Thu, 25 Mar 1999

Understanding the past and predicting the future

By Lance Castles

YOGYAKARTA (JP): After four decades of dictatorship, thought control, world record nepotism and cronyism and some of the worst massacres the century has seen, democracy has broken out all over Indonesia and developments are showing encouraging signals for the future.

How strange it is then, that reviews of the past year are mostly steeped in doom and gloom, and predictions of the future speak of chaos, anarchy, disintegration, a return to military dictatorship and above all warn us against "euphoria".

At best they tell us "nothing has actually improved", without explaining that, in their mental scheme, there is no way an improvement could be recognized if there was one. Even the leading foreign experts on Indonesia say the future is impossible to predict, but they are, in any case, still pessimistic.

Let us begin by admitting that, ultimately, we cannot predict the future with certainty. Anything can happen, as some famous existentialist said. Furthermore, one could argue nothing matters to human beings except birth, copulation and death (a character in T.S. Eliot).

International surveys show people in poor countries say they are happier than those in rich ones, something any globe-trotter can confirm by a smile and conversation check. And yet many readers attribute some importance to justice, prosperity, democracy, cultural freedom and protection from gross human rights violations. They would like to know if it is true that a lifetime of abuse is over, and freedom is here to stay. But when they ask for bread, they are given a stone.

So why did Soeharto fall when he did? Was he forced out? (Indonesians love to say he was dilengserkan or dilongsorkan, meaning "pushed aside" or "forced to step down".) In fact he did step down, or, as he envisioned it, stepped back, probably in the belief he would be able to come forward again in more favorable times. (Note his remark on television implying B.J. Habibie as President was an absurd idea).

Though he had the character of a lone fighter who would put up the fiercest fight precisely when his back was to the wall, he failed to fight at the crucial juncture when he still could have won. Out of a mixture of complacency and confusion understandable in one who was surrounded by sycophants for decades, he dropped his guard and now no doubt bitterly regrets it.

One reason he was so complacent was because he had maneuvered the Army into helplessness. Especially after he ensured that in Jakarta the preponderance of military force was under the control of one ("green") faction; to wit Prabowo of the Army's Special Force (Kopassus), Muchdi of the Army's Strategic Reserves Command (Kostrad) and Sjafrie of the Jakarta Military Command (Kodam), while the formal leadership lay with "red-and-whites". If he got wind of a coup from either side (and he was suspicious of both), he could turn to the other and authorize them to stage a countercoup.

Many of our leading international pundits fail to understand this because they do not wish to be thought naive enough to believe the New Order, at least in its last two decades, was a personal, not a military, dictatorship. But how right military observer Salim Said was when he wrote recently that under the New Order the military took their orders from Cendana (Soeharto's residence), not military headquarters.

Was it the economic disaster which brought Soeharto down? It is true that without the dramatic economic turnaround from bubble to bust (it was not really a disaster except in terms of the money illusion; the upheavals in prices and rates), Soeharto would still be in power. We know many strong and determined regimes survive much worse economic times -- the North Korean Communists, Castro, Saddam Hussein and the Burmese military junta (SLORC). Furthermore, the money economy (the rate of the rupiah to the dollar) reached its nadir in January and February 1998, so a golden constitutional opportunity lay at hand in the impending People's Consultative Assembly (MPR) to elect a successor to Soeharto, preferably a trusted economic technocrat like Emil Salim or Mar'ie Muhammad. Instead they reelected Soeharto 1,000- 0, even though Soeharto seemed dismayed and confused by the economic developments.

This is indicated by the fact he repeatedly entertained Steve Hanke, yet refrained from taking the plunge of openly defying the International Monetary Fund (IMF). But he had no intention of stepping down, and behaved even more arrogantly than before, as shown by his controversial appointments of Habibie, businessman Bob Hasan, daughter Siti Hardijanti and others.

The actual precipitating event to Soeharto's downfall was his return from Cairo after days of unprecedented rioting. He decided to reshuffle the Cabinet, making Armed Forces Commander Gen. Wiranto "carry the can" for the security breakdown.

