The notion that Indonesia's civilian leaders do not really control their armed forces has swiftly evolved from frightening suspicion into undisputed fact.
Pushing the balance of world opinion over the edge were the brutal killings in West Timor last week by militiamen armed and financed by the Indonesian military. Three United Nations aid workers and a score of East Timorese were hacked to death in two days of violence along the West Timor border.
Nearby Indonesian soldiers simply leaned on their rifles and watched, witnesses say. The killings came after a month of escalating tension on the border and within the refugee camps that the militias control. Before the murders, the UN and many foreign governments had repeatedly demanded that Indonesia act to clear the militias from the camps and restore order.
"We must face facts," Richard Holbrooke, US ambassador to the UN, said before the Security Council passed a resolution Friday warning Indonesia to disarm the militias. "The Indonesian military, or to be more precise, elements within the Indonesian military, are directly or indirectly responsible for these outrages."
That the US and other major allies of Indonesia are explicitly and publicly taking it to task is a measure of growing disillusionment - not only with the military's failure to reform, but with President Abdurrahman Wahid himself. World leaders are now struggling to refashion their relationship with the world's fourth-most-populous country to reflect the fact that Mr. Wahid seems reluctant to take action against his own military. They are also beginning to question whether Indonesia can be trusted to pursue prosecutions for the atrocities in East Timor one year ago.
In the short term, these sentiments will strengthen the military hard-liners' hand. Millions of Indonesians viewed the liberation of East Timor as a national humiliation engineered by foreign powers, and would consider a tribunal a threat to national sovereignty - one reason UN workers were targeted last week in the first place.
The immediate consequence of the killings was the withdrawal of all international humanitarian organizations from West Timor, putting the 120,000 refugees in the border camps at risk. The refugees were herded across the border by the pro-Jakarta militias after East Timor's independence vote last year, and have been virtual hostages since.
Though Indonesia's military is too divided internally to carry out a coup, confrontation could leave the president politically weakened. There is a mounting body of evidence that parts of the military have sown instability in West Timor and elsewhere to send a message to the president to back off. That message seems to be getting through.
"The government seems to feel it's enough to admit they don't control the military, but are otherwise reluctant to press the issue," says a Western diplomat. "Wahid is avoiding confrontation with the military, because he's afraid of diminishing his own power by issuing orders that aren't obeyed."
Says H.S. Dillon, a member of Indonesia's National Commission on Human Rights, "Gus Dur [Wahid's popular nickname] has principles, but he's a politician first. What he wants most of all is to stay in power, and he's not willing to do anything to jeopardize that."
While events in Timor have riveted attention because of the foreign victims, the scenario has grown all too familiar. In the Maluku provinces, where Christians and Muslims have been fighting for more than a year, soldiers have stood aside to allow massacres of civilians by mobs, and sometimes participated.
In Irian Jaya, referred to as Papua by its own people, an independence movement is growing. Security personnel have shot citizens for raising independence flags, despite Wahid's promise to Papuan politicians that peaceful political demonstrations would be tolerated.
Diplomats say Wahid has typically deflected criticism by saying the military is out of control, passing the buck by proclaiming his own weakness. The military, for its part, denies it has a problem taking orders from the country's new civilian leadership. "Don't say the military has a problem as an institution," military spokesman Graito Husodo said in a recent interview. "There are sometimes discipline problems, but this is a case of individuals."
While there are clearly bad officers that are fomenting violence, most are simply apathetic, which creates enormous space for the bad apples to both make mischief and to hide.
For outsiders, it's difficult to understand just what the military gets out of encouraging violence. But internally, it has its own logic. On the national level, instability emphasizes the need for the military to play an active political role and to be given a free hand to act as it sees fit in the provinces.
On the local level, violence creates business opportunities. Roughly 75 percent of the military's activities are paid for by its own side businesses, many of which are little more than protection rackets.
Domestically, the military does not catch as much of the blame as it does abroad. Yasril Ananta, chairman of Indonesia's parliamentary commission on foreign relations, has said that he couldn't rule out a "foreign conspiracy" to kill the UN workers to make Indonesia look bad. And rather than view the deaths as a blow to national pride, many feel the country is being unfairly castigated.
"Our international friends demand us to do this and that, but they don't give us the necessary tools to operate," Wahid complained in a speech last week in New York, where he attended the UN's Millennium Summit. "Maybe now our international friends will be ready to bear the cost of resettling the pro-integration forces to other places, to allow them to live outside of Timor," he told an audience at Columbia University.
When Wahid came to power last October as Indonesia's first civilian president, there were high hopes that he would establish civilian supremacy over the military for the first time. US Secretary of State Madeleine Albright hailed Indonesia as one of the world's key emerging democracies, and international donors pledged billions of dollars to support his government.
The tragedy in East Timor appeared to provide the perfect opportunity to rein in the military. There is overwhelming evidence of military involvement in murder and torture after the territory's referendum - and enormous international pressure to bring officers and the pro-integration militia they trained, armed, and funded to justice.
But when the government officially announced 19 suspects in last year's violence, a number of senior officers and militia leaders, whom the government's own human rights commission has implicated in the killings, were omitted. Many of the officers that rights activists say were instigators have since received promotions. Eurico Guterres, the leader of the Aitarak militia that murdered dozens in and around East Timor's capital of Dili, has been named the head of the youth wing of Vice President Megawati Sukarnoputri's political party.
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society