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November 30, 2000

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MARCH 24, 2000 VOL. 26 NO. 11

A Question Of Loyalty
Wahid tries to "de-Wiranto-ize" the military

Back in the days when the Indonesian armed forces' loyalty to Suharto was unquestioned, every military reshuffle seemed to present evidence of the fortunes of certain groups: the so-called "green" Islamists or the "red-white" nationalists or - much, much later - the "reformists." Now, in the absence of the former president's dominating influence, what has emerged is that these irregular rituals were never really about ideas or interests but simply about allegiances. For how else can one look at what happened in late February, when 74 officers, three of them three-star generals, were either retired or transferred? Army chief of staff Lt.-Gen. Tyasno Sudarto insisted that the moves reflected a "normal tour of duty." Most others differed. "The last reshuffle is clearly more de-Wiranto-ization," complains a two-star general loyal to former armed-forces chief Gen. Wiranto.

The rotation, announced on Feb. 28, came just two weeks after President Abdurrahman Wahid suspended Wiranto from his cabinet post of coordinating minister for security and political affairs. Given the seriousness of the rivalry between the president and the general, the reshuffle looks less about reining in the military's power than about redirecting its loyalty from Wiranto to Wahid. The changes might not even be the last. Three regional commanders considered close to Wiranto may be replaced soon, while the post of deputy military commander - which Wiranto had resurrected - is in danger of being abolished.

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• Interview: Cohen says the U.S. will not mediate Kashmir
Thailand: The central bank's burden - prevent another Crisis
Indonesia: How Wahid became his country's strongest power
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It was not that long ago that the military appeared 100% under Wiranto's control. Take current armed-forces commander Admiral Widodo Ahmad Sucipto. Both he and Wiranto spent their childhood years in Jogjakarta and were in the military academy together. Late in Wiranto's term as armed-forces chief, Widodo became deputy military commander. Even after the general relinquished his post to Widodo in exchange for the cabinet position, "Wiranto was still the de facto military chief," says a senior navy officer.

Also seen as a Wiranto ally was Sudarto. Wiranto played a key role in Sudarto's promotion to strategic-intelligence chief, as well as his appointment as army commander. Another well-known Wiranto loyalist was Lt.-Gen. Djadja Suparman, former head of the army strategic reserve (Kostrad). When Wiranto took over the military in March 1998, Suparman was plucked from the remote Natuna archipelago to become East Java's regional military commander.

The connections between Wiranto and high-ranking officers underline how much patronage had become a military tradition. In the past, loyalty to the right superior officer was the way to choice positions, since recommendations from commanding officers heavily influenced promotions. Thus, one rose with one's patron, who understandably expected loyalty during service and protection after retirement. This invisible network of mutual back-scratching made it difficult for anyone outside the military to control it - or even understand it.

Then came Wahid, who, unlike his shaky predecessor B.J. Habibie, showed no reluctance to challenge the military openly. In January, the president said he would not protect Wiranto from an investigation by Jakarta's commission on human rights in East Timor. His words signaled which way the wind was now blowing. Armed-forces chief Widodo allowed Wiranto to be summoned, and reportedly pressured four generals appointed to the cabinet to retire from active service - both measures key to the decline of Wiranto's fortunes. The commission's report, which fingered Wiranto as "morally responsible" for last year's violence in East Timor, then provided the pretext for the general's resignation.

Many of those considered close to Wiranto, such as Widodo and Sudarto, emerged as closet Wahidists. Those who failed to switch sides early enough lost in the reshuffle. In December, Suparman, then newly appointed as Kostrad chief, had warned the human-rights commission that troops might get "upset" if there was a move to disturb Wiranto. Suparman lost his job after just three months in it.

His replacement was Maj.-Gen. Agus Wirahadikusumah, who in December had declared that troops should be loyal to the state, not to one general. At the time, he was posted in South Sulawesi because, many believed, of his outspoken views on the military. But Wirahadikusumah won points with the public by styling himself as a reformer advocating the armed forces' retreat from politics. When Wiranto fell, he was returned to Jakarta at Wahid's urging. Military observer M.T. Arifin says the president is now waiting for more evidence of Wirahadikusumah's loyalty before advancing him further.

The emergence of a "civilian channel" to the top has sent the tried-and-true system of internal patronage spinning. Instead of unquestioned fealty to one's superior officer, an ambitious soldier might now have to think of cosseting the president and the public, via the media. For the armed forces, this is uncharted territory. "There must be a big split in the top ranks," says 28-year-old army sergeant Surjono. "Who will be responsible for our welfare, if this dispute continues?" One general believes this shock to soldiers might haunt Wahid in the future: "This is the perfect condition for political intrigue." The president himself claimed recently that there was a plot by certain officers to "dismantle" his administration.

The grumblings, however, may be less an indication of an impending military revolt than the last feeble lashing out of those weaned on the old ways. Speaking on a radio talk show, former military spokesman Maj.-Gen. Sudrajat observed: "It is difficult for the army to let go, particularly after being spoiled politically and economically for such a long period." It is not hard to see poetic justice in the latest development. For more than three decades, the military had involved itself in civilian politics; now it is the one that feels its control over its own affairs being challenged and questioned.

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