not a radical political or economic reformer and will not challenge the TNI's role and prerogatives.

The inherent contradiction here, of course, is that without in-depth reform of Indonesia's moribund economy and corrupt businesses, without concessions to regional autonomy (the "federalism" Sukarno abhorred), and without reining in of the powers of active-duty and retired soldiers to act as exploiting warlords in the provinces, neither national unity nor ethnic and religious harmony can be preserved. With the installing of Megawati, the TNI generals may have won a battle; with the policies they want and expect her to pursue they will lose the war and the nation.

There are strong indications that military efforts to the effect of ousting Wahid took definite shape late last year when armed forces commander Admiral Widodo Adi Sudjipto and territorial affairs chief Lieutenant-General Agus Widjoyo began to lead calls for a re-examination of Wahid's tolerance towards restive regions, arguing for emergency status in order to quell rebellion. When Wahid did not comply, his fate was sealed. On the other hand, Megawati who in 1998 had opposed independence for East Timor, will have seemed a fine vehicle for the generals' policies – not in the least because of her anti-Suharto reform credentials. The generals have learnt that open New Order allegiance no longer flies.

The ouster of Wahid was a silent coup. The consequences remain to be seen. A brief period of relative calm may settle over Indonesia. It will prove deceptive.