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End of reforms, army return seen under Indonesia Megawati

Associated Press - July 23, 2001

Jakarta – Indonesia's first leader, President Sukarno, was ousted from office 35 years ago by right-wing army generals. On Monday, Sukarno's daughter rose to the presidency on a wave of support from the military brass – still this nation's kingmakers.

Several other groups that were part of the corruption-ridden, 32-year dictatorship of former President Suharto – the five-star general who brought down Sukarno in 1966 – also backed Megawati. These include Indonesia's powerful business elite, the state bureaucracy and the judiciary.

"This is very bad news for Indonesia's democratic reforms and for the concept of civilian supremacy over the military," said John Roosa, a historian specializing in Southeast Asia.

The army's support for Megawati in the political struggle to replace Wahid – strikingly demonstrated when they deployed nearly 100 tanks around the presidential palace Sunday – may enable them to regain the pre-eminent position they held during the dictatorship.

This isn't the hopeful vision of a new Indonesia that emerged when Suharto fell. In the heady days of June 1999, after huge pro-democracy protests and riots forced Suharto from office, "Reformasi," – Reforms – became the rallying cry for Indonesians ecstatic with their new democratic experiment.

The military, seen as Indonesia's most corrupt institution and accused of bloody human rights abuses in East Timor and elsewhere, appeared on the verge of losing legitimacy.

Megawati was in the forefront of the reform movement. Her family pedigree and the fact that Suharto's thugs attacked her party's headquarters in 1996 to remove her as its leader made her a hero and natural candidate for president.

Her Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle won the largest share of votes – mainly from poor and working class voters – in democratic elections in 1999, but failed to achieve a clear majority. Inexplicably, Megawati demonstrated no interest in the electoral college which picks Indonesia's presidents. Her passivity allowed a coalition of other groups, many of them holdovers from the Suharto regime, to sideline her and elect Wahid in October 1999.

The moderate Muslim cleric wasn't expected to deliver significant reforms. But once he became head of state, Wahid angered his backers by moving tentatively to eliminate the corruption that marked Suharto's regime.

The government prosecuted several of Suharto's wealthiest cronies and even attempted to bring charges against the aging dictator himself. Wahid also tried – but eventually backed off – to replace the military brass with reformist generals advocating civilian control over the armed forces.

In April last year, the only human rights trial of soldiers in Indonesian history ended in 24 convictions for the massacre of dozens of students at a religious school in Aceh. Although most of Wahid's initiatives fizzled, they earned him the loathing of the military and business oligarchies, which gradually switched their support to Megawati.

In the meantime, the vice president had done little to formulate a cohesive political platform. Her rare public speeches were full of nationalist exhortations and nursery rhymes but short on substance.

She had nothing to do with the running of the government and quietly evaded Wahid's request to mediate in peace talks between warring Christians and Muslims in the Maluku islands. "This is somebody who would normally be considered completely incompetent to be a politician," said Roosa, a postdoctoral fellow at the University of California at Berkley.

Megawati is widely seen as lacking intellectual ability and being heavily influenced by her millionaire husband, Taufik Kiemas, and a coterie of advisers. Kiemas has established an armed party militia commanded by Eurico Guterres, a notorious army-backed paramilitary leader from East Timor wanted by the UN on charges of war crimes.

Megawati's advisers include Arifin Panigoro, an oil baron and former Suharto crony, who as her party's parliamentary chief has worked hard to forge a coalition with the generals and tycoons.

"She thinks it is her birthright to be president and will enjoy the glory associated with it, but others will be running things for her," predicted George Aditjondro, a University of Newcastle professor and a leading expert on corruption in Indonesia.

Aditjondro said Megawati will be a mere figurehead for the military and the oligarchies that benefitted from association with Suharto. "I foresee a pessimistic future. We'll probably see a rotation of short-term presidents, while the military makes sure that there are no serious trials for corruption or human rights abuses."