American Diplomacy

Highlight map


Support American Diplomacy RSS Mailing-list Subscription Email American Diplomacy Facebook

dept gif

BY 1998, THE MILITARY factions had become more clearly defined. There was a relatively small group of reformers led by Gen. Susilo Bambang Yuhudhoyono. There was a larger group of officers, including Prabowo, opposed to change and adamantly in favor of the status quo; these demanded a leading role for the military in the state. There was another balancing group of fence sitters, apparently including the enigmatic Wiranto. Prabowo was said also to be the leader of a Green Faction of Islamist officers. Wiranto was said to be the leader of a Red and White (colors of the national flag) professional faction dedicated to the secular supra religious state and a possibly diminished dwi-fungsi role. Wiranto insisted on an avuncular moderate policy in dealing with the spreading student demonstrations in the spring of 1998. Eventually, however, the demonstrators left their campuses and occupied the grounds of the Parliament. Wiranto’s forces handled the situation carefully and peaceably, but in giving the demonstrators relatively wide latitude, Wiranto indirectly played a role in the downfall of Suharto.

By contrast, Prabowo developed plans to use the demonstrations to advance his personal agenda, which was to show that Wiranto was incompetent to maintain order. Forces apparently under Prabowo’s control appear to have murdered six Prisakti University students on May 12 and that began a chain of events leading directly to the fall of the Suharto regime. The killings were followed on May 13 by thug-inspired rioting, looting, arson and the raping of perhaps hundreds of Chinese girls and women. Prabowo is believed to have orchestrated these events.

Wiranto’s forces coped with this anarchic situation as well as they could, remaining loyal to Suharto and the chain of command. Suharto summoned Wiranto on May 20 to ask if order could be restored. Wiranto responded positively, but said there would be unpredictable loss of life. Suharto trusted Witanto’s evaluation and resigned that day. Habibie was sworn in to replace him.

Prabowo made his move swiftly. On May 21 he met Habibie and demanded that Wiranto be replaced by his own man Gen. Subagiyo and that he (Wiranto) be made Army Chief of Staff. Habibie decided to side with Wiranto instead; indeed, he appointed Wiranto minister of defense and security, as well as TNI commander. Wiranto fired Prabowo as commander of the Strategic Reserve in the night of May 22. Frustrated, Prabowo took a detachment of Special Forces troops to Habibie’s home to repeat the demands he had made the previous day. He was turned away brusquely by Habibie’s head of personal security, Major Gen. Sintong Panjaitan, a Murdani man who had been disgraced by Prabowo in 1991. Prabowo wandered off into the night with his troops. He was summoned by Wiranto on May 23 and reassigned to Bandung. Prabowo faced a military court of honor in August and was drummed out of the army. He was initially in exile in Jordan, but was forced to leave and go to Germany; he was in Bangkok at last report. Prabowo undoubtedly continues to be in contact with military hard liners, his network of cronies, and his private organizations of thugs.

Backed by Generals Wiranto and Susilo Bambang Yuhudhoyono, Habibie responded to demands for democratization by promising to implement a four-step process, including:

  1. passage of new laws to enable free and fair elections;
  2. calling for a special People’s Consultative Assembly at the end of 1998 to a set a new date for election;
  3. calling for new parliamentary elections in mid-1999, and
  4. calling for a regular Peoples Consultative Assembly meeting at the end of 1999 to elect a new president and vice president.

He also released certain political prisoners. Lt. Gen. Mohammad Yunus Yosfiah, minister of information, initiated sweeping press and media reforms. Gen. Rudini, former minister of home affairs, was eventually given responsibility to organize the 1997 elections and performed miracles in making them clean, uncontested, and legitimate.

Wiranto announced military reforms in August and September 1998, including power-sharing with civilian authorities rather than the military playing a central role in politics. He promised a military code of ethics to prevent future abuses. He promised a systematic decline in the military dual-function role and a reduction of the numbers of officers assigned to non-military positions and functions. Administratively, he separated the National Police from the TNI. And, he promised the military would be neutral in the 1999 elections, meaning a break from GOLKAR. Later he agreed to a 50 percent military representation in the parliament. The November 1998 Special People’s Consultative Assembly was marred by maverick military-inspired violence but approved the Habibie reform program. Gen. Rudini began organizing in January 1999 for June elections and accomplished in months what had taken a year or years in the past. In January, however, President Habibie impetuously called for a referendum on autonomy or independence for East Timor in August 1999. The decision ignored recommendations by even Timorese advocates that a longer period to prepare for either autonomy or independence would be needed.

The June, 1999 elections went forward smoothly even though fifty-eight parties participated. Megawati’s PDIP Party won 34 percent of the vote. Parties identified with Islam won less than 10 percent. GOLKAR won 22 percent and Abdurrahman Wahid’s PKB won nearly as many votes. Amien Rais’ modernist Islam Party PAN won only about 10 percent of the vote. Vote counting was slow but, paradoxically, may have increased the legitimacy of the vote because it involved so many people and was done by hand. The stage was set for the November Peoples Consultative Assembly Presidential and Vice Presidential vote.

