How Indonesia's Army Fills a Power Vacuum

Military's chief of socio-political affairs reveals ideas on democracy, East Timor.

It is now possible to call Indonesia's former President Suharto a dictator in the office of one of the country's most senior generals and provoke not even the raising of an eyebrow.

"It's OK," says Lt. Gen. Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, for a foreign visitor to use the term. For Indonesian journalists, "It depends," and the general will not say on what. "I see Pa 'Harto as a former president," he adds, using a respectful form of address. "He is a retired general. He is a man who did a lot in developing and advancing the Indonesian nation. I should say also that he has [made] mistakes, but I will not say he is a dictator."

The other day a man imprisoned for calling Mr. Suharto a dictator in 1995 was set free, and it remains headline news when he repeats the term in public.

So this is Indonesia in mid-transition: Willing to let the old rules be broken and fall away but uncertain about the new ones. It is a nation without a framework, where just about everything is up for discussion, but where the path ahead is unclear.

While there is talk of democracy, there is also worry about cohesion and stability. A nation of more than 200 million people, divided by ethnicity and language and straits of water, Indonesia was cobbled together by colonialists and kept intact by strongmen. The example of Yugoslavia is not far from people's minds.

General Yudhoyono, the chief of socio-political affairs for the armed forces of Indonesia, a sophisticated American-trained officer who is considered among the country's brightest and most promising military men, veered between caution and flexibility in an hour-long interview yesterday.

More gentle than commanding, with the groomed hands of an intellectual and the measured manner that sometimes accompanies authority, he insists that this country's military, known by its acronym ABRI, is supporting political reform. National elections should be held "the sooner, the better. First we should modify and update our political laws - that should take three to six months - and right after I think we can prepare the elections."

The focus on a quick shift to a new government suggests that the military sees new President B.J. Habibie as a transitional figure, someone who can establish a system that might allow a general to become president. But Yudhoyono adds: "It is not fair to not give him a chance.... ABRI will definitely support his program, his commitment to conduct reform to solve the crisis, and also to set up new elections."

On the subject of political parties, he reverts to caution. Indonesia has had three - a ruling party called Golkar that functioned as an arm of Suharto's authoritarian state - and two officially sanctioned opposition groups whose leadership is subject to state interference. Suharto's resignation and the promise of a new political system have led to calls for new parties.

"Back in the 1950s and 1960s we had a lot of political parties and what happened?" asks Yudhoyono. "This country was very unstable because the parties were [assembled] by people from different religions, from different ethnic groups [who] created passions and hostilities."

In devising a new law on political parties, he continues, a national consensus is required. "The government, the parliament, the armed forces, and the society can sit down and reach a new consensus on how many parties are acceptable in the near term." In other words, not so fast.

The views of ABRI and its chief of socio-political affairs are key to the political process. "There's nothing much that holds the country together besides historical precedent and the military," says a Jakarta-based diplomat. The general heads working groups devising political, economic, and legal reform. Many analysts say the military is more powerful than ever because of the vacuum created by Suharto's departure.

As an institution devoted to national cohesion, ABRI wants to ensure that things don't get out of hand. "The emotions of the people are quite high now," Yudhoyono says."When everything is back to normal ... we can sit down and talk [in order] to, well, make major changes." In the meantime, "We have to be calm. ABRI has to convey to the people to be calm."

But he is also willing to show flexibility on certain issues:

* East Timor: (a territory Indonesia annexed in 1976, drawing the enduring criticism of the United Nations, international human rights groups, and East Timor's former colonizer, Portugal): While Yudhoyono says it is too soon to consider the issue, given all that the government must address in coming weeks and months, the spirit of reform means "we can talk about a new relationship or a new status for East Timor."

One military plan rejected by Suharto last year may be revived. "The idea is to give East Timor a special status, based on history, based on culture, based on the actual needs of the East Timorese people. I think that idea can brought into new discussion."

* Democracy: "There is an analogy that the US has a T-shirt, but I think it doesn't fit all - every people, every nation." Yudhoyono says Indonesia can adopt the principles, fundamentals, and values of democracy, but "when it is to be implemented on the ground, we have to understand the history, the culture, the values of the locals." In Indonesia's case, he adds, democratic institutions must be strengthened and people educated in political expression.

* ABRI's political role: Long guaranteed a "dual function" that combines military and political responsibilities, Yudhoyono says, "ABRI will always adjust its political roles because the situation is changing ... [and] the needs and aspirations of the people are always changing." The military is allowed to appoint 75 representatives in the 500-seat National Assembly, but "in the future we can talk - it could be 75, could be 60, could be 50."

* Accountability for Suharto and his family, which military leaders have said was out of the question: "The government, the people someday will agree and will decide to respond to that kind of idea," says Yudhoyono. "At this time I will not say that I support and agree to that idea but ... let the people think, let the government think" about a response.

There are several subjects that Yudhoyono won't discuss, such as the investigation into the security forces' killing of at least four students on May 12 and recent changes in the military hierarchy.

The sudden reassignment of Yudhoyono's fellow three-star general, Lt. Gen. Prabowo Subianto, from the command of an elite unit to a post as commandant of a military school, has driven speculation about a rivalry within ABRI that came to the fore during Suharto's departure. The transferred officer is Suharto's son-in-law. "It doesn't look like a routine change of command," says the diplomat.

A new commander for the elite unit held the post for a matter of hours before he was replaced by someone else. "Every organization has its authority ... to rotate its personnel," Yudhoyono responds. "I will not say any[thing] further because it is the business of ABRI."



On democracy:

'There is an analogy that the US has a T-shirt, but I think it doesn't fit all - every people, every nation.'

On East Timor:

'We can talk about a new relationship or a new status for East Timor.'

On the military:

'[It] will always adjust its political roles because ... the needs and aspirations of the people are always changing.'

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