Mon, 13 Mar 2000

The new underdog: The TNI

By Dewi Anggraeni

MELBOURNE (JP): Since discussing the future of Indonesia without focussing on the role of the military would be a futile exercise, the "Rethinking Indonesia" conference last weekend in Melbourne, took a serious look at the issue.

Under the New Order government, power was very much weighted against the civilian sector and in favor of the military. Now, in the brief period since coming into power, President Abdurrahman Wahid already has made inroads into reclaiming the balance for civilians. At least that is how it appears.

Under Soeharto the military, then known as ABRI, presented a united front. Even though factions developed under former president B.J. Habibie, Damien Kingsbury of Monash Asia Institute suggests the military remained strong.

Kingsbury gave as illustration its actions in East Timor against the explicit wishes of Habibie. However, under Abdurrahman this strength has been significantly reduced and the military (now TNI) is unable, even, to wear a united front.

Kingsbury has observed several factions emerging, one of those being still loyal to former TNI commander Gen. Wiranto. And a counter faction, consolidating under the patronage of Abdurrahman. A significant group which Kingsbury considers as "reformist" is led by Maj. Gen. Agus Wirahadikusumah. Its primary task being to end TNI's "territorial" function. A smaller faction remains loyal to Prabowo, the former commander of the army's special forces.

The success of the reformist group, Kingsbury theorizes, will very much depend on the success of Abdurrahman's presidency -- a risky symbiotic relationship.

If the president can negotiate peaceful settlements to the civil unrest in various areas of the country, the "reformist" group will have a better chance of success.

If Abdurrahman fails, both he and this TNI faction will lose a great deal of credibility, and the path towards democracy will be even rockier.

The extent of the military's new weakening is unclear. The military in Indonesia is an institution inseparable from the country's politics.

Munir, from the Legal Aid Institute, told the conference, that since 1966 the armed forces have instituted a military structure in Indonesian society, making it ingrained and extremely difficult to uproot. The country has a military officer holding an important position in every level of government.

In a separate interview with The Jakarta Post, Munir admitted that the ubiquity of the military was a serious problem, but he does not see the military's power as an insurmountable obstacle in achieving democracy.

The biggest stumbling block, in his opinion, is the military's domination over national politics.

The military still influences the thinking of the public, and this creates an influence against the democratic process being pushed by reformist elements in society.

"This is a new strength that TNI has gained," Munir said, "TNI no longer needs to rely on physical power, because they now possess power similar to that of a political party, with a significant base.

"They use this to contain, even counter, the social forces attacking them. Now they no longer have to fight alone, those who are pushing for their return to the barracks," he said.

"They have even created a new vocabulary as protective padding. For instance, the word 'to condemn' (menghujat) is now used to describe any action opposing them."

"Any members of TNI who are criticized for violations of human rights have now gained the title of the 'underdog' or the 'downtrodden'. So there is a strong message that society at present is victimizing the military. This insinuation has been made so insidious that many in civil society become emotionally trapped in it."

The military has also established a concept, according to Munir, that they are an important element of society, so if they are weakened, the society will be adversely affected, because security is no longer guaranteed.

Another sensitive aspect being exploited is religion. military members try to attach themselves to Islam, to the extent that some people believe that attacking the military is tantamount to attacking Islam. This is a very powerful tool in influencing the civilian community.

Munir suspects that no more than 5 percent of the population believe this. "However, they are a high-profile minority who can manipulate the wider community by 'tailoring' information they release. Those in the community receiving the information, without the capacity for critical analysis, tend to take it at face value.

"Examples are the people defending Wiranto against the Commission Investigating Violations of Human Rights (KPP HAM), charging him with human rights violations in East Timor. They were no more than 20. Yet they were given generous coverage by the media and they used it well. Viewers with no mechanism to validate the information got the impression that the 20 people spoke the truth, that there was a conspiracy against Muslim generals."

Despite all this, Munir is optimistic that groups working to keep the military from returning to full political power are fairly strong in society. In addition, there is the international element, who will not let that happen. In fact, this element, observed Munir, played a very important role in the real politik of 1998, compared to that played by internal forces.

Since then, the drive for change in the country has gathered strength and speed, and is no longer a force the military can take lightly.

Hope abounds, and expectations that Abdurrahman's ability to harness the military's power for more appropriate use, are also high. The light at the end of the tunnel may be visible, but the distance is still great.

The writer is a freelance journalist based in Melbourne.