Wed, 21 May 2003

Betrayal and denial before presidents' falls

Kornelius Purba, Staff Writer, The Jakarta Post, Jakarta,

From up close, the last moments of the three former Indonesian presidents before their humiliating downfall, to a certain extent recalls to mind the scene of the Last Supper in the New Testament of the betrayal by Judas Iscariot and the denials of Peter, who told the Jews, "I don't even know that man!"

In another scene, Pilate washed his hands in front of Jews who demanded Jesus' death, declaring that he was not responsible for His death: "I won't have anything to do with killing this man. You are the ones doing it!"

Soeharto, B.J. Habibie and Abdurrahman Wahid were to blame for their own downfalls, but they also experienced similar betrayals, denials and subordinates who washed their hands of the entire affair.

On the evening of May 20, 1998, hours before he announced his resignation, Soeharto was practically alone, accompanied only by his old friends. His Cabinet had virtually collapsed following the resignation of 14 ministers, led by Ginandjar Kartasasmita and Akbar Tandjung. Another favorite aide, former information minister Harmoko, who was appointed by Soeharto as the Speaker of both the House of Representatives and the People's Consultative Assembly to protect himself, had also urged Soeharto to resign.

Even then-vice president B.J. Habibie, Soeharto's protege, reportedly distanced himself from Soeharto that evening, and the two never met after the Habibie succeeded him on May 21.

Gone were the bootlickers, even those generals who had decorated Soeharto with an honorary five-star general status.

What happened to Habibie? Golkar chairman and House Speaker Akbar Tandjung, who was trusted by Habibie to secure his term for the 1999 to 2004 period, completely failed Habibie. On the evening of Oct. 19, the Assembly rejected his presidential accountability report. Habibie was accompanied only by his brothers, children, wife and one of his nephews. Many of his confidantes kept their distance that evening upon one pretext or another.

Akbar was later mobbed by Habibie's supporters, who believed that he had betrayed the president.

Gone were the president's close aides and businessmen, who had claimed to be either Habibie's adopted son or nephew.

Habibie's successor Abdurrahman Wahid, or Gus Dur, was the country's first democratically elected president. Despite his physical constraints and lack of real political power in the Assembly, he defeated the favorite, Megawati Soekarnoputri, in the presidential election in October 1999, and his old friend Megawati became his vice president.

Many believed that Abdurrahman's biggest enemy was not Megawati, the Indonesian Military (TNI) or anyone else, but his own mouth. His controversial remarks and confrontational approaches toward the House and political parties cost him the presidency.

He also sacked ministers as easily as he appointed them. His victims included ministers Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, Agum Gumelar, Laksamana Sukardi and Kwik Kian Gie.

When the Assembly impeached Abdurrahman on July 22, 2001, the sense of betrayal was not as strongly felt as it had been by his two predecessors. Hundreds of non-governmental organization (NGO) activists were with him on the eve of July 21, although very few of his ministers were with him that night, including foreign minister Alwi Shihab.

When Abdurrahman refused to leave the Merdeka Palace after his fall, his friend, the U.S. Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz, arranged a face-saving visit to the U.S.

Indonesia has attempted to reform the country for the five years since the fall of Soeharto on May 21, 1998.

Many have blamed Soeharto for being unable to overcome or to control the greediness of his six children, who wanted to control all kinds of businesses, from the intra-city toll road and the oil industry, to orange groves and taxi companies. His cronies have cost the state hundreds of trillions of rupiah in losses.

All of his successors, including President Megawati, vowed not to repeat Soeharto's incompetence in handling the vested interests of people around them. All of them vowed to clean the state secretariat and the presidential office from corrupt officials. They also pledged not to allow family members or close friends to run businesses, and boasted that they would not let the people around them take advantage of them and their position. Their intentions were glorious and ideal.

But what have they done?

Habibie was almost humiliated by an unknown organization that won his blessing to establish the Habibie Art Award. He later found out that the people who had come to him were crooks, and was reportedly upset with the aide who arranged the meeting. Further, his decision to allow a referendum in East Timor remains a mystery. There are rumors that he was encouraged to take the historic decision not by his Cabinet ministers, but by people in his inner circle.

As for Abdurrahman Wahid, judging from his impressive track record as the chairman of the Nahdlatul Ulama (NU), there were high expectations that he would be able to create a corruption- free government. He sacked many state secretariat officials and appointed a journalist to head the presidential office. He promised that he would only use commercial flights for his overseas trips.

True, his family remained clean during his presidency. But his daughters and wife know very well how many people around Abdurrahman had abused his trust to further their own interests.

Megawati, on the other hand, openly asked her husband Taufik Kiemas and their three children to stay away from any state- related business activities. Certainly, her brothers and sisters have not taken advantage of her position for their own benefit so far, and to illustrate this point, one of her stepbrothers still works as an ordinary civil servant at the State Secretariat.

In the early days of her presidency, Megawati also declared that she would not let protocol or bureaucratic rules keep her from the people. But her presidential style has become similar to that of Soeharto, and many doubt she will be successful in preventing her trusted aides and friends from tarnishing her name.

The failure to control their close aides has been among the many factors that contributed to the fall of the past three presidents -- many also point to the turbulence of the times that they faced.

Still, these trusted aides betrayed them at the most crucial moment of their presidency -- and if Megawati is not careful, she may also confront her own Judas, Peter and Pilate.