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Indonesia's military stands at unease

Asia Week - March 21, 1997

In a country where the army makes no bones about channeling its support to the ruling political group, Golkar, talk of factionalism within Indonesia's military always causes concern. In the past, such groupings were described as fluid. But foreign military sources in Jakarta say they have spotted a worrying new trend. Various internal military alliances are becoming increasingly cemented, and the distinctions between the groups are often not ideological. There has always been discussion about what role the military should play in Indonesian society, and what the country's defense posture should be. But, as one Asian military attache points out, the current factionalism stems from another source: Indonesia has too many three-star generals. The seven men currently holding that rank is about double what it should be, and all must have larger ambitions. Another problem: rambunctious officers such as two-star general Prabowo Subianto, currently head of the Kopasssus (special forces) battalion. As a rising figure, he should serve a tour as a regional commander before moving to the top echelon. But the same sources quote Prabowo as saying there are no rules that make it necessary to spend time in the provinces before moving up the promotion ladder.

Another scenario sees Prabowo heading the Jakarta regional command, keeping him near the center of political life in the capital. Army chief Gen. R. Hartono is expected to retire after the May elections. Tipped to replace him is one of those seven three-star generals, Wiranto, who currently leads the Kostrad (strategic reserve) unit and is known to be close to President Suharto. If Prabowo gets the Jakarta job, it could lead to dangerous jealousy. Fifteen people died in a shoot-out in Irian Jaya last year when a Kopassus officer opened fire on men from the regional command, apparently after teasing over Kopassus's better facilities. Meanwhile, the military launched a series of exercises to ensure its readiness for the May elections.

In Jakarta, a meeting of some 1,000 people, ranging from academics to artists, met to discuss ways of creating a national alliance for democracy. Organizer Muslim Abdurrahman said declining social solidarity and morality are caused by political policies favoring vested interests. The government, meanwhile, eased tough rules for participants in next month's election campaign.