Wiranto, though a cautious, routine-oriented man, decided that, to save himself, Soeharto would have to go. He pressured the chairman of the House of Representatives (DPR), Harmoko, to call on Soeharto to resign.

The usually unctuous and beaming face of Harmoko, pale and tense, berated on television by Buyung Nasution and other lawyers, was witness to the nation's viewers of the pressure he was under. At the same time, DPR deputy chairman Syarwan Hamid's thumbs up indicated at least a part of the Army had at last joined the far more courageous students, intellectuals, human rights groups and some retired generals and senior statesmen in demanding the president make good his hinted willingness to step down and become a sage.

But then the anxious disappointment when, nearly an hour, if I remember correctly, after the announcement, Wiranto appeared to endorse Soeharto, dismissing Harmoko's call as a personal opinion and threatening to crack down violently on demonstrators. Perhaps this was part of a deal between the president and Wiranto.

In return for the latter's support, Soeharto promised to step down at his own pace, as the nation also observed on television the next day. Perhaps there was a further part of the deal: Soeharto conceded the removal of Prabowo and Muchdi. That night Soeharto learned coordinating minister for economic and financial affairs Ginandjar Kartasasmita had resigned with the other economic ministers, and the people he wanted for his reformation council would not play ball. Such refusals were unknown to the political culture of the New Order.

But the bite to Soeharto was that he believed only Army pressure produced such events. Perhaps weary, but also still hoping to reculer pour mieux sauter (reverse for a better jump), he stepped down. For a couple more days the city was tense.

Would armed units do battle in the streets? Senior generals, reputedly for security purposes, were sleeping in secret places. Why did Prabowo, with a character and ideology so different from Wiranto, not fight? Respect for Soeharto? Patriotism? Fear of failure? Perhaps we will never know. But remember that no putsch from below has ever succeeded in Indonesian history.

Only two days after Prabowo was transferred, Harold Crouch was reported as saying by phone from Canberra that Wiranto now had Habibie where he wanted him, i.e. he could depose him any time he wanted. This describes the power situation ever since. Wiranto's relationship to Habibie is quite different from his relationship to Soeharto. This can be shown by a simple exercise in empathy.

Suppose Wiranto had decided in February 1998 to depose Soeharto. He summons his most loyal major and tells him to take a crack company to Jalan Cendana and arrest the president. Presumably the major could refuse, declaring the order illegal. In the event that he attempted it, he probably would be arrested by his own men to the hilarity of the Soeharto entourage.

But if Wiranto were to decide to end Habibie's presidency, he would have no such problem. He would simply invite him to military headquarters and give him a letter of resignation to sign.

He would, of course, not do this because he is a routine man and is under no compulsion to change his routine. But if Habibie were to decide to stay on after the electoral decision, the law as Wiranto perceives it would take its course. He may already have shown his ascendancy by insisting the President immediately meet Abdurrahman "Gus Dur" Wahid, even though Habibie had said he did not wish to do so.

To understand Wiranto's position, we have only to realize the vast majority of armies happily accept being just armies and leaving politics to the politicians.

Things are happening which are quite contrary to the New Order recipe of rigged elections, tame media and "floating mass". The new parties are building parallel organizations right down to the village level. (Any idea that the ruling Golkar will do well because only it has a presence in the village is a myth).

The media blare into most homes the message that the New Order is discredited and criminal, and Habibie, the ministers and the DPR are Soeharto cronies.

Even the Army and its dwi-fungsi (dual sociopolitical function) come in for their share of abuse. But presumably the Wiranto leadership can live with that. They are certainly not so unprofessional as to do what the SLORC did -- hold an election, and then prevent the winner from taking office.

To repeat, there is nothing especially self-denying about what the Wiranto leadership is doing. But couldn't we have a moratorium on the constant criticism, ridicule and impossible demands? What is the man supposed to be able to do better?

To sum up, it is not true that nothing has really happened. Just as it was impossible to predict until early 1998 that democracy was coming to Indonesia, so it is now hard to see how it will go away. And within a year or so economic growth will resume its upward trend, though perhaps at a slower rate than before. So what about a bit of elation instead of gloom? For the religiously minded: Praise God from whom all blessings flow. Instead, the tone of media comment is: "How long, O Lord, how long?"