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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

On The Offensive

As the presidential selection nears, the military displays its might

By Jose Manuel Tesoro / Jakarta


Go to a quick breakdown of the army factions

FOR INDONESIA'S ARMED FORCES, summoning 25,000 troops in full battle gear to a rain-slicked parking lot in south Jakarta early Feb. 7 was its way of making a statement. The black ski masks, white helmets and projectile-proof visors worn by the soldiers were meant to demonstrate that the country's powerful military, known as ABRI, is ready to face any possible disruptions of the upcoming People's Consultative Assembly (or MPR) even as its own leadership changes. And despite a deepening economic crisis that some civilians believe will only be solved by dramatic political reform.

At the gathering of the largely appointed electoral college, which begins March 1, President Suharto will run unchallenged for a seventh term. Before then, a reshuffle of ABRI's top brass is expected, as often occurs before an MPR session. The changes may have been discussed during the two-day annual meeting of ABRI's chiefs of staff, which began Feb. 10. But the decision is not ABRI's, it is Suharto's. Many believe he would like the army head, Gen. Wiranto, 50, to replace ABRI chief Feisal Tanjung, who is already past retirement age.

In the circumstances, and in the face of an undefined enemy, the visible demonstration of might has left Jakarta's elite awash with rumors. Was the "security exercise" meant to send a blunt message to reformists? "Those who should be scared are only those who want to destroy stability," said Gen. Wiranto. Who might that be?

Indonesian political life is characteristically indirect; its participants are loath to name opponents and causes. That leaves an unusually large space for speculation. One rumor that quickly made the rounds last week was that an influential former Armed Forces commander, retired Gen. L.B. "Benny" Murdani, would be brought in for questioning in an expanding investigation of a late January bombing. He wasn't.

Although the explosion in a lower-class Jakarta district caused little damage, the bomb inquiry has spread steadily outwards, like a billowing cloud of smoke. Military investigators accused the banned radical youth group People's Democratic Party (PRD), whose leader is already serving a 13-year jail term for subversion, of constructing the bomb when it exploded. Authorities also say documents were found at the site of the blast containing the names of prominent businessmen, activists and retired military officers. Jakarta commander Syafrie Syamsuddin denied Murdani's name was on the list.

ABRI's commander from 1988 to 1993, Murdani, now 65, is one of the most fascinating, if shadowy, figures in Indonesian politics. He continues to cast a spell over the popular imagination. A hero in the war for Independence and campaigns in Irian Jaya and East Timor, Murdani maintains close ties to all arms of the military, especially the intelligence branch, which he led for more than a decade. He fell out of favor with Suharto when he questioned the growing wealth of the president's children. Nonetheless, he engineered the ascension of his protégé, Try Sutrisno, to the vice-presidency in 1993. Some even contend that he remains an active behind-the-scenes player.

As the vice presidential "race," in which Sutrisno is again a contender, enters its last weeks, it is not surprising that Murdani's name should resurface as a powerbroker. Since Suharto's running mate is traditionally unopposed, the lead-up to the MPR session is the time when most maneuvering goes on. Many have been mentioned, but Minister of Research and Technology B.J. Habibie appears to be the front-runner. On Feb. 10, one other likely candidate, National Planning Minister Ginanjar Kartasasmita, said he was not ready to accept the nomination if he were offered it.

There may be other reasons people are talking about Murdani. They recall that under his watch as ABRI chief in 1984, soldiers opened fire on a crowd of Muslim demonstrators near Jakarta's port district. The official tally was seven dead and 97 wounded. The incident led to a wave of Muslim unrest throughout the archipelago. Some in the Muslim community, justifiably or not, blame Murdani, a Catholic, for precipitating the violence.

And since January, young Muslim protesters have been picketing the headquarters of the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a think-tank linked to Murdani. CSIS is headed by Jusuf Wanandi, a former student activist whose brother, prominent businessman Sofyan Wanandi, has been questioned by the police twice in connection with the PRD bombing, the second time for more than eight hours. The brothers are ethnic Chinese, a minority also being blamed by some for causing, or exacerbating, the economic crisis. Some privately wonder if the military is encouraging the anti-CSIS demonstrators, a claim that ABRI denies. "We don't indulge in diversion acts," says spokesman Brig.-Gen. A. Wahab Mokodongan.

In the past month, at least 12 towns have been hit by social unrest connected to rising prices for basic goods. The most recent incidents occurred on the islands of Sumbawa and Flores, and both required military intervention to restore peace. On Feb. 8, hundreds rioted and burned stores in the town of Ende on Flores. Much of the local ethnic Chinese business community fled to police or military headquarters for protection. Jakarta has been troubled by demonstrations, most of which have been peaceful. But on Feb. 11 hundreds of police and troops in riot gear broke up a protest and arrested many of the demonstrators.

Amid the growing unease, many are wondering who will take over ABRI chief Tanjung's position, and when. Tanjung is already three years past the official retirement age of 55. In a reshuffle, he may be replaced by Wiranto, who is widely respected for his professionalism. But it will be Suharto, ABRI's supreme commander, who will decide the line-up. One thing is certain: he will choose officers whose loyalty to him is unquestioned. He has always done so, to some extent, says Harold Crouch, an Australian expert on ABRI, but it has been "more so the case in the past five years."

ABRI's leaders were also expected to discuss their vice presidential candidate at the Feb. 10 annual meeting. Each of the five recognized factions of the MPR, which include ABRI, the three legal political parties and a group of regional delegates, can nominate its own candidate, though in practice all agree on just one. Whatever ABRI's decision, no name will be revealed until the MPR session. With an issue as symbolic as the nomination of the nation's top two rulers, the military is likely to let civilians take the lead.

With less than 500,000 active members in a population of 200 million, ABRI depends on the perception that it exists to serve and protect, not to dominate and threaten. The military knows that it is "not particularly smart to try to maintain order by the use of force," says Canberra-based defense analyst Robert Lowry. "ABRI members are masters of co-opting their own society." Security drills, intimations of threat and investigations might just be ways to drive home the point that only ABRI stands between order and chaos in Indonesia.


POLITICAL HUES

THE INDONESIAN ARMED FORCES (or ABRI) may first appear to be monolithic. But it is too large and too powerful an institution for that. There are shades of difference in ABRI, based on the soldiers' political and religious inclinations. These classifications (developed by analysts) are at best a rough guide because personal loyalties count as much as political orientation.

Green Soldiers whose primary allegiance is to the military and its commander-in-chief, Suharto. Most of the military's top brass, including Army head Gen. Wiranto, are in this group.

Green-green Soldiers who are loyal to both the armed forces and Islam, but do not necessarily want to establish an Islamic state (green represents the army and Islam). ABRI commander Feisal Tanjung is thought to fall into this category.

Red-and-white Soldiers of this shade are fiercely nationalist (red and white are the colors of the Indonesian flag). They are at times willing to break the chain of command if they believe it is for the good of the nation. Retired general Benny Murdani, who led ABRI from 1983 to 1988, is considered to be the paramount Red-and-White.


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