Wed, 12 Mar 2003

Military return to power would open old wound

Ardimas Sasdi, Staff Writer, The Jakarta Post, Jakarta,

After laying low and being in a defensive mood for almost five years the military has made it surprisingly clear that it aims to return to power by shooting three salvos within a matter of days of each other in the last two weeks.

The salvos, tactically and timely planned by the military thinkers, were initiated by the National Intelligence Agency (BIN), which seeks broader investigative powers, including the right to detain suspects for questioning as long as it feels necessary to do so, followed by the Army, which is demanding more say in the handling of internal security.

The latest salvo came in the form of a controversial military bill. Article No. 19 of the bill authorizes the military to deploy troops to strife-torn areas of its own discretion, an act tantamount to insubordination because by law such an action is the prerogative of the President as supreme commander of the military.

Such requests have strengthened suspicions that the generals have been unhappy with the process of reform which puts the military under the supremacy of civilians.

Political analysts said Article No. 19 could be twisted by the military to seize power under the guise of protecting national interests as it had done in 1967 when Soeharto and several generals launched a bloodless coup against president Sukarno, the father of President Megawati Soekarnoputri.

Former president Soeharto used the military as a political tool to suppress human rights activities, outspoken politicians and academics through intimidation, torture and illegal arrests. These bitter memories are still fresh in the minds of the victims.

The military's reputation was blemished by human rights violations in incidents in Tanjung Priok, Lampung and East Timor and excesses in military operations in Aceh and Papua. Their image was no longer one of a guardian of the nation, but as those who operated protection rackets and worked for the elite.

The military along with political ally Golkar, which represented civilians in the bureaucracy and major organizations, also served as Soeharto's government political machinery which determined the course of politics, the economy and security.

The role of the military in Indonesian politics diminished with the fall of its patron Soeharto in May 1998.

But it has gotten over wrestling with the image problems.

Now the military is still the most solid organization in the country compared with other state institutions, even though its role is now limited to purely a defense force with the police taking over the duty of handling internal security.

The military has also seen its dominant role curtailed with the separation of the police force from the military, the suspension of its dual function of security and politics and the abolition of its territorial function.

Many critics have noted that military reform should have targeted key aspects such as the dismantling of the Army's territorial command structures whose scope of duties overlap with the police force, extending its control from Jakarta to the villages.

However, this key area has been left untouched in the military reform with the Army's command structures like Kodim (the military district), Koramil (the sub-district military office) and Babinsa at village levels still in existence.

In a half-hearted response to demands from reformists and pressure from international powers, the military carried out internal reform in 1999 popularly as "restructuring and repositioning" the military's role by, among other means, abolishing the territorial command posts.

The drastic cut in its power has heightened anxiety and frustration among active officers who lost their privileges to occupy key positions in the governments and retired servicemen, who are now being tried over past human rights violations in the civilian courts.

Now it is also harder for military officers to become governors, regents and mayors as they are no longer appointed, but elected by the people through elections.

Under the government of President Megawati, who came to power with the backing of a coalition of big political parties and the military, the fate of military reform is going no where.

Last year's landmark decree of the People's Consultative Assembly (MPR), which ended military representation in the assembly in 2004 instead of the initial target of 2009, was the result of a maneuver by Megawati's rival Amien Rais, who is speaker of the assembly.

Megawati, contrary to her predecessor Abdurrahman "Gus Dur" Wahid who purged the military of its role in politics without mercy, even tried to coax generals to side with her through various policies which benefited the military. The rapport included a controversial Rp 39 billion (US$4.4million) contribution to the military, which later broke out into the Asrama Gate (Barrack Gate) scandal.

But Megawati, who has little political experience, had no other choice but to rely on military support to bolster her weak presidency.

Internal factors such as the government's dismal performance in handling economic and political crises, which was aggravated by disintegration threats like secessionist movements in Aceh and Papua, made it difficult for Megawati to be firm with the military.

External factors were also not in the President's favor with the dramatic changes in the political constellation of the world after the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attack in America. The U.S. and Australia have tilted toward better ties with the military, which is considered an effective power to contain the threat of hard-line Muslim groups in Indonesia.

The aim of the military to return to power, which clouded the process of reform, did not emerge all of a sudden.

Military observer Lt. Gen.(ret) Hasnan Habib said in February last year that the current Indonesian Military (TNI) Chief Gen. Endriartono Sutarto, who had entered retirement when he was promoted to the post, lacked the progressive outlook needed to continue military reform.

Antireform officers were still very strong in the Army and the reform camps, which should be a major force to keep military reform on track, had parted ways not long after they toppled Soeharto.

Though conditions may be conducive for the military to return to power, the generals must note that a military-backed government or military junta is no longer popular and that it would kill the newborn democracy. More importantly, it would open old wounds among the victims of military repression in the past.