Army moves: beginning of the end of Suharto


By Max Lane

Long-simmering tensions between President Suharto and the Indonesian armed forces (ABRI) high command have been brought into the open.

On February 16, the military seemingly laid down the gauntlet to the president a spokesperson at ABRI headquarters in Jakarta announced that the armed forces faction in the Indonesian super-parliament — the People's Deliberative Assembly (MPR) — would nominate the retiring commander in chief of ABRI, General Try Sutrisno, for the position of vice-president.

Reliable sources in Jakarta have told Green Left Weekly that Suharto's preferred candidate was the current vice-president and Suharto crony, Sudharmono.

ABRI and Suharto have been increasingly at loggerheads as Suharto has shifted his power base from the army to big business conglomerates, including his own family businesses. Military figures have been eased out of the cabinet, the bureaucracy and the business world.

Reaction to ABRI's announcement indicates the line-up of forces within the ruling elite. The home affairs minister, (retired) General Rudini, the defence minister, Murdani, and the new commander in chief of ABRI, General Edi Sudrajat, have all announced their support for Try.

This line-up, implying a fairly solid front among the ABRI high command, has caused other forces to begin to fall in behind the proposed nomination. The Indonesian Democrat Party (PDI) and the Muslim United Development Party (PPP) announced they would support Try, although the PPP was obviously reluctant.

The outgoing vice-president, Sudharmono, had to suffer the indignity of a well-publicised visit by General Try. Sudharmono emotionally wished Try well, but also indicated that this time there should perhaps be more than one vice-presidential candidate.

Sudharmono and Wahono, the head of the government party, Golkar, were reportedly furious that ABRI had not consulted them. After initially avoiding comment, Wahono finally came out with an expression of indirect support for Try by saying that Golkar's candidate was the same as PPP's. This is despite the fact that a powerful team of Golkar parliamentarians had already been formed to lobby for


It is clear that major pressure is being put on Golkar by ABRI, which controls a majority of Golkar branches in the provinces. Pro-army civilian members of Golkar have also been making public statements in favour of Try.

Meanwhile, figures closer to Suharto, such as the powerful cabinet secretary, Moerdiono, stated that the president was angry that ABRI had announced its candidate without his agreement. The politics and security minister, Admiral Sudomo, said it would be sad for Try if Suharto rejected him.


If Suharto wishes to defeat ABRI's nomination of Try, he has two choices. First, he can attempt to force ABRI to back down so that when the MPR meets, Try is no longer a candidate. Second, he can — perhaps — get Golkar or the Regional Representatives Fraction (appointed by Suharto to "represent" the provinces) to nominate another candidate or perhaps two candidates and attempt to win a vote.

In either case, a major breach between Suharto and ABRI will be exposed to the public. A back-down by ABRI would be humiliating in the extreme and would certainly fuel anger in the officer corps. A contest between a Golkar candidate and an ABRI candidate would be very destructive to the civilian-military alliance that the status quo is based upon. It would also be a very risky tactic, for ABRI has a major presence inside Golkar. There would be no guarantee of the Golkar vote holding.

It is also unclear what pressure Suharto would be able to exert upon ABRI or the MPR membership in a situation of open defiance by the ABRI fraction. Through his cousin-in-law, Major General Wismoyo, and his son-in-law, Lt Col Prabowo, Suharto has access to the rapid deployment forces and paratroop commandos. However, it would be a major step to deploy these troops against the minister for defence and commander in chief of the armed forces — although Suharto did exactly that 27 years ago, when he first came to power.

Suharto might also use the threat to resign. It is likely that the unity in ABRI is based only on agreement to make Try vice-president in preparation for a later move against Suharto or even as preparation for the next presidential election in 1998. It is doubtful that ABRI would be ready to agree to Try, not respected for his political abilities, becoming president now.

Against this, it is unlikely that Suharto's family, who rely

on his personal protection in the matter of their fantastically expanding business enterprises, would be happy with this option. And, of course, ABRI might be more solid than observers think and simply call Suharto's bluff.

The president may be forced to surrender to the fait accompli. In this case, it is expected that he will make a bid to have Wismoyo appointed commander of the army, a position is now vacant. If Suharto accepts Try's nomination, one measure of how much power he has lost will be his ability to get Wismoyo appointed.

A failure to achieve this would signal the virtual end of the Suharto period. Power would shift, in the short term, to the "coup plotters": Defence Minister Benny Murdani, Try Sutrisno, Edi Sudrajat and possibly General Rudini.

In the meantime, the humiliations have begun with two instances of his brother, Probosutejo Suharto, being invited to major regional Golkar events but then not allowed to speak.

Changed policies?

Democracy movement figures have indicated to journalists their scepticism about political reform should Try become vice-president and Suharto be slowly pushed out of power. According to the outspoken director of the Institute for Human Rights, Haji Princen, Try should not be nominated for vice-president until he has given an accounting of the 1984 massacre of urban poor Muslim protesters in the Jakarta port area, when Try was in command of the Jakarta military district.

Other pro-democracy figures have called on the military, if it is genuinely interested in reform, to force Suharto to defend his recent policies, especially those resulting in the massive centralisation of wealth in his family's hands.

Benny Murdani, Try Sutrisno and Edi Sudrajat are all identified as hardline military figures, especially on such issues as East Timor and the management of social unrest — although, in recent times, Edi Sudrajat has made several speeches echoing the calls of lower level officers for more freedom of speech in society and less political control.

The conflict between ABRI and Suharto is indeed likely to bring to the fore the contradictions between the upper and lower levels of the officer corps and also between the leadership of ABRI and the large number of retired generals.

Both the lower professional levels of the army and the

retired generals wish to see the army reduce its role in governmental affairs. The professional officers want to be able to concentrate on military affairs, and the retired generals want to move to the centre of politics themselves.