APSN Banner

New wave, old ties Suharto loyalists take top military posts

Far Eastern Economic Review - August 14, 1997

John McBeth, Jakarta – The long-awaited generational change in the Indonesian armed forces is now taking shape. But if the new wave of 1970s military-academy graduates have different views of the world than their more insular elders, that doesn't mean there will be any overnight transformation in style or substance. "If you look at the guys in key positions," notes one political analyst in Jakarta, "you'll see they all have direct or long-term connections to the old man."

The "old man" is President Suharto and, even in the waning years of his rule, his grip on the military remains tight. While they generally earn high marks for their professionalism, many of the generals in the new military leadership have either served as the 76-year-old president's adjutant or as one of his bodyguards. Their loyalty is unquestioningly to Suharto–if not necessarily to those around him.

The latest reshuffle comes eight months before the People's Consultative Assembly meets for an expected endorsement of Suharto's seventh term and coincides with the release of the 1997 Defence White Paper. The reshuffle underlines the president's influence over the process that was once the domain of the military promotions board. "The president has his own personnel file and it is more decisive than the one kept by the board," observes one Defence Ministry insider. "The older Suharto gets, the more he relies on his loyalists."

Among the cream of that crop: Newly promoted army chief of staff Gen. Wiranto served as presidential adjutant in 1988-89, then went from Jakarta military commander to head of the Army Strategic Reserve (Kostrad), Indonesia's two-division combat force.

Kostrad commander Lt.-Gen. Sugiono was a presidential adjutant from 1993 to 1995, then served as commander of the Presidential Security Squad before being promoted to his current post last June.

New deputy army chief Lt.-Gen. Subagyo was a group commander in the Presidential Security Squad from 1988 to 1993, later taking charge of the important Central Java regional command.

Special Forces (Kopassus) commander Maj.-Gen. Prabowo Subianto is married to Suharto's middle daughter, Siti Hedijanti Herijadi. He is also one of the few senior officers with well-developed connections in the business community.

Jakarta chief of staff Brig.-Gen. Sjafrie Sjamsuddin, now being tipped to replace Maj.- Gen. Sutiyoso as Jakarta commander, is a former group commander in the Presidential Security Squad.

Newly appointed presidential bodyguard Maj.-Gen. Endiartono Sutarto served previously as assistant chief of staff for operations.

Suharto began taking a more personal interest in military promotions in the late 1980s with the retirement of Gen. Benny Murdani, the powerful armed-forces commander. Murdani stayed on as defence minister until 1992, but as one Indonesian military analyst notes now: "The president suddenly woke up to the fact that he was surrounded by Benny's people. He realized he had become isolated and he didn't like it."

Since then, the president has either informed the promotions board of his preferences, or in some cases has insisted on changes to promotional lists after they have been made known within the armed forces. "What Suharto is really doing is improvising," says the analyst. "Promotions are now made for security reasons, not for the overall development of the armed forces."

It took more than five years to make a significant dent in Murdani's residual influence, and several serving officers have seen their careers stunted by their perceived association with him. But even with his own loyalists in place, Suharto's level of trust goes only so far, underlined by the fate that befell his brother-in-law, former army chief Gen. Wismoyo Arismunandar.

The dumping of the independently minded Wismoyo in early 1995, just at a time when he was widely expected to make the final move to armed-forces commander, may have been an object lesson for the ambitious Prabowo, Suharto's son-in-law. Prabowo's family status doesn't always exact favour anyway, and has sometimes created problems for him among his peers.

Analysts say that by playing one officer against another, the wily Suharto keeps everyone in line. Prabowo is no exception, with Wiranto now in a position to dictate his longer-term future. And apparent Prabowo rival Maj.-Gen. Bambang Yodoyono recently moved from the South Sumatra command to take over as deputy chief of social and political affairs–a job that will put him in line for his promotion to three-star general early next year.

Bambang has a reputation as one of the military's brightest thinkers and there is talk of him being considered as chairman of the powerful commission that will formulate state-policy guidelines for next year's People's Consultative Assembly.

Although Wiranto is a 1968 graduate, he and the 1970s generation–represented by Prabowo, Bambang and a dozen other key players–are more open-minded than their older colleagues, with a focus that centres on traditional defence concerns as much as on the past preoccupation with internal security. While they remain wary of national political mobilization, they do accept the inevitability of political change, an important factor in itself in the post-Suharto era.

Now almost certain to replace armed-forces commander Gen. Feisal Tanjung next April, Wiranto will no doubt want to do things differently from his predecessor, new Information Minister Gen. Hartono. The former army chief created unease in the officer corps by aligning the military more closely with the ruling Golkar party–something observers put down to his close association with the president's eldest daughter, Siti Hardijanti Rukmana, or Tutut, one of the party's eight co-chairmen.

The political role Wiranto and the new generation of military professionals will play in the waning years of the Suharto presidency could prove intriguing. "Wiranto doesn't like to play politics, but he can't afford to ignore realities," says one analyst. "In the end, I think he's going to follow Suharto's directions."

While the fortunes of the 1970s generation rocket upwards, the latest reshuffle has shelved the active careers of no less than five regional commanders, all of whom are joining the 75-strong military faction in the House of Representatives under former social and political affairs chief Lt.-Gen. Syarwan Hamid. The wholesale house-cleaning is typical of the way the eight regional commands have been used as a revolving door over the past few years, sometimes changing as many as three times in 12 months.

Defence Ministry sources say that with the generals stacking up, the president is relieving the pressure from below, while at the same time trying to strike a balance between his loyalists and other senior officers unhappy after being passed over for promotion. Smoothing ruffled feathers is also going to be a job for Wiranto, but insiders say much of his focus will also be on how the military re-establishes its identity after Suharto goes.

Under those circumstances, staying loyal to the president, while maintaining the loyalty of the military, may not be so easy.