Indonesian generals stir communal unrest

January 26, 2000

By Max Lane

The commander-in-chief of the Indonesian armed forces (TNI), Admiral Widodo, has met President Abdurrahman Wahid to assure him that the TNI is not planning a coup. Other key generals have given the same assurances in the wake of strong statements from the United States ambassador to the United Nations, Richard Holbrooke, warning of dire consequences for Indonesia if the TNI were to seize power.

Talk of a coup has developed since November when the head of the TNI Information Centre, General Sudrajat, stated that the president was not Supreme Commander of the TNI and that he could not interfere in military affairs. Sudrajat was sacked by Wahid on January 18, although the sacking does not yet seem to have taken effect.

Speculation has also been fuelled by Wahid's refusal to take action to hinder the National Human Rights Commission's investigation into human rights violations in East Timor. Sudrajat and the most conservative Muslim organisations have attacked or called for the abolition of the commission.

Meanwhile, Wahid issued an ambiguous statement expressing full confidence in General Wiranto, the former head of the TNI, except if he is found guilty of anything, in which case Wahid would expect Wiranto to resign from the government.

At the same time as the coup rumours began, communal strife in Ambon flared again, followed by Muslim-Christian clashes in other parts of the Moloccas. The strife has spread to the island of Lombok.

Speculation has become rife that agent-provocateurs associated with the Wiranto faction of the TNI have been stirring up social tensions sharpened by a new wave of traders moving into the mainly Christian-inhabited Moloccas from the Muslim south Sulawesi islands.

One theory is that the unrest is being stirred up to discredit General Agus Wirahadikusumah, the regional military commander for eastern Indonesia, including the Moloccas. Wirahadikusumah has been the strongest advocate of the "de-politicisation" of the TNI and has been in direct contradiction to Wiranto.

Factional struggle

The wealthy and powerful cliques that dominated Indonesian society under former dictator Suharto are still refusing to give up their hold on Indonesian politics. Having lost control of the government and the parliament, their last bastion of power is inside the armed forces.

The Suharto clique ruled through the military and in turn bestowed upon them political and material privileges. Other factions of Indonesia's business and social elite were under the thumb of the Suharto clique and the coterie of top generals who were in day-to-day control of the political manipulation and repression under Suharto.

The non-Suharto factions of the elite were able to ride to power on the coat-tails of the student and mass movement that toppled Suharto. While these factions, represented by Wahid, Amien Rais and Megawati Sukarnoputri, have gained control of the parliament and government, the TNI remains outside of their control.

The tensions between some generals in the TNI and the government, and even among the generals themselves, result from disagreements over the question of whether the civilian government can control the TNI. The Wiranto-Sudrajat faction opposes the president's power to "interfere" in the military, while Wirahadikusumah appears to be aligning himself with the government.

As social discontent seethes throughout Indonesia, the need for an effective instrument of repression will become stronger. At the moment, the TNI is an ineffective instrument as it is politically isolated and publicly discredited, domestically and internationally.

A new, "clean", legitimate and "non-political" TNI is urgently needed before the next mass explosion. Such a major image clean-up may even require the discarding of old personnel.

Social explosions

More than 40 years of arbitrary rule by the military-backed Suharto regime has left Indonesian society with no rule of law. Political, monetary and military muscle determined everything under Suharto. The courts were a plaything of the regime and all judges and magistrates were appointed under the seal of the president. The police force was integrated into the armed forces.

After the economic crisis hit Indonesia in 1997, the impoverished urban and rural poor looted supermarkets, granaries, prawn ponds and shops to obtain food or objects that they could sell for money to buy food.

As social tensions increased, many figures in the elite — from Suharto to Wahid — scapegoated ethnic Chinese and Christians. As this scapegoating took hold, physical attacks started on these groups, climaxing in the anti-Chinese pogroms of May 1998. By 1999, direct action by angry and impoverished youths against members of ethnic and religious groups had become a regular feature of social life.

The deep anger, fuelled by extreme poverty, economic uncertainty and anger at arbitrary rule, that engulfed the vast majority of people in 1997 and 1998 merged with a political culture of violent actions. Where this sentiment was influenced and led by the organised left, it was channelled into peaceful but militant protest actions. Elsewhere, riots, looting and attacks on scapegoated minorities spread — including to Ambon, the Moluccas and Lombok.

In Aceh, the same anger and the desire to be free of poverty and arbitrary rule, has been channelled into the mobilisations and armed struggle for an independent state.

The most reactionary elements in the Indonesian elite and military may very well be hoping that the violent social explosions continue — and may even be stirring them up — so that a desperate civilian elite will turn to them to suppress the unrest.

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