However, on August 30, the people of East Timor voted overwhelmingly for independence. Pro-Indonesian forces mixed with army Special Forces personnel and military-equipped militia began an orgy of violence in September that brought shame and dishonor on Indonesia and the military. Initially, it was not clear what exact role TNI Headquarters and Wiranto had played in this violence. Reports were that the anti-independence pogrom had been orchestrated or directed by the KODAM Commander in Bali. At first, it appeared only that Jakarta was slow in recognizing the dimensions of the disaster, but Australian intelligence reports published in the Financial Times on November 25, 1999, directly implicated Wiranto who “ordered the carnage in East Timor.” In any case, Wiranto and Habibie must assume the blame. The international community was repelled by the savagery and an Australian force was finally admitted by Jakarta to bring the situation under control. The Indonesian Government was humiliated by the East Timor debacle and fear rose that dissidence by Aceh dissidents might result in a similar outcome. Military hard liners resisted the threat to the unitary state represented by the loss of East Timor and have insisted that Achinese resistance will be put down by force.

Meanwhile, Aburrahman Wahid was elected president by the Peoples Consultative Assembly with Megawati Sukarnoputri as his vice president. This unexpected result derived from dissatisfaction over Habibie’s handling of the East Timor problem, but Habibie’s chances were affected also by his apparent participation in a Bank Bali scandal involving a GOLKAR political slush fund. Consequently, Habibie’s defense of his record as president was rejected by the People’s Consultative Assembly, leading to an open vote in which the wily and brilliant Abdurrahman Wahid was able to form a winning combination based on his strong and well-respected political and conciliatory skills. He has put together an extraordinarily diverse cabinet with many inexperienced persons. Wiranto attempted to reinforce his positions by recommending senior officers for cabinet appointments and for key positions in the military structure. Despite the vigorous objections of Murdani, Wiranto successfully recommended the appointments of Lt. Gen. Bambang Susilo and Lt. Gen. Agum Gumelar to the cabinet. They will have to resign from the army to do so. This means that two of Wiranto’s most able rivals have been removed from the chain of command. Wiranto made it clear he had no intention to resign from the military and would retain his strategic civilian post and his military rank. Wiranto also succeeded in getting his personal choice, Adm. Widodo, as TNI chief. The president held out for Gen. Tyasno Sudarto, a Murdani man, as army chief of staff, but Wiranto prevailed. Meanwhile, Wiranto launched another reshuffle of senior personnel.

Abdurrahman faces many problems and maintaining the pace of reform is only one of them. The Aceh issue looms and he erred by apparently offering Aceh the option of autonomy or independence. He has corrected that statement, but Achinese resentment against Jakarta is strong and he will need all his political skills to build a consensus in Aceh for autonomy, while restraining military fire brands from carrying out a scorched earth policy in that proud and independent province. Further, Muslim-Christian violence has resumed in Ambon resulting in many death and hundreds of injuries. Past Ambon violence has appeared to be instigated by forces interested in creating disorder. Their connection to the military was not clear, but there was suspicion that such forces were under military control.

Discipline remains a major problem in controlling the factionalized Indonesian armed forces. Wiranto’s capability or lack of capability to exert this control is a major question mark for President Abdurrahman. At some point, the new president will have to demand greater military efficiency and professionalism in controlling disorder or to move to replace Wiranto and his cohorts with officers who will be more responsive to civilian control. Recalcitrants in the military appear to have incorrectly assessed the powerful claims to legitimacy of the new government, and the seriously reduced military claim to a dual function, dwi-fungsi, role

In conclusion, Indonesia must overcome great economic, social and political obstacles in continuing on the path toward reform and democracy. This is a revolutionary undertaking after thirty-two years of Suharto authoritarianism and it will take time. The United States can help materially, but Indonesia’s biggest need in the months ahead is patient and wise U.S. understanding of the difficulties of this process, including the slow disengagement of the military from the degree of political authority and influence it has held. Is there hope? I think so. But undertakings of the scale that Indonesia has begun will need the patience and sometimes the constructive criticism of its friends. The United States was “present at the creation” of the Indonesian State and has a fraternal, as well as strategic interest in successful Indonesian political and economic reform worthy of this great people.  

RETURN TO PALMER, PAGE   1   2   3  

    Ronald Palmer served as American ambassador to Togo (1976-78), to Malaysia (1981-83), and to Mauritius (1986-89) during a thirty-one-year career. Currently he is professor and diplomat in residence at the George Washington University, Washington, DC.

Selected List of Major Works Consulted

Ahmad, Zakaria Haji and Harold Crouch, eds., Military-Civilian Relations in Southeast Asia. (Singapore: Oxford University Press, 1985).

Anderson, Benedict R. and Ruth McVey, A Preliminary Analysis of the October 1, 1965, Coup in Indonesia. (Cornell: Modern Indonesia Project, 1971).

