Subject: JP:In Memoriam: Benny Moerdani, a hero of the Republic

The Jakarta Post.

Thursday, September 2, 2004

In Memoriam: Benny Moerdani, a hero of the Republic

August 31, 2004 10:02pm Asia Intelligence Wire

Many Indonesians undoubtedly regard L.B. Moerdani as a hero of the Republic.

At the age of 14-years-old he began fighting the Dutch as a guerrilla fighter in Surakarta. Thereafter, he fought nearly every conflict the country had, including separatist movements, civil wars and the Dutch in West Irian (now Papua) to unite the last remaining territory from what was previously the Netherlands East Indies.

He was one of most decorated soldiers of the Republic, and assumed the highest rank in the military realm, as Minister of Defense and Commander-in-Chief of the Armed Forces (ABRI). He has been called a philosopher/soldier, because he was one of the best strategic thinkers that ABRI (now TNI) ever had.

To achieve all that, General Benny had to learn a lot by himself, and he was very erudite by nature and sharp. He trained at Fort Benning and Fort Bragg in the United States, and that might have helped him to develop his talent and acumen. He read a lot, especially history and biographies, and used the knowledge to develop his own thinking and ideas.

Above all, he was a decisive person. He was close to General Ahmad Yani first, and later became the right hand man of President Soeharto in the Armed Forces between 1974 and 1988. During the period of 1983-1988 he was the second most powerful man in the Republic.

As an intelligence czar he was closely related to the ASEAN and Western intelligence people and worked closely with them. He established regular meetings and cooperated with ASEAN intelligence officers. He was very close to Malaysia and Singapore. He was also considered to be close to Vietnam, which he saw at that time as a bulwark against Chinese pressure on South East Asia. He assisted Vietnam after they were isolated by ASEAN following their invasion of Cambodia.

Domestically, he has a lot of friends among political elites, the media and some of the most important NGOs.

His most spectacular deed was definitely his handling of the Woyla hijacking, wherein he convinced Thailand's then Prime Minister Prem Tinsulanond to allow Indonesian special forces to storm and take over the Garuda plane in Bangkok.

Since that episode occurred on the exact day that President Ronald Reagan was shot in the U.S., Benny did not get adequate publicity in the international media except for The Asian Wall Street Journal in an editorial that lauded the brilliant military operation against the hijackers.

Two things in Benny's career were considered controversial. One was the Tanjung Priok incident in 1984. It happened shortly after he took over as Commander-in-Chief of the Armed Forces in 1983. In fact, it was police negligence in an earlier incident that escalated out of hand, when the police took over the authority for law and order in that case from the Army.

Try Sutrisno, the new Jakarta Commander at the time, was not asked to be involved early enough by the police. Thus, Try came late into the picture. The background of the incident was a government policy to stop or merge all small forwarding businesses (mostly in the Tanjung Priok area, which meant many people there lost their livelihoods) into big ones during the economic downturn in 1982 as well as the political tension due to the imposition of the Pancasila as the only allowable ideology for all political parties to espouse. After the incident Benny took the responsibility and supported Try Sutrisno.

Another controversy was the so-called mysterious killings in Indonesia, where over 2,000 criminals were arbitrarily killed and their bodies dumped in the streets. In fact, those criminals and thugs had indeed been a scourge and hampered security and peace in Java, especially Central Java. He did not start the operation.

However, his main mistake was to let the operation expand. This only showed that, while he is an enlightened man, his political and military culture was the overriding factor in most decisions. He had made a number misjudgements and mistakes in dealing with political and social problems related to human rights and the rule of law.

He was involved in the East Timor military operation, but he was more of a proponent of putting pressure along the border and assisting local forces of East Timorese who were pro-Indonesia (UDT, Apodeti and Trabalista) to work against Fretilin. However, after the Unilateral Declaration of Independence (UDI) was proclaimed by Fretilin, the Armed Forces Headquarters took over, and it became a full military operation, which was no longer under his command.

He was involved again after a hiatus of two years, in early 1978, when refugees coming from the hills (taken hostage by Fretilin) sought humanitarian assistance from the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC). He assisted in the operation, and probably saved the lives of 20,000 to 30,000 people, especially babies and children.

He also faced two crises at the height of his power and influence. One was his relationship with the Muslim community. As a Catholic and the chief of the Armed Forces, in 1983, he was not entirely trusted and had to deal with some terrorist acts, such as the bombings at the Borobudur temple and the BCA Bank in Jakarta.

Indeed, the military's relationship with the Muslim community in the early days of the Republic and during Soeharto's reign was full of suspicion and prejudice. It was due to the rebellions against the state by Darul Islam that began in 1957 in West Java, later in South Sulawesi, East Kalimantan and Aceh. And the struggle in the People's Consultative Assembly between the state ideology, Pancasila and Islam, which created real differences between the military and the Muslim political parties.

From 1979 to 1982, a resurgence of Islamic extremism occurred under leadership of Ali Sungkar and Basri. And when Benny took over in 1983 and had to deal with some of the extremists, he faced strong opposition from the Muslim community. However, Abdurrahman Wahid was instrumental in rebuilding some of the trust between the Muslim communities and Benny.

Another crisis was his relationship with Soeharto. Soeharto never liked to have someone of his equal, especially among the military. When he thought that Benny could no longer be trusted because of palace intrigue and the opposition, he was asked to step down as Commander-in- Chief.

Soeharto's son-in-law was also giving a lot of false information to Soeharto about Benny's alleged opposition. In addition, B.J. Habibie's ambition also stood in the way between Soeharto and Benny. Later while both were healthy, in early 1999 Soeharto and Benny talked again to each other, and at least some of the misunderstandings were overcome.

Benny is a 100 percent military man, and however intellectual and enlightened he was, he was imbued with the military culture, and like his fellow generals, believed that only the military had the acumen, experience and institution to lead Indonesia.

So when deep changes occurred in 1998, and he saw the country crumbling due to the deep crisis, his emotions gave way and he could not stomach it. He had given his life, since he was 14 to the Republic, to keep it together and to modernize it, and when it was on the verge of collapsing, he also collapsed emotionally. That is why he was never able to recover from his stroke adequately, because as soon he was nearly recovered, his emotions took over and his health suffered another setback.

Those of us at the Centre for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) are his friends and we are proud of the friendship and thank him for his support, despite the fact that we were in the "opposition" between 1988 and 1998. He was a true friend even in bad times. We salute him, and the best we could do in his memory is to emulate his impeccable patriotism since independence.

We hope that his wife and Ria, his only daughter, will find some consolation to know that so many friends respect him, within and without the country. Most, if not all of them, do think and appreciate that he is a true friend, and that Indonesia should be proud of having such a son.

Jusuf Wanandi, Jakarta

- The writer is a co-founder and member of the Board of Trustees at the Centre for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS)


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