shakes off murderous stigma in search of presidency
The Times (London)
October 31, 2003
General shakes off murderous stigma in search of presidency
By Amy Chew in Semarang, Central Java
Jakarta's Chinatown was ablaze and the city's shopping centres were
being looted by mobs. On the streets students were baying for President
In desperation, Mr Suharto ordered his army commander to "neutralise"
the protesters and seize power to stave off the collapse of his
Now, five years on, General Wiranto, the former Chief of Staff, is to
try to lead the nation through the ballot box rather than at the point of a
gun by seeking the presidency that he could have snatched in 1998.
The charismatic four-star general calculated that a military coup in
1998 would have cost the lives of at least 500 students, while negative
reaction abroad would have made Indonesia a pariah, losing much-needed foreign aid.
"I had no wish to take power atop of death and the ruins of my
General Wiranto, 56, told The Times in a rare interview as he campaigned
in rural Java. He revealed that Mr Suharto's order was a legal document. Were
it not for General Wiranto's forbearance, Indonesia might well have been
plunged into civil war.
There is no doubting his drawing power. On the campaign trail, every
other candidate is ignored and journalists have eyes only for the suave former military man. His ease with his former military colleagues -he likes
nothing better than an evening of karaoke -translates well to the political
Having refused power when it was offered him, the general is now seeking the nomination of Golkar, the country's second-largest party and the former
political vehicle of Mr Suharto, for the presidency in 2004.
General Wiranto sees the presidency as a means to make good the promises of reforms made five years ago by the political elite. Those promises have
gone unfulfilled. Millions were thrown out of work to live in poverty and suffer from a breakdown of law and order.
"I feel I am called to take concrete steps to improve the fate of this country...as I myself had once secured and given assurances that reforms
would proceed peacefully, orderly and constitutionally," General Wiranto said.
"I only want to be President for one term because I believe it would
be enough for me to do something for this country. When people go for two
terms, they become preoccupied with how to hold on to power and forget about what
needs to be done today."
Striding through rural Indonesia, his reforming appeal is obvious. Many stand to attention when he stops to shake hands. Few seem to be concerned
at his close identification with the brutality of Suharto era and the violence that overtook East Timor.
His star waned along with the change in leadership. In 2000 he retired from the military and was dismissed from his job as senior Security
Minister by President Wahid, the leader at the time, over the violence in East Timor, which cost as many as 100,000 lives. But he was not prosecuted.
Soon after his removal from office, the general, a father of three, issued a best-selling CD of patriotic songs called For You, Indonesia,
amid a wave of sympathy from many who felt that he had been treated unfairly.
In theory, Mr Suharto's resignation from the presidency on May 21, 1998, should have brought an end to Indonesia's 32 years of terror; of abuses of
human rights and decades of the Suharto kleptocracy in which the ruling clan treated one of the Third World's wealthiest nations like a family firm, with any
profits accruing to their own bank accounts. An era of freedom beckoned: political freedom, freedom of expression and freedom of the press.
But it was not to be. Indonesia has since had three presidents in five years and the struggles for reform and democracy are all but dead. Islamic
terrorism has brought new restrictions and hampered the recovery of a broken
The transition from an autocracy to a democracy was chaotic and came
with huge social unrest and a rise in separatism, which reached a climax with
the loss of East Timor in a United Nations-sponsored vote in 1999.
Every outbreak of ethnic and religious violence tested General Wiranto
in how to quell the restless masses without casualties. Sometimes he failed.
The accusations that he was often brutal in putting down unrest will haunt him
in his attempt for the presidency.
Hasyim Wahid, the brother and one-time confidant of former President
Wahid, told The Times: "Wiranto is sincere. He doesn't like to see the
country ruined by the lack of leadership. However, he has this unfinished business -the
shooting of students, East Timor. He should finish this business (the
alleged human rights violations)...by revealing whatever he knows. And maybe by
doing this he may put his life in danger, but there is always a risk in life."
However, General Wiranto lags far behind President Megawati Sukarnoputri,
the daughter of Indonesia's founding father, whom many expect to be
re-elected for a second term.
INDONESIA: FACTS AND FIGURES
Indonesia, which gained independence from the Netherlands in 1949, is the
world's largest archipelago and its most populous Muslim nation.
Population: 235 million
Size: 1,826,440 square kilometres (705,200 square miles) -more than seven
times the size of Britain
Number of islands: more than 17,000 of which 6,000 are inhabited
Religion: Muslim 88 per cent, Christian 8 per cent, Hindu 2 per cent,
Buddhist 1 per cent, other 1 per cent
Gross domestic product: $ 663 billion (L390 billion) -2002 estimate
President: Megawati Sukarnoputri, elected in 2001 for a five-year term
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