Mon, 24 Apr 2000

Give TNI a chance

President Abdurrahman Wahid's call to the nation to give its unwavering support to the Indonesian Military (TNI) comes as the institution struggles to regain its credibility and public image. Never before has TNI, once considered one of the country's most powerful political institutions, been subject to such scathing attacks from the public. It has led some to wonder whether the criticism is truly warranted or conceals ulterior motives, like the destruction of the military.

The President is right in underlining TNI's crucial role in national defense and that it must enjoy the support of the people to be able to perform its duties. Behind the President's call, made on Thursday when he met with the military's top brass after their leadership meeting, one senses an appeal to the public to end, or at least temper, the criticism.

He was basically saying that the new TNI leadership has received the message loud and clear and should now be given the chance to prove it is serious about rectifying past misdeeds. TNI today has come a long way from the time not so long ago when it was heavily involved in politics, with many undesired consequences.

A prime example of its commitment to reform was shown when TNI's leadership refrained from joining the fray surrounding Abdurrahman's proposal to lift a 34-year ban on the teaching of communism. Although the TNI faction in the House, still filled mostly by officers of the old guard, rejected the proposal, the military's leadership made it clear that it would not interfere in the debate and that it would abide by whatever decision the nation comes to. This is a brave stance considering that TNI, particularly the Army, would have the most to lose if the proposal was accepted. Lifting the ban would pave the way for a rewriting of the nation's history of the tragic period of the mid-1960s, in which the Army was an active player.

Much of the change in TNI's stance should be credited to Abdurrahman. In less than six months, he replaced the military's leadership with officers known for their commitment to democracy and human rights. His most daring move was removing the powerful Gen. Wiranto from the Cabinet and forcing him into early retirement from active service. The President is also responsible for bringing Maj. Gen. Agus Wirahadikusumah back to Jakarta after he was banished to a regional post by Wiranto for his criticism of his unreformist seniors.

The new breed of officers, led by TNI chief Adm. Widodo A.S., has repeatedly stated its commitment to stay out of politics and to support the legitimate civil government. What distinguishes these new officers most from their predecessors is not so much their loyalty to the President, but their attitude toward political reform and the establishment of a civil government. So far, they have lived up to expectations enough for the President to issue his appeal to the public to give TNI a chance.

Promises and pledges alone, however, are not enough to convince a public which endured more than 30 years of military- style rule. Widodo's pronouncement that TNI is quitting politics has not been accompanied by details or even deadlines of how and when this would happen. Of utmost importance to the public is what the military plans to do about the Army's complex territorial structures all the way down to the villages. It was through the four layers of Army commands -- Kodam, Korem, Kodim and Koramil -- that the military exercised its political role, with all the unwarranted excesses. Surely, they must now be scaled back and simplified if TNI is serious about quitting politics.

TNI's leadership at times appears ambivalent in answering public demands for the prosecution of its personnel responsible for atrocities in Aceh, East Timor, the massacre of people in Jakarta's Tanjung Priok Port in 1984 and the attack on the Indonesian Democratic Party's headquarters in 1996. It gives the lingering impression that the military's leadership is shielding its predecessors from prosecution. A little more cooperation would go along way in winning public sympathy. Besides, it is in the long-term interest of TNI to make a clean break from its dark past.

While the President's appeal for the public to give their support to the military is crucial in damming the flood of criticism, ultimately it is TNI which must fight its own public relations battles. TNI cannot expect to regain the respect and trust of the people with mere promises and one or two token gestures. The military's leadership may have made some significant starts, but it still has a long way to go.