Anderson, Benedict R., Imagined Communities. (London: Verso, 1991).

Crouch, Harold, The Army and Politics in Indonesia. ( Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1988).

Gardner, Paul F., Shared Hopes; Shared Fears, Fifty years of U.S.- Indonesian Relations. (Boulder: West View, 1997).

Green, Marshall, Indonesia: Crisis and Transformation 1965-1968, (Washington, D. C: Compass Press, 1990).

Jackson, Karl D. and Lucian W. Pye, Political Power and Communications in Indonesia. (Berkeley: University of California, 1978).

Jones, Howard P., Indonesia The Possible Dream. (New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovitch, 1971).

Jenkins, David, Suharto and His Generals. (Ithaca: Cornell Univ. Press, 1984).

Legge, J.D., Sukarno: A Political Biography. (London: Seler and Vinwich, 1972)

Lebra, Joyce, Japanese-Trained Armies in SEA. (Hong Kong: Heinemann, 1977).

Leifer, Michael, Dictionary of the Modern Politics of Southeast Asia. (New York and London: Routledge, 1995).

Lowry, Robert, The Armed Forces of Indonesia. (St. Leonards, Australia: Allen and University, 1996).

May, Brian, The Indonesian Tragedy. (Singapore: Graham Brash, 1978).

McIntyre, Andrew, Business and Politics in Indonesia. (Sydney: Allen and Unwin, 1991).

Mount, Richard, Plots and Schemes That Brought Down Suharto. (Jakarta: Gateway Books, 1999).

Palmer, Ronald D., “1997-1998 — Southeast Asia’s Annus Horribilus,” in David Brown, ed., Special Report: Southeast Asia: One Year After the Outbreak of the Financial Crisis, and Policy Implications for the United States. (Washington, D.C.: Wilson Center, November 1998).

Palmier, Leslie, Indonesia and the Dutch. (London: Oxford University Press,1962).

Roeder, O.G., The Smiling General: President Soeharto of Indonesia, 2nd Ed. (Djakarta: Gunung Agung, 1970).

Soeharto, as told to G. Dwikayura and Ramindhan K.H., Soeharto: My Thoughts, Words, and Deeds. (Takarta: P.T Citra Lamtoro Gung Persado, 1991).

Schwartz, Adam, A Nation in Waiting. (Sydney: Allen and Unwin, 1996).

Schwartz, Adam and Jonathan Paris, The Politics of Post-Suharto Indonesia. (New York: Council on Foreign Relations, 1999).

Singh, Bilveer, ABRI and The Security of Southeast Asia: The Role and Thinking of General L. Benry Murdani. (Singapore: Singapore Institute of International Affairs, 1994).

---------------, Dwifungsi ABRI: The Dual Function of the Indonesian Armed Forces, Origins, Actualization and Implications for Stability and Development. (Singapore, Singapore Institute of International Affairs, 1995).

---------------, East Timor: Indonesia and the World: Myths and Realities. (Singapore: ISEAS, 1995).

Suryadinata, Leo., Pribumi Indonesians, the Chinese Minority and China, 3rd Ed. (Singapore: Heineman Asia, 1992).

---------------, Interpreting Indonesian Politics. (Singapore: Times Academic Press, 1998).

Taylor, R. H., ed., The Politics of Southeast Asia. (Cambridge: Woodrow Wilson Press,1996).

Vatikiotis, Michael, Indonesian Politics and Suharto: Order, Investment and Pressure for Change. (London and New York: Routledge Press, rev. 1994).

RETURN TO PALMER, PAGE   1   2   3  

About the author
Previously by Ronald Palmer in American Diplomacy:

On the Southeast Asian case in Globalism vs. Economic Nationalism:
"The Southeast Asia financial and economic crisis of 1997 revealed various problems in the region that the surging growth of the early go-go 1990s had obscured. . . . Many seemed to arise from political and economic practices associated with the persistence of inward-looking economic nationalism development strategies designed for yesterday’s world." [Summer 1999]

On the impact of globalization on The Southeast Asia Crisis:
"It is ironic that narrow nationalism and ethnic rivalries have broken out over territories when the very concept of national sovereignty may be losing its meaning as the era of electronic cash and massive hedge funds, the Internet, and other wonders of the Information Age . . ." [Autumn 1998]

Also in this issue:

Theodore Friend, on Confronting the Political and Economic Crisis in Indonesia:
"Because Indonesia envelops the sea lanes between the Indian Ocean and the Pacific, and is the largest geopolitical factor in Southeast Asia/Southwest Pacific, the destiny of its democracy is vitally important to the region, to American values, and to our interests."

Elsewhere in this issue:
Warburg 2000 Conference

Send email to
American Diplomacy

Send email to
American Diplomacy
American Diplomacy
by ordering books online at:

Search the American Diplomacy website

white starAmerican Diplomacy white star
Copyright © 2012 American Diplomacy Publishers Chapel Hill NC