Indonesia's new civilian leaders have begun the slow and painful process of reining in a military that has operated, by and large, as a law unto itself for the past 30 years.
Government inquiries into atrocities in the newly independent East Timor and in the troubled northeastern province of Aceh are showing surprising teeth. Indonesia's East Timor inquiry has moved even faster than a recently formed United Nations human rights investigation, which diplomats say has been slowed by political infighting. Analysts say both investigations reflect a broad resolve among some of the civilians in new President Adburrahman Wahid's administration to push the military from politics altogether and put an end to the repressive measures used in the name of preserving national unity.
On Nov. 22 Albert Hasibuan, the leader of a government-sponsored inquiry into the rampage in the former Indonesian province of East Timor, shocked observers by saying former Armed Forces Chief Gen. Wiranto should be held responsible for failing to stop the violence there. Mr. Hasibuan said he's found "many indications'' of ties between the Indonesian military and the pro-Jakarta militias that carried out the attacks after the territory's vote for independence was announced Sept. 4. Though similar statements have been made by foreign observers, many were surprised to hear it coming from Indonesia. Hasibuan's comments won credibility for a commission that many had feared would not be allowed to do its job.
Parliament summoned former President Suharto and a group of retired officers Nov. 24 for questioning about Aceh. Marsuki Darusman, the new attorney general and former human rights activist, is working to establish a court to hear rights cases that Hasibuan says could be set up as soon as early next year.
It all represents the first tentative steps toward civilian control of the military since the then-General Suharto seized power in 1965. Just over a month ago Mr. Wahid, a moderate Muslim leader, became Indonesia's first democratically elected president in more than 40 years. Civilian leaders are hoping to use the investigations into killings and torture in East Timor and Aceh as a means to clip the military's political wings. It's a battle that analysts expect will dominate Indonesian politics for years to come.
"We have to hope East Timor is just the start. Then on to Aceh, then the whole country," says Tommy Arianto, a human rights activist at Kontras, a Jakarta-based nongovernmental organization. "The pattern of military behavior has been the same almost everywhere." Western diplomats and Indonesian officials say Wahid backs efforts to investigate the sins of the past, but has been careful not to commit himself to prosecutions.
He has good reason. The military's image may be at a low at home and abroad, but senior officers continue to wield considerable influence. The military still has appointed seats in the country's highest legislative bodies, and Wahid was forced to make concessions to the military when he formed his government. Wiranto was named coordinating minister of politics and security, and other officers were given Cabinet portfolios.
"There are civilians in the government who want use the East Timor imbroglio as a mechanism to get at the military, because they feel there's a need to bring people to justice," says a Western diplomat in Jakarta. "But I think it's a mistake to assume the military is going to back down."
And as civilians seek to strengthen their position, the military isn't going quietly. The top brass has continued to insist that civilian courts have no jurisdiction to try officers, maintaining that's an internal matter. On Nov. 23, new Armed Forces Chief Admiral Widodo Adi Sucipto defended the military's record before parliament, saying 151 soldiers have been prosecuted for human rights abuses in Aceh this year.
The separatist movement in Aceh was encouraged by East Timor's successful vote for independence. The roots of the independence movement stretch back hundreds of years, and Acehnese separatists today complain of economic exploitation and military repression from the center. The province is home to Indonesia's richest gas fields.
In the past few days, senior officers have begun pushing for a reinstitution of martial law in Aceh, where the separatist movement has grown so strong that Wahid has said he might allow a referendum there. Most civilians, including Wahid, believe the military's heavy hand in the province over the past decade, in which hundreds of civilians have been killed, is responsible for galvanizing the independence movement.
But the military, led by Admiral Widodo, says the answer is to impose martial law and introduce more troops. Armed Forces Spokesman Sudradjat said Nov. 24 that "repressive" measures would be justified if independence activists don't back down.
Despite the domestic power struggle, and the military's adamant stance over refusing civilian courts, Indonesia's investigation into the military-sponsored violence in East Timor - which drove more than half of the province's people from their homes and has left hundreds dead - is probably the best chance of officers ever being brought to justice.
The UN Human Rights Commission is sending an investigation team to East Timor this week after more than a month of delay, even as the multinational peacekeeping force is gathering evidence that many of those killed may have been dumped at sea. While its investigation is expected to exhaustive, diplomats say there's little chance a recommendation for a war crimes tribunal, if made, would ever pass the Security Council because of staunch Chinese opposition. Diplomats say the Chinese government, with separatist movements of its own in Tibet and elsewhere, has grown alarmed by the precedents being set by UN intervention in other nations.
(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society