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Indonesia: Ex-generals ready for election battle
By Andreas Harsono and Jim Lobe

JAKARTA - In mid-May 1998, as rioters were ransacking business areas and looting properties owned by Chinese-Indonesians in Jakarta, General Wiranto, then Indonesia's military chief, was approached by his No 2, Lieutenant-General Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono. According to Yudhoyono's biography Sang Demokrat ("The Democrat"), president Suharto himself bunkered in his residence on a leafy street in Central Jakarta as student protesters were occupying the parliament building and demanding that he step down from power.

Yudhoyono asked Wiranto: "Do you have any plan to take over power?" Wiranto replied, "No. I don't have any shred of idea about taking over power. It is unconstitutional." Yudhoyono immediately shook Wiranto's hand, saying: "Sir, if that is the case ... I am with you!"

This conversation was unknown to the public until Yudhoyono published his biography two months ago.

Today, six years later, Wiranto and Yudhoyono - both retired from the military - are still popular because of their decision not to grab power and allow Suharto to exit, thus ushering in Indonesia's transition to democracy. They are also candidates competing with civilian counterparts in the July 5 presidential race and challenging, too, their former boss, President Megawati Sukarnoputri.

But in Washington, politicians and officials of all stripes are taking a dim view of the prospect of Wiranto becoming president of a country seen as key in the US-led "war on terror".

Space for change
Looking back, the two military officers' decision to keep the military out of the presidency won kudos on the grounds that it allowed Indonesia the space for change - in succeeding years, the country held a democratic election and civilian governments began to lead the country. After all, in the days leading up to Suharto's stepping down from power on May 21, 1998, there were hawkish generals who planned to crack down on protesters as Chinese officials did in Tiananmen Square in 1989.

More recently, Yudhoyono's Democrat Party got 7 percent of the parliamentary votes during the April 5 parliamentary elections, while Wiranto won Golkar Party's presidential nomination on April 20 - thus setting the stage for their presidential candidacies. Golkar, which Suharto created in the 1960s, is now the country's strongest political party, with 20 percent of the votes. After the April 5 election, it is set to control almost a quarter of the 550-seat parliament. Megawati's party only secured the second position, with 19 percent of the votes.

But the two retired generals' popularity is not without controversy. Wiranto, who used to be an adjutant to Suharto, was indicted for crimes against humanity last year by United Nations-backed prosecutors in East Timor. Prosecutors there charge that he failed to stop his soldiers and pro-Indonesia militia from killing nearly 1,500 people in 1999, after East Timorese voted for independence from Indonesia.

Wiranto has repeatedly denied any wrongdoing and claimed that he had tried to stop the violence. Testifying at one of the Human Rights Court hearings instituted in Jakarta to look into the East Timor debacle - no military figures were convicted - he argued that the East Timorese had been fighting each other "for 23 years" anyway, since the Indonesian invasion in 1975.

Why Wiranto worries Washington
A Suharto favorite, Wiranto rose to the military's top position in the mid-1990s and reportedly played a role in persuading Suharto to end his 30-year reign in 1998. But one year later, he was implicated in the army-orchestrated mayhem that followed the overwhelming vote by the East Timorese people in favor of independence from Indonesia, which had invaded and later annexed the territory.

"Golkar should be embarrassed to select someone who has been indicted for crimes against humanity as its presidential candidate," said Brad Adams, who directs the Asia Division of Human Rights Watch (HRW) in New York City. "If Golkar has really reformed itself after the massive rights violations of the Suharto years, it should be distancing itself from its dark past instead of embracing it," he added in a statement.

Wiranto, who like many Indonesians goes by only one name, is considered likely to try to use his good looks and tough image, as well as the growing nostalgia for the Suharto era, to unseat Megawati when Indonesians go the polls in their first direct presidential election on July 5. Megawati, the daughter of Indonesia's first president, Sukarno, has declined sharply in popularity over the past two years, largely as a result of a lagging economy, growing corruption, the military's failure to achieve a clear victory over pro-independence rebels in Aceh province and the perception that she has not been seriously engaged in governing.

Since coming to office, and particularly since the September 11, 2001, attacks on New York and the Pentagon, the administration of US President George W Bush has seen Indonesia as a key part of its "war on terror", and has made little secret of its desire to restore the close military ties that were in effect suspended under the previous administration of Bill Clinton after the violence that leveled East Timor in 1999.

Since September 11, the Bush administration has restored some security assistance - mainly in the form of anti-terrorism aid - but Congress has insisted that certain conditions be met before relations can be fully normalized.

In January, US legislators approved a provision of the 2004 foreign-aid bill that maintains a ban on US government financing of weapons sales, export licenses for certain kinds of military equipment and participation in a State Department-administered military training for Indonesia until Jakarta fully cooperates in the investigation and prosecution of military units that are believed to have killed two US teachers and their Indonesian colleague in an ambush in West Papua in 2002.

