Soeharto and Indonesian military joined at the hip

Opinion News - Monday, January 28, 2008

Imanuddin Razak The Jakarta Post Jakarta

Soeharto and the Indonesian Military (TNI) are like two different sides of a coin.

If we talk about the country's second president, his time in office cannot be separated from the existence and the performance of the TNI.

This belief is supported by the fact that Soeharto managed to remain in power for over three decades because he was always in full control of military -- whoever its chiefs were.

Soeharto was appointed by the MPRS (Provisional People's Consultative Assembly) in 1967 as acting president, as founding president Sukarno was lying in bed with his sickness. He was inaugurated by the MPRS as president a year later.

The five-star general was reelected in 1971 after Golkar, which was established in October 1964 and immediately became the political wing of the Indonesian Armed Forces (ABRI, the previous name of the TNI), won the election. Soeharto was then reelected for five consecutive terms before he announced his retirement as president in May 1998.

On the other hand, the military institution enjoyed privileges and financial support through the establishment of military foundations. TNI soldiers were not the country's most well-paid professionals, but they enjoyed a wide variety of welfare benefits provided by the foundations in the form of free medical treatments and services through military hospitals and clinics, cheap education for their children at military-run schools and cheap basic commodities provided for them by numerous military cooperatives.

The Soeharto-ABRI/TNI relationship, which mutually benefited both the former president and the military, left the ABRI/TNI being blamed for all the atrocities and repressive actions toward anti-government critics, and their lack of professionalism as many military officers jumped into politics and business.

The Soeharto-TNI relationship cannot be separated from the way Soeharto, then a two-star Army general, came to power in the midst of political turmoil surrounding the Sept. 30, 1965, abortive coup blamed on the now defunct Indonesian Communist Party (PKI) and the subsequent replacement of Sukarno.

From a lesser known officer -- he was not yet popular for his self-acclaimed role in the March 1, 1949, attack on Yogyakarta, which liberated the then capital of Indonesia from Dutch occupation -- Soeharto's name immediately rose to prominence after he led the nationwide operation, mainly with the support of the Army, against the communists and gained control of the security condition.

He was the most senior Army officer available at the time after then defense minister Gen. A.H. Nasution was injured after escaping a murder attempt and then minister/Army chief Gen. Ahmad Yani was killed reportedly by pro-Communist soldiers.

A key element in Soeharto's success in maintaining his grip on the country's politics was his management skills in implementing the famous Dwifungsi (dual function, also known as socio-political role) of the military.

Soeharto was a good learner.

He adopted and modified the TNI's dual-function concept, introduced by Gen. A.H. Nasution, who suggested that the Army (military) was not just a civilian tool like in Western countries, nor a military regime which dominated state power.

Nasution's concept was outlined in his famous "Middle Way" speech delivered on Nov. 12, 1958, marking the beginning of Dwifungsi. Military officers were already occupying state and government positions that had traditionally been occupied by civilians, Nasution was simply seeking to justify the trend.

Years later, however, Nasution said that his original idea for Dwifungsi had been misunderstood and misimplemented.

Besides maintaining control of the country's politics through Golkar and the implementation of Dwifungsi, Soeharto managed to maintain support from the military by appointing close associates and his former adjutants as ABRI/TNI chiefs. They included Gen. M. Yusuf, a close associate during the handover of power from Sukarno to Soeharto -- through the issuance of a letter by Sukarno on March 11, 1966, known as Supersemar, to Soeharto; Gen. Try Soetrisno and Gen. Wiranto, who both were former adjutants of Soeharto.

This freedom in selecting ABRI/TNI chiefs was made possible because of the prerogative provided by the Constitution in his capacity as president and the supreme commander of the Indonesian military.

Such exclusive authority of the president was maintained until Soeharto stepped down in 1998 and was only reduced after the enactment of Law No. 3/2002 on defense, Article 17 of which requires the president to secure approval from the House of Representatives prior to appointing a TNI chief. This control mechanism was upheld in Article 13 of Law No. 34/2004 on the Indonesian Military.

Soeharto effectively used the military as his machine to maintain power. After his fall in 1998, the military vowed not to repeat the mistakes they made under Soeharto. But at the same time, the military also lost the privileges they enjoyed under Soeharto. Only time will tell whether the pledge will remain.

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