TNI takes Mega’s hand as Gus Dur loses its trust

Dressed in camouflage and the green beret of Indonesia’s elite Army Strategic Reserve Command (Kostrad), Vice-President Megawati Sukarnoputri went on a ceremonial ride on board a Scorpion tank recently.

As the tank roared its way around a grassy field in Bandung, hundreds of soldiers stood to attention and saluted her and the two powerful men by her side – Chief Security Minister Bambang Yudhoyono and Kostrad head Ryamizard Ryacudu.

Last month’s Kostrad anniversary celebration was nothing out of the ordinary. But Ms Megawati’s presence at an event attended traditionally by the army chief, and her visits to other military installations of late, are politically significant.

They point to an evolving alliance between the Indonesian Armed Forces (TNI) and the Vice-President as both sides lay the groundwork for political power.

The military’s interest in cultivating close links with Ms Megawati stems from its rapidly deteriorating relationship with President Abdurrahman Wahid. Ties between the military and the President have swung between confrontation and cooperation since he took over the reins of power last year. But now it has hit an all-time low.

The hawkish generals are unhappy with his policies on Aceh and Maluku, which some officers have described as being made by “a man not of sound mind and health”.

They seethe too at being pushed into a corner over possible prosecution for human-rights violations in East Timor. More importantly, they resent his constant intervention in TNI promotions and reshuffles. His tacit backing for the reformist generals is seen as an attempt to undermine his opponents in the military by resorting to the Suharto tactic of playing off one faction against another.

In their search for a buffer and a counterweight to the President, senior officers have turned for support to other civilian politicians, in particular Ms Megawati. This was most conspicuous during the latest military shake-up in the army. Thanks to Ms Megawati’s intervention, the generals were able to get the President to approve their choice, Lieutenant-General Endriartono Sutarto, as army chief, replacing General Tyasno Sudarto. More significantly, the top brass forced Mr Abdurrahman to sideline reformist general Agus Wirahadikusumah and his allies from holding any significant appointments in the army.

On at least two occasions last month, at the height of the “cold war” between the President and his generals, sources said the chiefs of staff gathered in Ms Megawati’s official residence to convince her to back their cause.

It is not hard to understand why she is so appealing to the army aside from its strained relationship with the President. Ideologically, she is perceived as a staunch conservative at heart. Her recent statements on preserving national unity, opposition to any form of federalism and criticism of Washington’s meddling in domestic affairs have struck a chord with the nationalist army.

Said an army general: “She has the largest support in the country, having won the election. She has the legitimate right to lead Indonesia. What is important for us is that she supports reform, but reform in a gradual way.”

Ms Megawati has not spelt out publicly her vision for reforming the TNI. But her party aides disclosed that while she wanted the TNI to become more professional, she rejected any suggestion of it going back to the barracks in the near future.

Said a confidante: “There is no thought of dismantling the army territorial command structure. Megawati wants it to continue because she does not want the archipelago to break apart.

“Of course, she wants the army to withdraw from politics. But she wants it to be scaled down over a 15-year period. She says it will be a disaster if we force them to return to the barracks now.” This is good news for the TNI. The generals have seized the opportunity to make other more immediate demands.

The first is its role in Parliament. This has been secured given the overwhelming backing of legislators, especially from Ms Megawati’s Indonesian Democratic Party-Perjuangan (Struggle), at the national assembly (MPR) session in August. There is also hope that she will protect the TNI’s links with businesses.

The third goal, however, is problematic. The army wants her to whitewash whatever human-rights atrocities it committed during the Suharto era. PDI-P sources said that this was impossible, especially because her party also had suffered when the military raided its headquarters in 1996.

She would push for those convicted to be punished. It was unlikely, however, that she would attack the military institution as a whole for “the sins of a few generals”.

Formal military links with the Vice-President have expanded significantly, especially after the MPR granted her more powers in the day-to-day running of government.

For the generals, this gives her real power to make decisions that could serve their immediate needs, never mind that she is not the No. 1.

