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Military reassesses its role

Washington Post - August 1, 1998

Jakarta, Cindy Shiner – Defense Secretary William S. Cohen arrived here tonight on his first visit to Indonesia since violent upheavals in May ended three decades of authoritarian rule and forced the military to come to terms with its role in a freer and more modern society.

Cohen is scheduled to meet with President B. J. Habibie and Defense Minister Gen. Wiranto, who is also the armed forces commander in chief. Absent from the list is Lt. Gen. Prabowo Subianto, whom Cohen saw in January on his last visit here at a martial arts demonstration by the elite Kopassus unit that Prabowo led at the time.

Prabowo enjoyed close ties with the US military, which gave his troops special forces training, prior to his fall from grace after being implicated in the abduction and torture of more than 20 political activists earlier this year. Twelve of them are still missing. Wiranto himself acknowledged in local newspaper reports today that he still knows "nothing of their whereabouts and whether they are still alive or not."

Cohen is likely to find that, unlike his previous stops in Indonesia, when soldiers felt like the proud backbone of the government of then-President Suharto, they now are demoralized by the kidnapping scandal, hamstrung by an economic crisis and challenged by the prospect of widespread social unrest at a time when its resources and reputation have bottomed out.

"The public mood is certainly for a change, but on the other hand, the armed forces realize they will have to reformulate and reposition themselves in making their role acceptable rather than imposing on the community and public," said Marzuki Darusman, deputy chairman of the Indonesian National Commission on Human Rights.

The prospect of upheaval in Indonesia, the world's fourth most populous country, triggers deep concern in the West, not only on a humanitarian level but also in strategic and economic terms. Forty-six percent of seaborne trade for Japan, China and Australia passes through the straits of Indonesia, which if disrupted would indirectly affect the US economy. About 67 percent of the energy supplies needed by China and Japan pass through the same waters of the archipelago, situated where the Indian and Pacific oceans meet.

Analysts say it is in the interest of the West to do its utmost to make sure stability is maintained here. The economic crisis that began last year has not only pushed up the crime rate, resulting in scenes of sporadic looting and of machete-wielding farmers occupying land they say was taken from them, but it has also hampered the military's ability to keep itself fit.

Military sources say the defense budget has been cut by almost 30 percent, forcing the armed forces to cancel an order worth more than $430 million for 12 SU-30 fighter planes from Russia. It has also deferred payment on at least eight Russian Mi-18 helicopters.

While the military has scaled back its purchase of new equipment, it is focusing on providing its more than 400,000 soldiers and police with sufficient salaries and food to head off discontent in the ranks. The average soldier or police officer earns less than a maid working in a foreign household. "An Indonesian soldier is not well paid, not well fed, not well equipped and maybe not well educated," said one army officer, speaking on condition of anonymity. "These are our difficulties, and we are still trying to improve ourselves."

Military observers say it is unlikely that Indonesia will request financial aid from the United States, as a matter of pride, but it would likely welcome any assistance offered, including training. Special forces training by the United States was suspended earlier this year after reports that Kopassus troops might have been involved in the kidnapping and torture of political activists.

The Indonesian military traditionally has enjoyed a dual function in security and politics. Military leaders have said they are willing to reform the institution but only on a level that will allow the armed forces to continue to maintain stability. Military representatives currently hold 10 percent of the country's 500 parliamentary seats.

"The political role of the army has been increasingly challenged by many rising civic groups in Indonesian society," said one senior government official. "So the army became a victim of its own success in providing the political stability that made possible the economic growth of the past 25 years. But as a result of that growth there emerged groups of people, urban people, who began to question not only the longevity but also the legitimacy of the army's role."

Indonesians have become increasingly bold in their criticism of the military by openly taunting soldiers and police and trying to bring them to task for alleged abuses committed by a minority within their ranks. "I'm not happy to be a soldier now, not like before," the army officer said. "But it's my country, so I should improve my organization. I hope the will to improve the organization will counter all the opposing ideas."

The military has appointed an Honorary Council to look into the disappearances of political activists and has detained five Kopassus troops. Two others are under investigation. Prabowo reportedly also has been questioned.

Not only has the military been implicated in the abductions, but a number of police officers, who are part of the armed forces, are on trial for the May shooting deaths of four student protesters at Trisakti University. The killings triggered two days of rioting that claimed more than 1,000 lives and nearly leveled the capital's Chinatown district. Human rights groups say 168 ethnic Chinese women and girls were raped during the riots as part of a campaign to terrorize the minority group, which controls as much as 70 percent of the country's private wealth.

In a sharp departure from previous years, the government has set up a fact-finding team to investigate who might have been behind the rioting. "The armed forces used to try to cover all the bad things that we have, but now we try to be open," the army officer said.

There is widespread suspicion that the violence in May was organized by rogue members of the armed forces with links to organized crime. There are several theories floating around about a possible motive, including a belief that the chaos was meant to set the stage for Prabowo to grab power from his father-in-law, Suharto. But Suharto resigned peacefully and his vice president, Habibie, took his place.

In the meantime, Defense Minister Wiranto has moved to consolidate his power, replacing several top officers with loyalists. He quickly sidelined Prabowo, a longtime rival, by removing him from the top of the army's strategic command unit and appointing him as the head of a military school in Bandung.

Military sources say the scandal over the abductions, the Trisakti shootings and the rioting has created divisions within the armed forces. There is speculation that Prabowo could implicate other senior military officers in the kidnappings and that it would be against their interests to bring him to trial.

Differences also have emerged between the government and the military over the pace of reform. Army officers were reportedly upset when Habibie released a number of political prisoners the military considered a threat to national stability. "Maybe it's good for him, his own popularity, but it's not good for the people," the army officer said. "We are conscious of unity of this nation. What he has done up to now is not strategic steps. But we will still support him."