Indonesian military chiefs defy president's plans for a state of emergency

By Peter Symonds
25 May 2001

The last week of backroom intrigue and political manoeuvring in Jakarta—involving the president, vice-president and the military chiefs—has underscored the highly volatile political situation in Indonesia in the lead up to next week's parliamentary session. The DPR or lower house is due to meet on May 30 and is likely to overwhelmingly censure President Abdurrahman Wahid for a third time, paving the way for the convening of a special session of the Peoples Consultative Assembly (MPR) to consider his impeachment and removal from office.

In an effort to prevent his ouster, Wahid last weekend issued an ultimatum to the military to support his plans for the declaration of a state of emergency, the dismissal of parliament and the calling of fresh national elections. Rumours circulated in Jakarta that he was preparing to reshuffle the armed forces (TNI) chiefs, and remove, in particular, the army chief of staff General Endriartono Sutarto, who had over the previous week publicly opposed any attempt by Wahid to invoke his emergency powers.

According to several reports, Wahid told the generals late last week that they had until May 20 to agree to his demands, and had drawn up a presidential decree for the replacement of Sutarto, national police chief General Suroyo Bimantoro and Kostrad (Strategic Reserve Division) chief Lieutenant General Ryamizard Ryacudu.

Vice-president Megawati Sukarnoputri cancelled plans to leave the capital and attend party meetings, declaring that an “emergency situation” had arisen. She met with the TNI head Admiral Widodo Adisucipto and senior generals on May 19 at her house and informed Wahid of her opposition to his move. On the same day, Sutarto organised an extraordinary meeting in Jakarta for more than 100 retired and serving generals who gave him their support.

On May 20—Wahid's deadline—Lieutenant General Ryacudu held a parade of around 800 elite Kostrad troops complete with armoured vehicles and artillery at the Kostrad headquarters in central Jakarta. As one military analyst noted: “Standing on the armoured vehicle with the cannon not capped and in combat dress, that's a show of force.”

Ryacudu told the parade: “I stress here there will be no coup against the country or the president by the army. We call on the soldiers to be loyal to the unitary state of Indonesia and not to any individual or groups.” But the warning to Wahid was unmistakable. Not only is the Kostrad headquarters situated less than a kilometre from the presidential palace but Kostrad was the command held by General Suharto during his seizure of power in the military coup of 1965-66.

Faced with the solid opposition of the military hierarchy, Wahid left Jakarta by train, ostensibly to visit the tomb of an Islamic preacher in central Java. Neither he nor Megawati were present for the cabinet meeting held later on May 20. After a three-hour meeting, it was clear that the assembled ministers could find no way out of the unfolding political crisis. Coordinating Minister for Political and Security Affairs Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono issued a statement warning: “It seems that there is no single option which is not problematical. With that in mind, it is hoped the nation of Indonesia can find a solution which carries the least risk and price to pay.”

On May 21, the pressure on Wahid continued to build up. Through an interview published in Tempo magazine, army chief Sutarto stated: “What I understand is he [Wahid] wants a special [MPR] session stopped. If this cannot be stopped with appeals, there will be other efforts, let's say using force, by dissolving or freezing parliament. If he insists on this, we will no longer help him.”

After a meeting of the leaders of six parliamentary factions, MPR speaker Amien Rais, an outspoken critic of Wahid, told the press that convening a special MPR session to consider the president's impeachment was the best option to end the political crisis. He warned that the MPR and the military would disregard any attempt by Wahid to dissolve parliament. “The president has no authority to dissolve the House [DPR]. We will ignore it and call for the Assembly to impeach him.”

On the same day, Megawati, who seldom makes public statements, addressed an army think-tank in Jakarta. While not naming Wahid, she said Indonesia had to move from an authoritarian state in which power was in the hands of one person to a democracy. The vice-president warned that Indonesia was in danger of becoming the “sickest man” in Asia unless the country's problems were addressed.

