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Populist Marines flare army tensions

Australian Financial Review - November 16, 1998

Greg Earl, Jakarta – As a line of Marines suddenly broke formation on the main road to Indonesia's Parliament about 3pm on Saturday, the students pushing down the tollway erupted into cheers of joy.

But it was the look of trepidation on the faces of the regular soldiers about 100 metres down the road that hinted at the way tensions within the military are again at the heart of the country's latest unrest.

For a country where the army has again turned its guns on its citizens with a ferocity that has stunned foreign observers, the arrival of the maroon-bereted Marines at troublespots around Jakarta is a discordant sight. "Long live the Marines," the crowds shout as the embarrassed-looking young soldiers grin and punch their fists in the air with a tentative revolutionary flourish.

They usually arrive without riot control gear, automatic rifles slung nonchalantly behind their backs, and walk casually into crowds that only minutes before had been raging at other wings of military. The Marines took control of the march on the Parliament on Saturday and kept the students separated from the more unpredictable masses. In other parts of the city they sometimes managed to calm looters before they burnt buildings.

But with one Marine wounded by gunfire in the centre of Jakarta on Saturday morning, there are concerns that tensions are emerging over their populist role – or that darker forces are trying to stir up trouble within the military.

Security guards in the Senen shopping district told a group of foreign journalists of a second unconfirmed incident where other troops accidentally wounded a Marine later on Saturday. One security guard said about 100 soldiers from the Jakarta command had then hidden in the shopping centre to avoid a raging crowd while Marines eventually restored calm.

The Marines have had a populist reputation since they stuck with former President Soekarno in 1965 for longer than the army mainstream and are considered to live closer to the ordinary people. They have since emerged as cool heads during recent unrest and a large group of ex-Marines recently joined the Indonesian Democracy Party headed by Soekarno's daughter, Megawati.

The contempt the general public now has for the army mainstream was underlined on Friday as several trucks of Marines arrived after the first deadly clash outside Atmajaya University in the central business district. "Long live the Marines. Kostrad (the elite Strategic Reserve) are PKI (communist)," crowds screamed in a new twist on the military's assertion that all political dissidents are communists.