In addition, the bill requires Indonesia to extradite those indicted by the joint UN-East Timor Serious Crimes Unit, conduct a public audit of the military's funds and prosecute credible cases of serious human-rights abuses believed to have been carried out by the military or military-backed militias. The Bush administration opposed the provision.

Wiranto, as well as several other senior Indonesian military officials, was indeed indicted by the Crimes Unit, although an arrest warrant has still to be issued. Soon after the indictment was handed down in February 2003, the State Department placed Wiranto on its visa watch list, meaning he could be barred from entering the United States.

Although the US ambassador in Jakarta said last week that Wiranto would be treated as a head of state if he were to win the election, most officials and independent analysts believe that his record could make relations more difficult, particularly compared with a reformer such as Yudhoyono, who has not been implicated in major rights abuses or corruption.

Even right-wing US analysts see Wiranto's election as highly problematic. In a paper issued on Thursday, Dana Dillon of the Washington-based Heritage Foundation called Wiranto both "passive and corrupt", but warned against explicit condemnations of the general. According to Dillon, such statements would likely be used to fuel a nationalist backlash, particularly given the strong rise in anti-American sentiment as Washington has pursued its "war on terrorism". The vast majority of Indonesians are Muslims.

But rights groups are unrestrained in their criticism of Wiranto's candidacy, with the East Timor Action Network (ETAN) calling for his arrest and prosecution by a yet-to-be-established international tribunal for East Timor.

"We urge the US Congress and Bush administration to withhold all military assistance for Indonesia until Wiranto and others responsible for crimes against humanity in East Timor and Indonesia are brought to justice in judicial processes consistent with international standards," said ETAN's director, John Miller.

HRW called for other countries aside from the United States to bar Wiranto from visiting them. "Countries with a commitment to the rule of law and justice should send a message that Wiranto's election could make Indonesia a pariah state that they would have difficulty dealing with," Adams said.

Yudhoyono: Rising star
In any case, both Megawati and Wiranto are considered underdogs to retired Yudhoyono, the candidate of the newly formed Democratic Party, who served until recently as one of Megawati's chief advisers. In the latest polls, he led Megawati 44-21 percent.

Although, like Wiranto, Yudhoyono made his career in the military, he has long favored separating the army, which in effect ruled the country through Golkar during the Suharto dictatorship, from the government and from the many businesses and monopolies it operates. Wiranto, on the other hand, has been seen as a promoter of the military's interests in both politics and the economy.

Still, Yudhoyono is not entirely free of controversy. According to Miller, as Wiranto's chief of territorial affairs, Yudhoyono took no action on reports that the Indonesian soldiers and militia were intimidating the East Timorese in advance of the UN-run referendum.

"Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono's record shows that as president he is unlikely to rein in Indonesia's increasingly assertive military. The former general is also unlikely to support genuine efforts to hold members of the security forces accountable for crimes against humanity in East Timor and Indonesia," said Miller.

But East Timor is not a big political issue in the psyche of most Indonesians today. It was a former Portuguese colony, unlike the other Dutch-controlled parts of Indonesia. East Timor is also a relatively poor and much smaller territory of about 800,000 people, tiny compared with Indonesia's 220 million population.

This psyche is also well understood by the foreign diplomats in Jakarta. "We can work with anybody that comes out from a free [election] process," US Ambassador Ralph Boyce said on Thursday. East Timor Attorney General Longinus Montero said that Wiranto's trial might not materialize for lack of evidence. Australian Foreign Minister Alexander Downer said: "We have to work with whoever wins."

General appeal
Wiranto's and Yudhoyono's appeal inside Indonesia is straightforward. They come from the main island of Java, whose ethnic population accounts for some 40 percent of Indonesia's various ethnic groups. The two generals have relatively deep pockets. To some voters, their military background is a positive quality when it comes to security and decisiveness - traits they have missed under Megawati.

Wiranto has been criss-crossing the archipelago in the past six months to seek support. He defeated Akbar Tanjung, the chairman of Golkar, who lost the presidential nomination in a tight party vote, and received 315 votes against Tanjung's 227.

Yudhoyono, who stepped down from Megawati's cabinet last month, is the front-runner in the presidential pace, according to opinion polls. His television appearances have helped boost his personal approval rating as would-be president to 43 percent in an April poll by a private institute. A defection by Tanjung's former rival, Jusuf Kalla, to run as Yudhoyono's vice president, is also likely to split the Golkar vote on July 5.

But if, as is widely expected, no single candidate wins more than 50 percent of the vote in the July presidential election, a runoff between the two candidates with the strongest showing will be held on September 20. At this point, Yudhoyono and Megawati are quite certain of surviving the first election.

Paulus Januar of the Indonesian Catholic Solidarity for Democracy, a caucus of politicians with Catholic backgrounds, says the political scene is by no means settled. Wiranto's and Yudhoyono's candidacies might yet split voters who favor a strong president, he said: "It might help Megawati because she will be seen as the only candidate with nationalist credentials."

(Inter Press Service)

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