Justice Minister Baharuddin Lopa hit back on Wahid's behalf, raising publicly for the first time the possibility that the president would seek to defend his position by appealing to the country's Supreme Court. “As the highest judicial organ, I think the Supreme Court can issue a ruling to settle any legal disputes, especially in a case such as this.”

US intervention

With the political confrontation in Jakarta set to snowball, US ambassador Robert Gelbard directly intervened into the crisis, holding a series of top-level discussions on May 22. After a meeting with Foreign Minister Alwi Shilab, one of Wahid's closest supporters, Gelbard declared that Washington felt “very strongly that in any country the military should and must be controlled and responsive to their civilian leaders, including their commander in chief.... It is essential that the military follow its constitutionally mandated role.”

In offering support for Wahid against the military, the US has two considerations. In the short-term, there are fears in Washington and other capitals that the political feuding in Jakarta is rapidly spiralling out of control. Gelbard's comments were a shot across the bow of Megawati and her supporters, particularly the military chiefs, who through their open defiance of Wahid were setting the stage for a full-blown constitutional crisis.

Any direct involvement of the military in the removal of Wahid has the potential to trigger protests and demonstrations by his supporters that could quickly become the focus for other pent-up grievances produced by declining living standards and the lack of jobs. Only this month in the Philippines, tens of thousands of angry supporters of ousted president Joseph Estrada, mostly drawn from Manila's poor, took to the streets to demonstrate their hostility to new Arroyo administration.

Gelbard's call for civilian control over the Indonesian military is also conditioned by longer-term economic considerations. The US helped to organise the bloody military coup that brought Suharto to power in the 1960s and backed the junta for 32 years. With the end of the Cold War, however, US priorities began to shift. By 1998, Suharto, the military and the associated network of business cronies had become a barrier to US demands for the wholesale restructuring of the Indonesian economy to open it up to foreign investors.

US support for Wahid points to concerns in Washington over the direction of a Megawati administration and its potential to impede the IMF's program of free market reforms. Those who have backed Megawati against Wahid, including sections of the military, big business and the Golkar party—the political instrument of the Suharto junta, are concerned that the IMF's agenda, which includes the liquidation of billions of dollars of bad debts, will undermine their own considerable business interests.

Following Gelbard's statements, both Wahid and Megawati have taken steps to ease the political confrontation. Wahid backed away from plans to sack the army commander and impose a state of emergency. A presidential spokesman blandly declared that rumours about the removal of Sutarto were “baseless”. A series of meetings took place between Wahid and top military figures including TNI chief Admiral Widodo to attempt to smooth over tensions.

For his part, Widodo issued a statement on May 22 appealing for a political compromise to be worked out. “The ranks of the TNI call on all the political elite, and those who are competent, to be willing to show high statesmanship and make sacrifices to reach a compromise, a political solution that is most feasible,” the statement read.

The following day Defence Minister Mohammad Mahfud, one of Wahid's allies, indicated that a team of seven ministers was drawing up a power-sharing arrangement due to be finalised today. Their ability to stitch together a last minute deal is, however, fraught with difficulties. A similar attempt last year to delegate the day-to-day running of the government to Megawati while retaining Wahid as nominal president quickly fell apart. Both have rejected more recent attempts to revive the proposal.

The manoeuvres of the last couple of days are likely to be little more than a lull in the bitter conflict that will intensify prior to next week's parliamentary session. Attorney General Marzuki Darusman announced this week the completion of investigations into Wahid's involvement in two scandals—the misappropriation of 35 billion rupiah ($US3.9 million) from the State Logistics Agency (Bulog) and a $US2 million donation from the Sultan of Brunei. These are nominally the grounds for his impeachment. Wahid has denied any wrongdoing.

