Military 'Party' Still Strongest In New Indonesian Politics

When General Suharto resigned from the Indonesian presidency last month, the politics of the armed forces suddenly and fundamentally changed. Throughout the 32-year history of the New Order, the label given to Suharto's regime, the president had been firmly in control of the military.

Many people are puzzled today why, after Suharto resigned and the political situation has become increasingly chaotic, military leaders seem not to be taking any initiative. Indeed, they are tending to let things get worse.

The military's long role as the "military party" subordinate to Suharto left it too dependent on the president to be able to play a pioneering role in the birth of the post-Suharto order.

Despite the military's paralysis in the final days of Suharto, it remains a major, if not the most important, force in Indonesian politics. And the more divided the civilian forces become - with the proliferation of new parties - the stronger the relative position of the military becomes.

There are two possible explanation for military inaction. The first is based on a conspiracy theory. The second is that the military after so many years under Suharto's thumb is slowly learning how to engage on its own in politics.

Conspiracy theorists believe that the Army is deliberately allowing conditions to worsen, so that it will have an excuse for seizing power in the name of security and stability. This explanation fails to take into account changes in the international strategic environment after the end of the cold war, plus shifts in domestic politics caused by 30 years of economic development under the New Order.

During the cold war, military governments in the developing world were tolerated by the West, but this is no longer the case. Domestically, economic development has created a substantial critical intelligentsia throughout the country. These critics are relatively few compared with the Indonesian population of 200 million, but their constituency is world opinion, due to the spread of sophisticated communications technology. These factors prevent the armed forces from playing the dominant political role they played in the past.

The lack of aggressiveness of the post-Suharto military is a direct result of the length of time that the top officers were controlled and depoliticized by Suharto. During the New Order, the military's political role - sanctified in armed forces doctrine as one of their "twin functions" - was performed by Suharto without involving the officers.

So when General Wiranto suddenly became chair of the military "party," of course he and his fellow officers needed time to learn how to play their new role. This is the best explanation of why the military's reaction time has been so slow.

How is the armed forces' political position likely to evolve? Most Indonesians recognize that the military will continue to play a role indefinitely. But that role will necessarily reflect an agreement, probably more informal than formal, reached as a result of a long dialogue or set of practical negotiations worked out in the heat of events.

We can already see the beginnings of this dialogue taking place in Jakarta today. People are busy forming parties and talking about modifications to the electoral law, and adjustments to the Constitution.

The military's voice can't yet be heard clearly, but if the civilians continue to fight and fail to reach compromises among themselves, then automatically the military's political strength will reassert itself and even become ascendant. At least in the short run, the form that this reassertion is likely to take is "government by proxy," that is, the manipulation behind the scenes of civilian politicians by officers.

The first signs of these developments are already visible. Civilians are racing furiously to form parties, but these parties have no base either in the silent majority whose economic suffering grows daily nor in the military which was for so long the dominant political force.

Within the military, the moderate General Wiranto has begun to feel pressure from officers who are dismayed at the behavior of the civilians fighting over the political spoils. Before long, this pressure may force him to become more involved in the civilian political arena, with consequences difficult to predict.

We can only hope that the pendulum which has swung so far away from military control will not swing too far back.

* Salim Said is senior political analyst with Banking Reform and Reconstruction Corp. in Jakarta. He is the author of "Genesis of Power: General Sudirman and the Indonesian Military in Politics 1945-1949" (Singapore: Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, 1991).

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