Besides the recent military shake-up, Ms Megawati’s hand was also evident in the TNI’s annual budget. There were fears that Mr Abdurrahman would reduce the total amount it would receive next year. The generals, together with Defence Minister Mohammad Mahfud, lobbied the Vice-President to intervene. She supported their proposal, and the President gave in.

Ms Megawati’s forging close links with the TNI is predicated on a long-term objective: the presidency in 2004. Close aides said she was aware that full TNI support was crucial, given that the military, especially the army, continued to play a dominant role in Indonesian politics.

In view of this, she has sought to get the bickering factions in the military to end their feuds. Noted a palace source: “Megawati and her supporters do not want half-hearted support from the generals when she does make a bid for the top position. So, she has tried hard to work behind the scenes to patch up differences among them.”

It is instructive that she summoned the newly-promoted army chief Endriartono, one week after his appointment, to express disappointment after he had threatened to bring reformist Lt-Gen Wirahadikusumah before an honour council for violating the military code of conduct.

The four-star general backed down after she warned him that this would only divide the army further.

At her request, 20 generals later gathered for an informal meeting in her residence last month. Ms Megawati sought assurances from them that there would no more jostling for power among them.

Sources disclosed that she impressed on them that all three factions – the reformers, the status-quo generals and the so-called fence-sitting mainstream group – would eventually be represented in the power constellation.

The Vice-President is keen on professional officers moving up the ranks. It is an open secret that Lt-Gen Ryamizard, the current Kostrad commander, is one of her favourites for the army chief’s post, given his strong nationalist bearings and political neutrality.

Unlike Mr Abdurrahman, who has been pushing for air force chief Hanafi Asnan to take over the military chief’s post to clip the wings of the army further, Ms Megawati is backing the army, in particular Gen Tyasno, for the job in 2001.

While she is gathering political support from the TNI, she is averse to any idea of seizing power unconstitutionally.

In her meetings with the generals, especially after MPR chairman Amien Rais called on Mr Abdurrahman to step down, she secured guarantees from the military that it will not support a special parliamentary session to topple the President.

“Gus Dur has to last out his term until 2004,” said a source, quoting Ms Megawati. The Vice-President has drawn flak from the public as well as from within her party for drawing close to an organisation that sought to undermine her in the Suharto years. But, within the PDI-P executive committee, she can turn to several retired military officers like Maj-Gen Theo Syafei and Maj-Gen Sembiring Meilala for support.

There is quiet backing from the likes of Gen Agum Gumelar, who is now Transport Minister, and Gen Hendropriyono. Outside the party, the Vice-President is said to be close to the chief of territorial affairs Agus Widjoyo and several other active officers, particularly from the mainstream faction. Ms Megawati has reportedly turned to Gen Bambang to play the role of mediator with the different army factions. Some in the army hope that he could run as her No. 2 if she clinched the presidency.

Growing links with the TNI have split the PDI-P elite. Several civilian cadres, like Mr Laksamana Sukardi and Mr Dymiati Hartono, have been sidelined as a result of the generals seizing the initiative.

Given internal party pressures and mindful also of perceptions in the inner palace circle of her getting too cozy with the TNI, PDI-P cadres said Ms Megawati is careful to exercise restraint in her dealings with the generals.

Being the daughter of Indonesia’s first President Sukarno, who suffered gravely as a result of military machinations, she will probably be cautious in responding to the army’s wooing.

On paper and in rhetoric, the TNI claims to be above politics and non-partisan. It will not seek to influence outcomes. But the experience in recent months, including the use of covert means to stir up problems in Indonesia to destabilise the civilian government, suggests that senior officers will back outcomes that suit their political interests.

The Vice-President holds the initiative now over the military but the relationship could reach a more even keel in the long-term. It will be tested if there is a crisis in leadership or when the general election beckons. At the very minimum, she will need TNI support if she makes a bid for the presidency in 2004 or earlier.

The dictates of realpolitik will keep the Megawati-military alliance fluid and fragile. Politics, after all, is about permanent interests. Not permanent friends.

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