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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

BATTLE OF THE GENERALS

The military's maneuvers - and intrigues


Return to Main Story

Habibie Inc. The new president's family values

Economy Many problems need fixing

Cronies Attention turns to Suharto's clan

Fortunes and Failings Suharto's Legacy

Students Chalk it up to youthful exuberance

THE MILITARY IN ASIA has long had a bad habit - launching coups, putting down a few civilian protesters and trying to run the country. The results have been mixed at best, disastrous at worst. Fortunately, the trend in recent years has been for soldiers to stick to what they know best. South Korea has seen its military stay out of politics, as have Thailand and Pakistan. Now Indonesia appears to be taking steps toward joining the list.

If that comes to pass, you would have Gen. Wiranto to thank. The 51-year-old chief of the armed forces (ABRI by its Indonesian initials) is something of a paradox: a handpicked Suharto loyalist who stands apart from the corrupt, heavy-handed ways of his mentor's administration. Sympathetic to the cause of reform - as long as it proceeds constitutionally - he gave passive support to the student protesters by not cracking down on them (as he easily could have done). Even though Suharto had said in mid-March that ABRI could use "repressive measures" to stop them, the military by and large held back. That, plus his informing Suharto on May 20 that it was best to step down, ensured that the political transition was relatively peaceful.

Wiranto further burnished his reformist credentials when he announced on May 25 that at least 14 soldiers were being investigated for the shooting deaths of four students at Trisakti University, which had triggered the recent riots. He also revealed the resignations of his wife and daughter from the lawmaking People's Consultative Assembly, presumably to head off any charges of nepotism.

Wiranto is not alone in his proreform leanings. Perhaps at no other time in the past 30 years has the ABRI leadership been as responsive to demands for change. One reason is that many of today's high-ranking generals graduated from the military academy (as opposed to past generations, who saw revolutionary service). They are therefore far more likely to consider the army as a strictly professional body representing a career rather than a way to exercise influence in politics.

It is too early to say whether this means the military will soon be returning to the barracks for good. ABRI is said to have formed working groups to study what its position on "reformation" will be. It has invited religious, legal and political experts to discuss issues of reform. Everything - even the hallowed dwifungsi (the "dual function" concept that allows the military to dabble in politics) - is said to be on the table. Perhaps little or nothing will come out of the discussions, but just the fact the generals are listening to ideas is significant.

Wiranto's departure from the old order was marked in another way: the May 21 removal of Lt.-Gen. Prabowo Subianto from his position as head of the army strategic reserve, Kostrad. Prabowo, a son-in-law of Suharto, was shunted off to a command college in Bandung, largely considered a post of exile. The move appears to be aimed at eliminating a risk factor and distancing ABRI from Suharto. Also falling from grace was Prabowo buddy Maj.-Gen. Muchdi Purwopranjono, head of the special forces unit Kopassus, while another ally, Jakarta commander Maj.-Gen. Syafrie Syamsudin, seems set to follow.

Is Prabowo out of the game altogether? Perhaps. But it seems he did not go without putting up a fight. The night of Suharto's resignation May 21, says a military source, a furious Prabowo ringed the palace and presidential offices with troops loyal to him. He wanted to force B.J. Habibie to honor a deal made months earlier that he would be made armed forces chief if Habibie became president. But Wiranto, who had the chain of command and more troops behind him, prevailed.

A man of ambition, Prabowo was feared by the public as a dark figure rumored to have a role in instigating unrest and in kidnapping activists. His removal is a boost for Wiranto, who did not get along with him anyway. Says ex-minister Sarwono Kusumaatmadja: "Now it depends on Wiranto himself - whether he wants to remain an officer, or be the next president." Given the political capital Wiranto has gained recently, the latter scenario is by no means farfetched.

- By Sangwon Suh, with reporting by

Jose Manuel Tesoro and Dewi Loveard/Jakarta


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