Indonesia's showdown on reform

To rein in the military, President Wahid may ask a top general for his resignation on Sunday.

Indonesian President Abdurrahman Wahid will step off a flight at Jakarta's international airport Sunday and into a showdown with former Armed Forces Chief Gen. Wiranto, who has become a symbol of the military's dark past and reluctance to reform.

When he returns from a 16-day trip abroad, Mr. Wahid is expected to summon General Wiranto, currently his security minister, and tell him to step down over a government finding that he helped orchestrate the campaign of violence that followed East Timor's vote for independence last year.

International pressure for a war-crimes tribunal over the apparently premeditated razing of East Timor is immense. Indonesia's political leaders understand that if credible steps aren't taken against those responsible, the United Nations could step in.

Though the looming struggle has fueled coup rumors and fears the country's halting moves toward democracy could be rolled back, it's a battle Wahid - little more than 100 days into his presidency - is now expected to win. Both Wiranto and other generals have backed away from an earlier belligerent tone. Wiranto today told reporters after a Cabinet meeting he would only ask the president to "let the law run its course."

It looks as if at least some officers will be prosecuted over East Timor, perhaps even Wiranto. However, Wahid has promised to pardon Wiranto if he is found guilty.

Air Force Rear Marshall Garito Usodo, the chief military spokesman, says he doesn't know if Wiranto will heed the president's request, though he reiterates recent assurances that there was "no chance of a coup." Wahid, speaking to reporters in New Delhi, has also softened his tone.

While a peaceful removal of Wiranto would prove a major victory, the history of Indonesia's armed forces and the mind-set of its top commanders indicate it will only be the first step on a long, hard road.

The generals remain intertwined with daily business and political life on this sprawling nation's fringes, despite a rollback of their influence in Jakarta since the fall of Suharto in 1998.

Mr. Suharto, the former general who ruled Indonesia for more than 30 years, maintained his position by ensuring his most powerful generals prospered under his "New Order" regime. And he used a heavy hand dealing with dissent.

Wahid, the country's first democratically elected leader in over 40 years, has the weight of that legacy to contend with.

Human rights activists allege the military continues to commit crimes ranging from murder to torture across the country. In the Moluccan islands, where communal fighting has left thousands dead in recent months, allegations of the military's involvement in killings have begun to emerge.

Predictors of how the military's role will evolve might be drawn from Indonesia's Southeast Asian neighbors, Thailand and the Philippines. Thailand's military has seen its influence wane since the 1970s; the Philippines' military has been weakened since the "people power" revolution that overthrew the Marcos dictatorship in 1986. But in both countries it's been a case of two steps forward, one back.

"Where the parallel ends is that they never staged a coup [here]. The militaries in those other countries have been predisposed to staging coups," says a military analyst in Jakarta, adding that the Indonesian armed forces are more likely to express power through business dealings and military operations in the provinces far from the capital.

Though it might seem the frail Wahid is no match for Wiranto, he has been encircling the stubborn general since he took office last November. Advisers say it's always been his intention to clip the military's wings by using the investigation of the military's links to the militias that killed hundreds in East Timor and destroyed the territory's infrastructure.

It is proving a delicate job. While the military's appointed seats in parliament have been cut, and the number of generals in the Cabinet has been reduced, the influence of the soldiers on the nation's fringes remains vast.

Indonesia is a nation of thousands of islands. While national politics are played out on Java, home to Indonesia's dominant culture and one-third of its 210 million citizens, in the far-flung provinces, the military is the dominant political force. Poorly paid officers run businesses - predominantly natural resources extraction like logging and fishing - from Irian Jaya in the east to Aceh on the northern tip of Sumatra.

"The current military structure almost demands the Army's political dominance in the regions," says the military analyst. There is going to be so much resistance if [Wahid] really tries to reel them in. It's a question of money and resources."

The top brass has shown every indication of resisting efforts to prosecute soldiers over human rights. Wiranto has attacked the government commission that investigated East Timor as biased. In an interview with a Singapore newspaper Monday, he compared the violence in East Timor to the My Lai massacre by US troops during the Vietnam War. "I don't think the commander in chief of US troops in Vietnam or the joint chiefs of staff were asked to be legally responsible," Wiranto said.

The military as an institution has also continued to deny that human-rights violations are widespread. "It's true that there are human rights problems here and there, but it's not systematic. You found these problems in every army. In America, your military has these problems," military spokesman Usodo says. "We are changing but nobody believes us."

Human rights activists allege there are few signs of change. In Aceh, home to a strong independence movement, civilians are killed almost every day with no suspects ever coming to trial. Earlier this week, the military disclosed that Lt. Col. Sudjono, an Aceh intelligence chief awaiting trial for his alleged involvement in the killing of dozens of civilians last year, had disappeared.

"There is a big possibility that Sudjono might have been kidnapped to prevent him from uncovering the truth in Aceh," says Munir, coordinator of the chief human-rights group investigating events in East Timor.

For rights activists, exposing the truth behind past crimes and prosecuting those responsible extends beyond reforming the military. Impunity among officers has fueled independence movements in Aceh and Irian Jaya. "The perpetrators, whether soldiers or rebels, must be prosecuted," Joe Saunders, deputy Asia director of Human Rights Watch, said in a statement yesterday. "Otherwise, the low level of trust in government will be eroded even further."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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