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Web-only Exclusives
November 30, 2000

From Our Correspondent: Hirohito and the War
A conversation with biographer Herbert Bix

From Our Correspondent: A Rough Road Ahead
Bad news for the Philippines - and some others

From Our Correspondent: Making Enemies
Indonesia needs friends. So why is it picking fights?

Asiaweek Time Asia Now Asiaweek story

INDONESIA

Suharto's Tough Guy
A Hardliner Takes Over a Powerful Military Post

By Keith Loveard / Jakarta
and Matthew Fletcher


IS DISSENT GETTING OUT of hand in Indonesia? President Suharto seems to think so. Last week he promoted a hardliner, Lt.-Gen. Syarwan Hamid, to one of the most powerful jobs in the army. Hamid will head the socio-political unit, the mechanism by which the military ensures national stability. In fulfilling its dwi fungsi (dual function) role, the army places officers in every government office down to the village level. Civilian administrators have military shadows -- who come from the socio-political unit.

Hamid earned his hardline credentials last year as assistant head of that unit. He made headlines by warning of a shadowy "organization without form" that was using communist methods to undermine the government. He and armed forces chief Lt.-Gen. Suyono accused labor union leader Muchtar Pakpahan, among others, of communist connections. Several people were arrested -- though not Muchtar. The campaign must have pleased Suharto. In choosing Hamid to head the socio-political unit, he awarded him another star, his second promotion within a year.

Hamid has kept up the momentum. A week ago, he warned of an anarchistic "new left" that he said was potentially more dangerous than communism. This time, Hamid has not named names -- yet. His message got through, though: Suharto's experiment in allowing greater freedom of speech and of the press, first unveiled in the early 1990s, is all but over. Those who criticize the government can expect to pay a price.

In a country where being related to a communist can cost you your job, the anti-leftist campaign has people worried. It will be harder to challenge the government with "awkward but necessary questions," says human rights campaigner H.J.C. Princen. "What has the government done for poverty? How many people have clean water? Is it possible to ask these questions without being branded a communist?" Even members of the ruling Golkar party are concerned. "It would be unfair to brand people who have different opinions from the government as leftist and anti-establishment," says Legislator Oka Mahendra.

So why is Hamid talking tough? "He is saying what he thinks Suharto wants said," notes a Jakarta commentator. "As Suharto gets older, the pressure is growing and more people want a say, so it's natural that a tough hand is appreciated at the moment." A series of violent incidents in recent months may have spooked the president. Among them: ethnic clashes in West Java, a riot following an earthquake in central Sumatra, and an anti-pollution protest that led to riots in Pasaruan, East Java. Suharto may have decided that social tensions have gotten out of hand.

But there may be more to it. The president, whose current term expires in March 1998, may be using Hamid to smoke out his critics. "That Suharto is promoting a hardliner like this shows that he feels there is a serious threat to his power that he cannot see," says political scientist Arief Budiman. He believes Suharto suspects that pro-democracy activists have linked up with factions in the military, led by a wave of younger, better educated officers who are uneasy about the way the armed forces has been used as a political tool.

Among the leaders of this more progressive faction, says Budiman, are Defense and Security Minister Edi Sudrajat and ex-Home Affairs Minister Rudini, a former general with strong links through the ranks. Both have recently reminded the military that their job is to serve the people. The unspoken implication: the army is not there just to do the bidding of those in power. Also speaking out lately has been Sudibyo, head of the powerful military intelligence agency BAKIN. He has scoffed at Hamid's accusations that a new communist organization is behind social unrest. "If we were to call this communism in a new form, there is not one document we have that has ever brought up such a phenomenon in any analysis," he told a local magazine last October.

Others see Hamid's broadsides more simply as a poorly disguised attempt to win Muslim support by stirring up the old bogey of communism. Suharto may feel he needs to shore up his standing with Muslims after his recent moves to curb the ambitions of Research and Technology Minister B.J. Habibie, who also heads the influential Indonesian Association of Muslim Intellectuals (ICMI). In December, Suharto sacked trade minister and Habibie crony Satrio Budiardjo Judono ahead of the ICMI's annual congress.

Whatever the reasons for the crackdown, pro-democracy groups are pressing ahead. "If we follow the government's agenda, we will be cornered," says one activist. "The only thing we can do is to make our own agenda and force the government to react to us." High on that agenda: leading opposition figures, among them former Jakarta governor Ali Sadikin, intend to form an independent group to monitor next year's parliamentary elections. Hamid and his junior officers will screen all candidates. Anyone who doesn't like that system can expect to hear from Suharto's designated tough guy.


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