Indonesian national television carried an unprecedented spectacle Monday night: Six feared generals under blistering attack from irate members of parliament, who one after another threw responsibility for human rights abuses in the rebellious province of Aceh at their feet.
The generals - three of them retired armed forces chiefs - didn't seem ready for primetime. They avoided direct responses to allegations of rape and murder by troops under their command, often using tired clichs from the past.
Try Sutrisno, military chief from 1988 to 1993, blamed shadowy "external forces trying to destabilize us" for Aceh's violent past. Icy cool for most of the session, he flashed his old fire when booed from the gallery. "Don't provoke us. Behave!''
General Wiranto, current minister of political and security affairs, underwent a similar ordeal last week.
Like it or not, Wiranto and the generals - beyond reproach from mere civilians during President Suharto's 32-year rule - have entered a new world. It's not just civilians trying to cement their fragile hold on Indonesian politics: The officers themselves know they have to change. But they don't want to go as far or as fast as the civilians do. There's also a split between younger officers, who often speak of a "new paradigm'' for the armed forces, and their elders, who appear to be clinging to the ways of the past.
"There's always been a pent-up desire to change, to get out from in front of the people and get behind the people,'' says a Western military analyst in Jakarta. "But they still see themselves as the ultimate guarantors of sovereignty - and are going to reserve the right to act if they think that's threatened.''
The primary way the military has expressed its political power has been through its "dual-function'' ideology, which holds it responsible for both political and physical security. In practice, that's generally meant appointed political positions and guaranteed representation in the parliament. Though its political positions are being scaled back, a number of recent generals remain powerful actors in the government, led by Wiranto, who was at one time groomed by Suharto to be his successor.
Though the retired general is no longer in direct command of troops, he's close to new armed forces chief Adm. Widodo Adi Sucipto and has good access to President Abdurrahman Wahid. "I think its fair to say he's in the drivers seat,'' says the military analyst.
He's also ambitious. Leaked Australian intelligence documents, reported by The Bulletin, an Australian magazine, last week, said it appeared Wiranto had engineered the blood-bath in East Timor as part of a wider national agenda to leave him in control of Indonesia.
Public outrage with the military has been fueled over the past month by a string of revelations from government-supported investigations. Officers have been linked to massacres in East Timor after the former Indonesian province voted for independence in August.
A team in Aceh, a staunchly Muslim province on the northern tip of Sumatra with a strong independence movement, has linked the military to murder, rape, and torture. Among other things, the team accused the military of running an interrogation center dubbed the "Slaughter House.''
Yesterday, students in western Aceh alleged soldiers launched reprisals against the local people for the murder of an officer, destroying some 60 homes.
It's all at odds with the image the military has of itself. For Indonesia's 54 years of independence, the military has seen itself as the cornerstone of national unity. Its commanders are based throughout this sprawling archipelago and under Suharto were often appointed to senior political positions. Quelling latent separatism, not protecting the nation from external threats, has been its reason to be.
But through the decades, officers have also become identified with human rights abuses and corruption, helping to fuel separatism in Aceh and elsewhere. The civilian government views punishing officers first, as a way toward winning back the hearts of restive provinces, and second, of reforming the military for good.
"We have no other option, if one or two big shots have to be put behind bars, so be it,'' says Rosita Noer, the head of the Independent Commission on Violent Acts in Aceh, which is funded by the government. Miss Noer says resistance from the military is going to take time to overcome. "In our process to real democracy, there are many stages we have to pass.''
Still, progress is being made. New Attorney General Marzuki Darusman, the former head of the government's well-respected national human rights commission, has begun something of a personal crusade. In the past few days, he's gone through a series of meetings with senior officers, urging them to give him the power to prosecute their subordinates in nonmilitary courts.
Yesterday, the military agreed to five-member tribunals to try rights cases, with three civilian judges and two from the military. "We're going to bring all the perpetrators we can to the court,'' says Noer. "I think it will work."
As she points out, Indonesia may not have much time. Though Aceh has Indonesia's best organized independence movement, it's not alone. A large portion of people of Irian Jaya in the country's east also support independence. Today, much of the province will be celebrating the 38th anniversary of an independence declaration made while it was still a Dutch colony. Sources in the provincial capital of Jayapura say they're bracing for clashes between independence supporters and the military.
(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society