Pessimism in international circles

The protracted political crisis in Jakarta throughout this year is compounding the country's already severe economic problems. The rupiah has slid below 11,000 to the US dollar, forcing the government to drastically revise its budget to try to rein in a growing deficit. On Monday, the international credit rating agency, Standard and Poor's, downgraded Indonesia's sovereign foreign-debt rating from B- to CCC+, on a par with Russia, Ecuador and Pakistan. Its regional director Takahira Ogawa warned that the country “risked a sovereign debt default in the future”.

An editorial in the Jakarta Post this week raised concerns about the social impact of recent budget measures and despaired of any solution even if Wahid was replaced. “It doesn't matter if the painful measures, which were proposed to the House of Representatives on Monday as part of the massive amendments to the 2001 state budget, will accelerate the fall of President Abdurrahman Wahid's government. After all, the present government no longer has anything to lose—in the way of popularity, credibility and legitimacy—by recommending such bold moves. What really counts now is how the new government will have enough credibility to ask for public support to manage the implementation of the harsh measures.”

A confidential policy paper prepared by the European Union's foreign policy representative Javier Solana for a meeting of EU foreign ministers last week painted an equally bleak picture of Indonesia's prospects. “There is no clarity as to what will be the policy orientation of a new leadership in the volatile situation. The power struggle between the president and the parliament is likely to prevail. Confrontation rather than dialogue may still be used as a way to tackle societal problems. Lack of good governance aggravates the situation,” the report stated.

Solana went on to warn that the crisis in Indonesia could have a destabilising influence throughout the region. “Regional threat perceptions related to the potential crisis in Indonesia include fear of mass flows of refugees, spillover of ethnic and religious intolerance and separatism. Especially Malaysia, Singapore and the Philippines. The whole region would suffer from [a] worsening investment climate in the aftermath of conflicts in Indonesia.” The EU, he stated, had “a keen strategic interest” in Indonesia and should encourage [the government] to transform the present “muddling through” into effective reform policy.

A briefing paper issued by the Brussels-based think-tank, International Crisis Group, on Monday was similarly pessimistic. It pointed to the country's deteriorating economic position and warned: “[T]he prospect of political violence in the capital and elsewhere remains. Although clashes between supporters and opponents of the president were averted at the end of April, many fear that the danger has just been postponed... The view that democracy has brought disorder and chaos is growing stronger while the number looking back in favour on the enforced order of the Suharto era seems to be growing... Public discussion seems to be overshadowed by fear that the nation is on the path to disintegration.”

An article in last week's Newsweek magazine entitled “Why the World Should Worry” commented: “Indonesians don't want foreigners meddling in their affairs. But that doesn't mean the US can't—and shouldn't—try to prevent the country from sliding into further chaos.” It cited prominently the remarks of Bush's new assistant secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs, James Kelly, who warned that Washington needed to support the territorial integrity of Indonesia lest it find a “fragmented Indonesia that feeds fundamentalism, narrow regionalism and movements that, to put it most charitably, are very unstable and very dangerous”.

The magazine urged the US to reconsider its ties with Indonesian the military, arguing that “one source of long-term leverage over Jakarta's brass... is precisely through close ties, training and the transmission of a more enlightened ‘military culture'.” As Newsweek explained, Kelly is opposed to the current Congressional ban placed on US relations with the Indonesian military following the violence by Indonesian-backed militias in East Timor in 1999. He warned that “by isolating the Indonesian military, the US is forfeiting its influence over it”.

Already, the Bush administration is pushing the Congressional ban to its limits, offering to sell military items to Jakarta that are not strictly excluded. The Indonesian military is heavily dependent on the US for spare parts for its aircraft, ships and other equipment. Last week the landing ship USS Rushmore and guided missile frigate USS Wadsworth visited Jakarta for the first time since 1999, and a thousand American military personnel took part in high profile “humanitarian” activities in the slums of the capital.

While US ambassador Gelbard warned the Indonesian military to obey the president—at least for the present—Kelly and others in Washington, as in the not so distant past, clearly want to strengthen American ties to the TNI as one of the options for dealing with “very unstable and very dangerous” movements in Indonesia.