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FEBRUARY 28, 2000 VOL. 155 NO. 8

Victory Signs
Wahid strengthens his hand by forcing a recalcitrant general to leave the cabinet
By NISID HAJARI

Indonesia's Abdurrahman Wahid has always been an unlikely President. Though charismatic, he is not the charmer that Sukarno was. Though a survivor, he lacks Suharto's armor-plated ruthlessness. At times, with his off-the-cuff declarations and scattershot manner, he begins to resemble his immediate--and most hapless--predecessor, B.J. Habibie.

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So perhaps it's not surprising that Wahid's moment of strength should have looked so much like weakness. Talk about flipflops. He suspended his Coordinating Minister for Political and Security Affairs, General Wiranto--just hours after agreeing to let the former armed forces chief remain active in the cabinet. For two weeks before that, he had tempered his almost daily calls for Wiranto to step down with assurances of his personal affection for the man. Even when he finally axed the recalcitrant officer, who has been named in an independent report investigating last year's violence in East Timor, Wahid informed only a few Indonesian newspaper editors late on a Sunday night. Wiranto learned his fate when a member of Wahid's staff phoned him. "If there has been a manipulation of the law for political purposes, then what has happened to me has been a setback rather than a move forward," the general complained to Time. For the President, however, the decision is clearly a step ahead.

For one thing, Wahid's drawn-out, long-distance campaign has most likely finished off his most immediate rival. "By the time the decision was made, every top member of the military was in favor of moving Wiranto out," says a senior Clinton Administration official who followed the drama closely. "He eroded any energy behind Wiranto." The process that could lead to formal charges being brought against Wiranto has only begun, and even many cabinet officials think none will ever be formally lodged. But Wiranto's ouster has already exposed an undercurrent of resentment toward the general, whose military career was rocket-fueled by his close relationship to Suharto. "It is normal that those who had the same intelligence, talent and skill would resent the fact that Wiranto used his connections to the most powerful man in the country to boost his career," says one major at military headquarters in Jakarta.

Wahid now has a chance to expand his efforts to reform the military beyond the uppermost echelon. "Not too long from now there will be big changes in the military," says the major. Without their sponsor, other Suharto-era officers will lose some leverage within the ranks. That gives hope to younger, more progressive officers: on Thursday Chief of General Staff Lieut.-General Suaidi Marasabessy announced that 44 army posts would change hands in the near future. Bringing other top generals to book for past abuses in places like Aceh and even Jakarta may be easier now that an example has been set.

Even the limited victory of forcing Wiranto to respect the legal process could help Wahid breathe some life into the Indonesian economy. His recent 13-country, 16-day trip was only the latest jaunt meant to rally foreign investment, which has declined steadily due to fears of instability: a mere $96 million in foreign-funded projects was approved in January, compared with $372 million the month before. "Foreign investment and commitments are the benchmark for Gus Dur," says Defense Minister Juwono Sudarsono, using the President's nickname. Some cabinet officials say that the possibility of an adverse reaction abroad forced Wahid's last-minute change of heart on Wiranto. Even if that's not the case, the quick support his decision attracted in Washington and elsewhere gives Wahid cover at home now, while holding out the promise of future aid.

More immediately, too, the move has quieted talk of establishing an international war crimes tribunal to prosecute abuses in East Timor. In Jakarta last week, United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan indicated he would hold off on pushing for such a court if Indonesia would "hold those responsible accountable" for their misdeeds. Hundreds of demonstrators protested Annan's visit, and nationalist resentment of the U.N. is rife among supporters of both Wahid and Wiranto. Keeping the international body at bay allows Wahid to score political points at home.

Ultimately, the President may be able to turn that political capital against his domestic enemies. "If Wiranto is no longer in the picture," says a cabinet official, "Gus Dur can start forming the cabinet he wants." The unwieldy 34-member body the President currently heads reflects the compromise necessary to ensure his election and has proven far from efficient. In recent weeks Vice President Megawati Sukarnoputri has warned three different ministers against making appointments based on political loyalty rather than merit. Wiranto is the third cabinet official to be removed in the past three months (the others were reportedly being investigated by the Attorney General on suspicion of corruption). His ouster presents an opportunity to streamline the body still further.

So Wahid's stumbling, mystifying power play may only be one element of a larger strategy. "Gus Dur is bulldozing his way to restructuring the political system and weeding out the Suharto-era elements that could pose a threat to national stability," says Riswanda Himawan, a political scientist at Gadjah Mada University. In many ways Wiranto, who served as Suharto's aide-de-camp for four years, stood as the military incarnation of the Suharto family--an underqualified favorite son whose power derived from his mentor's name. When Wiranto helped nudge Suharto out of office in 1998, he vowed to protect both his patron and Suharto's six children. Edging the general aside now not only removes one of the most visible symbols of the cronyism typical of the Suharto years, but also clears one of the hurdles to calling Suharto himself to account. (The former dictator declined again last week on medical grounds to appear before the Attorney General to discuss corruption charges.) "Gus Dur has removed one of the greatest obstacles to pushing through his reform agenda," says Daniel Dhakidae, director of the Human Rights Studies Foundation in Jakarta. That may be a roundabout way of ending the Suharto era. But Indonesians have come to expect no less from their unpredictable President.

Reported by Barry Hillenbrand/Washington and Jason Tedjasukmana/Jakarta

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