Fri, 03 Mar 2000

Historic chance for RI's military

By M. D. Nalapat

GURGAON, India (JP): Despite the appalling mistake of permitting East Timor to break away just when the rest of the country was on the threshold of democracy, Indonesia is likely to emerge as a major strategic player in Asia, together with China, Japan and India.

However, this is possible only if the country retains the moderate, inclusivist Pancasila philosophy of first president Sukarno, and returns from its flirtation with radicalism. Backers of Wahabbism are seeking to implant the language, dress and customs of the Saudi desert on the rich greenery of the archipelago, a process that was openly encouraged by Soeharto and B.J. Habibie in the past and by Speaker of the People's Consultative Assembly Amien Rais today.

The mistakes made in East Timor were born of that flirtation with extremism, as was the slew of other ethnic conflicts afflicting this giant of Asia. Thanks to Wahabbism, Christians, Hindus and even Muslims have been alienated from the ruling structure, and moved some to join separatist movements.

These can be tackled only by creating a country in the vision of President Abdurrahman Wahid and Vice President Megawati Soekarnoputri: an Indonesia where the tradition of religious tolerance and social moderation is continued. Indonesia, India, Kuwait, Malaysia and Syria show the world that Muslims are not fanatics, that they are as modern as any other group, perhaps more so.

It is a matter of pride for the ummat (Muslim community) that the richest man in India, Azim Hisham Premji, is a Muslim, and that the scientist in charge of that country's muscular missile and rocket program, Abdul Kalam, is also a Muslim. It is a matter for rejoicing that the Emir of Kuwait has ordered that women in his country be given the vote, just as it is that in the highest levels in Indonesia there are many Buddhists, Hindus and Christians.

Unlike the Clinton administration, which believes that only western countries are entitled to the privilege of a robust defense, and which consequently is backing Australia to act as a regional bully in Asia, the fact remains that strong economic performance needs to be protected by a powerful armed capability.

The role of the Indonesian Military (TNI) is therefore crucial in the protection of the material gains of the republic. However, at present the armed forces in Indonesia is at a crossroads, with two models before them: that of Pakistan and its neighbor India.

In Pakistan, the armed forces have toppled the democratic order four times, the last in November 1999, when Gen. Pervez Musharraf overthrew Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif and imposed a dictatorship. This helped push Pakistan further down the precipice of social unrest and economic chaos

Even more troubling, the armed forces in Pakistan no longer regard themselves as a modern professional force. Indian military campaigns have witnessed Hindu troops fighting Hindu Tamils in Sri Lanka, Sikh soldiers battling Sikh insurgents in the Punjab and Muslim units such as the Jammu and Kashmir Light Infantry attacking (Muslim) Pakistani soldiers in Kashmir.

The Indian military is professional, a force that will carry out civilian orders and will do so without any motive other than military -- which is probably why the Indian forces have pummeled their Pakistani counterparts since 1965. The 1971 defeat and surrender of 93,000 Pakistani troops to Indian forces in Dhaka and the retreat from Kargil in 1999 are evidence of this claim.

Will Indonesian armed forces chiefs follow the thinking of their Pakistani counterparts, and believe that they have a right to intervene in democratic politics? Will they see the armed forces as a composite of the many religious and social traditions that make up the glorious culture of Indonesia, or will they seek to mold it as an instrument for the spread of extremism, as the Pakistan army does?

Equally crucial, will the TNI follow the Pakistan model, reportedly nurturing terrorist gangs, thus risking a conventional backlash? Today, jihad elements are being trained in Afghanistan and Pakistan under the supervision of the Inter-Services Intelligence of the Pakistan army, and that these elements have gone out of control, threatening to plunge even Pakistan into chaos.

It is not the writer's case that India's example needs to be uncritically followed. Because of a global surfeit of military coups, India's democratic leaders swung the pendulum too far, and denied the armed forces any voice even in security-related decisions.

Today, this lack of professional expertise in national security considerations is costing India heavily in lapses in internal security. While the Indonesian armed forces need to follow the Indian pattern of being free of politics and religious extremism, the democratic leadership in Indonesia needs to avoid the Indian mistake of total exclusion, and include armed forces opinion in key defense and security structures.

Indonesia should show the way to its bigger neighbor and future partner in how to create structures that draw on the substantial pool of professional competence within the armed forces.

President Abdurrahman and Vice President Megawati have a vision of Indonesia joining China and India in a resurgent Asia. For that to happen, the TNI leadership must avoid the pitfalls of involvement in politics and in extremist crusades, and keep alive the spirit of Pancasila.

Already Russia, India and China are acting in concert on a number of international issues, most notably in resisting the doctrine that the former colonial powers have the Divine Right of intervention worldwide. It is a matter of sorrow that East Timor has welcomed back the former colonialists and underlined its servitude to them. The Timorese should realize that acting as a colonial outpost cannot guarantee their security, only acceptance of their Asian identity can.

Indonesia must show the way in this, by establishing itself as a multicultural, multireligious country along the lines of India and the United States. In such a task, the role of the TNI is crucial. A historic responsibility lies on the shoulders of the commanders of this great institution. They should not let Indonesia and its traditions down.

The writer is a distinguished fellow at the University of Georgia, the United States.