Asia Letter: In Indonesia, discomfort on return of the generals

Posted in Broader Middle East | 06-May-04 | Author: Jane Perlez| Source: International Herald Tribune

JAKARTA - Indonesia held parliamentary elections last month that few could complain about: There was an enthusiastic turnout and fraud was kept within reason.

But the civilian activists who risked their lives to end the military regime of General Suharto six years ago are feeling queasy about the results of the democratic process they struggled for.

Two former generals have emerged as the strongest contenders for the presidency, hardly the outcome that Indonesians who endured three decades of military rule imagined.

The more contentious of the military men, General Wiranto, who has been indicted on suspicion of crimes against humanity by a United Nations-backed tribunal in East Timor, was nominated at an American-style political convention that had the trappings of a democratic vote.

A former chief of the armed forces under Suharto, Wiranto worked assiduously in the last year to cultivate the allegiance of provincial leaders in Golkar, the political party of the ancien régime.

His frequent appearances around the country, and the fact he bears a passel of political attributes - a Javanese birthright, good looks and a crooner's warble - catapulted him to his decisive convention victory.

The other military man, General Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, emerged after his nascent party fared surprisingly well in the parliamentary polling. Urban voters disillusioned with the corruption-as-usual leadership of President Megawati Sukarnoputri abandoned her party for the general's Democratic Party.

"Now we have two military people, and we can't trust either of them," said Yusuf Wanandi, one of Indonesia's veteran political analysts and the founder of the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Jakarta.

Wanandi says he believes that Wiranto's campaign shelled out money to the convention delegates, a contention that the general's people deny. Yudhoyono has created a campaign apparatus loaded with military men, a worrisome move that could foreshadow the kind of cabinet he would seek, Wanandi said.

Many of Indonesia's nongovernmental organizations - the "conscience of the republic" is how they are referred to here - are trying to figure out what to recommend to their rank and file. Megawati is still running in the election, and at least under the housewifely current president, some of the activists' reason, the country has had a democracy led by a civilian.

But her chances have dimmed against the strong campaign style of Wiranto.

It is the appearance of decisiveness by Wiranto, and his critique of Indonesia's weak economy, that appeals to the crowds.

"Do we have economic development in this country?" Wiranto asked a rally during a recent campaign swing through Kintamani, a town on the island of Bali. "No," the crowd roared back.

Dressed in Balinese costume for the event - dark sarong, long jacket, sandals and a local cloche hat - Wiranto kept his speech short.

He then took the microphone, signaled for the electronic piano and, with several gyrating young women behind him, sang, "You will always be in my heart," as the crowd, organized by a former military commander in Bali, clapped and danced.

Wiranto has made "saving the nation" his campaign theme. On that score, he harks back to 1998 when Suharto, who was teetering, gave Wiranto an opportunity to take over.

Wiranto declined the offer, saying it was undemocratic. For that the general receives high marks, even from human rights experts who believe that he was ultimately responsible for the bloody mayhem unleashed by army-backed militia in East Timor.

Wiranto has been charged with "command responsibility" for the carnage in East Timor, and Washington has placed him on a "watch list" that could prevent him from traveling to the United States.

In an interview on the campaign trail, Wiranto said that he had documents, including from the International Committee of the Red Cross, showing that reports of the violence by the militia in East Timor had been "exaggerated."

He tried to set a tone of apology without accepting responsibility. "I have deep regret that events that were not planned or done on purpose are seen as a crime against humanity," he said of the indictment by the panel in East Timor.

In taking the nomination of his party, Wiranto knocked back a more experienced politician, the head of Golkar, Akbar Tanjung.

But the delegates at the convention wanted a winner, and Akbar, after a high-profile corruption charge, represented tainted goods.

"Indonesians view corruption as a bigger issue than a human rights record," said Sukardi Rinakit, executive director of Soegeng Sarjadi Syndicated, a research group. "We Indonesians are desensitized to killings. We are used to communal riots. Human rights is not a determining factor. Corruption is."

On how to deal with Indonesia's Islamic extremists, an issue of high importance to the United States, Wiranto carries some novel ideas about dialogue that may not sit well with the Bush administration.

"If we have a dialogue with them we can neutralize them from doing bad things. But if we isolate them they'll become very dangerous," he said. "I agree in the global situation you isolate them, but in the region we must try dialogue."

Another factor that could cause unease in Washington is the military men on his campaign staff. They include Suaidi Marasabessy, a former general known for his strong Islamist orientation.

But there are aspects about Wiranto that the Pentagon, which is itching to renew full military relations with Indonesia, would welcome.

Wiranto is far more forceful than Indonesia's current military brass in calling for the resumption of military ties between Washington and Indonesia. In fact, on the campaign trail, he often told a reporter for an American newspaper how badly Indonesia needed Washington.

Over all, the American line on Wiranto has been cool. As Wiranto's campaign began to gather steam in the last year, the American Embassy in Jakarta told Golkar party officials that they should think twice before nominating Wiranto.

So for some here, the vision of Wiranto redux has become a symbol of the U.S. lack of influence in the world's most populous Muslim nation.

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