Subject: AGE: Habibie's fatal flaw: failing to end military privilege
Date: Wed, 14 Apr 1999 18:14:12 -0400
From: "John M. Miller" <>

Received from Joyo:

The Age Thursday, 15 April, 1999

Habibie's fatal flaw: failing to end military privilege


FOR all his sometimes clownish mannerisms, President Habibie has in many ways been Indonesia's Gorbachev. He rode the crest of a wave of political creativity generated by the massive protests of last year. But now that wave has spent much of its force.

The army-backed Liquica massacre in East Timor last week represents a conservative backlash, in which failed Soeharto-era ideas are being put forward as real solutions once more. Habibie has been mocked as a Soeharto protege. Yet under him press freedom has flourished, labor unions have sprung up freely and almost all political prisoners have been freed. He has talked with dissatisfied Irianese and Acehnese community leaders. And he has foreshadowed independence for East Timor.

However, on the single most important Soeharto legacy - military privilege - he has made little headway. In this Habibie is not alone. Virtually the entire political establishment has agreed that, unlike last year's demonstrators, they don't want the military out of politics now. Not one of the major parties - despite their long opposition to Soeharto - have placed an end to the privilege of organised violence at the top of their political agenda.

Such a loss of political nerve is now becoming apparent in East Timor. The Liquica massacre, in which at least 25 people died at the hands of a military-backed militia, could well be a message to that establishment from armed forces commander General Wiranto. The message: no more experimentation with the future of East Timor.

Last month a high-level United Nations delegation visited East Timor to begin preparations for the poll in July or August on East Timor's future association with Indonesia. According to reliable reports, the delegation had great difficulty getting to see Wiranto even briefly as it passed through Jakarta on 25 March after its visit to East Timor.

The Far Eastern Economic Review noted last month that Wiranto is relying more on retired General Benny Murdani, the architect of the East Timor tragedy. Officers seen as Murdani proteges have been favored in recent promotions. Murdani told a visiting academic in January that he disapproved of Habibie's conciliatory autonomy offer for East Timor. He believed that in ``four to five months'' the armed forces, ABRI, would be ready to crack heads once and for all in East Timor. Tough talk for a man supposedly long out of power.

Wiranto's message on East Timor, if I have read it correctly, may unfortunately fall in good soil in Jakarta. Indonesia may yet prove to be a reluctant decoloniser. Eager to depict Habibie as a lame duck, presidential aspirant Megawati Sukarnoputri says she opposes the Habibie initiative offering independence if the East Timorese reject an autonomy offer. She wants the matter decided by a freshly elected parliament, in which she has made it clear she will oppose independence. Abdurrahman Wahid has been similarly unhelpful. Amien Rais is the only prominent party leader with an open mind on East Timor.

The reason for the hawkishness among political prominents is not difficult to find. Unrest around the vast archipelago in recent months, whether engineered or not, has had the predictable effect of stimulating nostalgia for Soeharto's security approach. The conservative view that Indonesia is perhaps too violent to be democratic may be gaining ground in influential circles. The Habibie-sponsored political process over East Timor has triggered copy-cat demands in Aceh and Irian Jaya, where until now the word referendum had never been heard.

Frequently aired anxiety over Indonesia's possible ``disintegration'' has dampened the creativity of last year, leaving the hawks to offer their already failed policies with renewed assurance. In East Timor, those policies mean once more backing violent militias to give the impression of a civil war, in which ABRI is the essential disinterested peacekeeper.

The new conservative ascendancy is not easy to challenge from abroad. The UN process, for all its goodwill, remains dependent on Indonesia. Australia has a security treaty with Indonesia that makes it impossible to pit Australian soldiers against Indonesians in defence of the Timorese.

All this does not mean East Timorese self-determination is now out of the question. There are many reasons for hope. But it does mean the decolonisation process will be slower and messier than was thought just a few weeks ago. Habibie said in February he would like to see the East Timor issue resolved by 1January 2000. Unless Indonesia's political movers and shakers rediscover their creative nerve, that magic date is likely to pass with no joy for the Timorese.

Dr Gerry van Klinken edits Inside Indonesia magazine.E-mail:

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