EDITORIAL: by Peter WestmoreNews Weekly
The end of General Wiranto?
, February 26, 2000
Peter Westmore is National President of the National Civic Council
To Australians, the events leading up to the removal of Indonesia's Security Minister, former military chief General Wiranto, appear almost incomprehensible.
During a lengthy visit to Europe, the new Indonesian President, Abdurahman Wahid, repeatedly asserted that following a Human Rights Commission investigation of Indonesian massacres in East Timor last year, the former military chief would have to step down or face the sack.
Wiranto declined to stand aside, asserting that he had done nothing wrong, and in President Wahid's absence, attended a Cabinet meeting in Jakarta.
On his return to Jakarta, President Wahid met Wiranto, after which the President announced that the former army chief would not step down. A Cabinet spokesman announced, after lengthy talks between the two men, 'There is an agreement that there will be an opportunity for the Attorney-General to conduct a detailed investigation [into his role in human rights abuses in East Timor]. The result will be reported to the President on whether Wiranto should be brought to court.'
A day later, President Wahid seemed to reverse his direction, instructing General Wiranto to step down from his Cabinet post.
The resulting departure of General Wiranto mystified almost everyone: the Australian Financial Review commented, 'The President's unpredictable backdowns, about-turns and rash statements have achieved what seemed impossible six months ago - the rout of former armed forces commander General Wiranto and the submission of the army to civilian rule.'
In hindsight, it would seem that the foundations for President Wahid's actions were set months ago, with the replacement of General Wiranto by Admiral Widodo as Chief of Staff of the TNI, Indonesia's armed forces, and a decision that Cabinet Ministers must resign their military commissions on entering Cabinet - which in Wiranto's case, takes effect on March 31 this year.
The departure of General Wiranto - perhaps temporarily - is also a reflection of deep strands in Javanese culture.
Shadow puppet theatre (called wayang) is found all over Java, and is an important means of communicating Javanese culture from one generation to the next.
Javanese shadow puppet theatre is used to teach morals as well as to entertain, and to a great extent influences much of Indonesian life and thought.
It is said that one can often understand Javanese thinking by recognising the influence of wayang. Many politicians and successful businessmen are seen as men who control the puppets in wayang performances, and life has a way of working out much as it does during an all-night wayang performance - slowly and with many twists and turns.
The departure of Wiranto shows all the signs of this type of process.
The original calls by President Wahid for General Wiranto to step down undoubtedly polarised opinion in Jakarta, creating immense pressure on the former Chief of Staff to resign.
Though Wiranto originally refused to agree, the fact that the issue had been raised publicly forced the leadership of the armed forces to accede to it. This was clearly a necessary step in effecting General Wiranto's departure.
The outcome is to assert the power of the elected political leaders over the Indonesian armed forces - the first time this has happened since the departure of the mercurial President Sukarno in the late 1960s.
General Wiranto's departure is likely to ensure that the armed forces remain in their barracks, rather than interfering in religious and ethnic disputes, as they have clearly done in Aceh, Ambon and West Irian over recent years.
For President Wahid, the departure of General Wiranto presents two new challenges. First, he is now personally responsible for solving the separatist conflicts which have racked Indonesia over recent years. These have complex economic, political and religious causes, and will require all the dexterity which President Wahid is able to mobilise. Some of them, such as the difficulties in West Irian (West Papua), appear almost insoluble.
Further, he will have to deal with the powerful impression created in the removal of General Wiranto, that he is erratic and unpredictable. Such an impression will reduce confidence that President Wahid can solve the deep economic crisis which still afflicts Indonesia, following the financial collapse of 1997.
The Indonesian President's recent two week visit to Europe was designed to reinforce the message that his government was stable, and was determined to meet its commitments to economic reform, which is a condition of the IMF's multi-billion dollar bail-out.
As a nation of 200 million people, and one of Australia's nearest neighbours, Indonesia remains of vital importance to this country - not only because of its geographic proximity, or the fact that most of Australia's exports pass through the narrow Indonesian waters of the Sunda and Lombok Straits.
As recent events in East Timor showed, Australia can easily be drawn into Indonesia's difficulties, leaving Australia with continuing responsibilities in the region. President Wahid is the best hope that such crises do not recur.