Tue, 14 May 2002

Syahnakri, a professional soldier

Lela E. Madjiah, The Jakarta Post, Jakarta

During a closed-door seminar on East Timor at Chatam House in London in 1999, a senior editor of a leading Indonesian daily asked what the hell was a two-one-star (??) Army general doing in that meeting?

He was referring to Kiki Syahnakri, then deputy operations to the Army chief. Little did he, and for that matter, the public, know that Kiki was there not only because he served several tours in East Timor and is fluent in Tetun, but is also well-known among pro-independence fighters, including Jose Ramos Horta, who was a speaker at the seminar. The two chatted in Tetun during breakfast one morning, to the astonishment of the other guests who thought, "Weren't they enemies?"

Kiki was born in Karawang, West Java, on April 22, 1947. His name made it to the front page in 1999, not only in local newspapers but also in the foreign print media, when he was appointed commander of the commander of Pengusasa Darurat Militer (the military emergency government) in East Timor.

A 1971 graduate of the military academy in Magelang, Central Java, Kiki served briefly (eight months) as military commander of Dili and was moved to the Army's headquarters following the Liquisa incident in 1995.

In November 1999 he was appointed commander of the Udayana Military Command, overseeing East and West Nusa Tenggara and Bali. The following year he was appointed Army deputy chief until he retired on May 1 and handed over his post to the Army chief on May 3.

He is married to Ratnaningsih and is blessed with two sons and a daughter.

Question: Tell me, why did you join the military?

Answer: I was brought up in the small town of Teluk Jambe in Karawang (West Java). My village was a stronghold of the DI/TII (Darul Islam/Tentara Islam Indonesia) rebellion and was therefore a center of military operations.

Troops from the Siliwangi Division were stationed there. I saw them every day and became interested in what they did; how, for example, they braved the rain to hunt down DI/TII rebels. To be a soldier was my heart's desire and I joined the military to fulfill a childhood dream, not just to find a job.

Also, my father was close to TNI officers who came to my village to lead the operations against DI/TII, among them (G.H.) Mantik and Kharis Suhud. My father was already in his 50s then and while he could no longer carry a weapon, he took part in planning operations. Our house became a headquarters for such officers as Kharis Suhud and Pak Mantik.

Q: You were so close to Pak Mantik that you became like his adopted son...

A: My father died when I still in high school. When I graduated, I took the test (for entrance to the military academy) in Magelang but failed. They never told me why I failed. The following year I tried again, but only after I told my mother. I thought may be I failed the first time because I didn't tell her and she didn't give me her blessing. It turned out that she gave me her full support, and the second time I passed.

However, when I was in the first semester my mother died. It was Pak Mantik who took charge, maybe because he had emotional ties to my parents. I was an only child, you know. I was thrown out of balance by my mother's death because if I went home to see her for the last time, I would have missed school for more than three days and risked expulsion. Pak Mantik told me not to go home because I would have missed the funeral anyway, so I stayed in Magelang.

After this I became closer to Pak Mantik and his family. He visited me in Magelang three times to give me all the support that I needed, and to tell you the truth, I needed it badly. He told me, "You are now a son to me, don't fail."

Q: People consider you a soldier's soldier, a general who is close to the troops...

A: Maybe it was because I spent most of my time in military operations, and in a military operation soldiers are assets. We cannot keep them at a distance. If we want to succeed, we must manage them well, and there is a difference between managing goods and managing people. Soldiers are not goods, they are people, and when they feel comfortable with us, they will do anything we ask of them. I treated my troops as equals; we spent time together to have a smoke and discuss things. There was never any fear of their overstepping the line because, despite our closeness, the troops understood the hierarchy.

Q: You made the front pages when you were appointed commander of the military emergency government in East Timor in 1999. What lessons did you learn during that impossible assignment?

A: My experience as Panglima Darurat Militer commander convinced me even more of the need to improve our troops' professionalism. Any officer who spent most of his time in the field would know that compared with the Interfet (International Force for East Timor), TNI troops were not professional. We don't even have to compare them with the Australian or New Zealand troops; even compared with fellow ASEAN troops, our troops are not professional.

During patrols, for example, Interfet troops were serious and always followed procedures in performing their tasks, at the same time maintaining alertness. TNI troops, on the other hand, looked relaxed, rifles slung over their shoulders. You can't patrol with a rifle slung over your shoulder. That speaks of recklessness.

Q: What factor do you think was mainly responsible for East Timor's separation from Indonesia?

A: It was that lack of professionalism, particularly with regard to character. Winning the hearts and minds of the people is key in a guerrilla war, and we strayed from this guerrilla philosophy. That was why we lost East Timor.

Q: What is your plan now that you are retired?

A: If I am still needed in the government, I will feel honored to serve. If not, I will continue my farming business (he has a strawberry plantation in Lembang, West Java -- Ed). I have also received quite a few offers to join business groups, but I am still considering them.

Q: Why farming?

A: I spent most of my time as an officer sleeping in tall grass rather than in a bed. Farming bring back that feeling; the peace, the tranquility. Besides, it's not bad money either. A greenhouse measuring a thousand square meters can hold 7,800 strawberry plants. Each plant can yield one kilogram of strawberries in three months. If a kilo is priced at Rp 25,000, or let's say Rp 20,000, that's more than Rp 150 million.

But to tell you the truth, I am also interested in entering business. I learned a lot about business when as deputy chief I was tasked with revamping the Army's foundation. When I started, I was completely ignorant, didn't even know such terms as audit, due diligence or RoI. Now, although I wouldn't say I'm an expert, I am familiar with business matters and how to handle them.