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Thursday, 25 November, 1999, 10:19 GMT
Analysis: Indonesia's military under scrutiny
Indonesian police face student
Students in Jakarta protested against the army's role in East Timor
The call by a government-appointed commission for senior Indonesian military commanders to stand trial for what it calls war crimes in the province of Aceh represents a serious challenge to the army's record.

East Timor
Parliament's move to summon commanders involved in the ten-year military operation there is the first time Indonesia's powerful military has been subjected to such scrutiny over its human rights record.

The Indonesian military also came in for strong criticism after soldiers were seen alongside militia thugs killing, looting and hounding refugees on the streets of the East Timorese capital Dili in the days after its independence referendum.

'Dual function'

It is not hard to argue that the armed forces have shaped the Indonesia of today.

Burning homes in a pro-independence neighborhood in Dili,
Homes burn in a pro-independence neighborhood in Dili
The army's growth was assisted by Japanese occupiers during the Second World War as an anti-western force to repel attempts at re-colonisation.

It went on to fight and drive out the Dutch when they attempted to resettle the archipelago nation they largely created.

The 1945 constitution gives the armed forces a central role in politics as well as responsibility for defence - a doctrine known as "dual function".

Controlling dissent

A power transition was stage-managed by the army when Suharto, then an army general, engineered the demise of President Sukarno, and went on to take the presidency himself.

General Wiranto
General Wiranto was in control of the armed forces during the Timor vote
Suharto's priority was economic development, and he used the armed forces to crush any form of dissent that threatened it.

When the Portuguese withdrew from East Timor in 1975, Indonesia was prepared to move in on the nod and wink of western powers - concerned that the neglected outpost of the crumbling Portuguese empire was leaning dangerously to the left.

There was no opportunity for opposition from inside Indonesia either.

Despite the active interest of the international press, East Timor remained until relatively recently a foreign policy problem most Indonesians either did not know much about or did not want to know about.

Anti-communist theme

The size of the Indonesian armed forces remains small compared to the size of the population - now in excess of 200m.

Troops move in to East Timor's provincial capital
Troops move in to East Timor's provincial capital
The forces are less than 300,000-strong - or just over one soldier, airman, or seaman to every 1,000 Indonesians.

Even less now that the police force - once part of the armed forces - has been separated off.

Military expenditure is low compared to other countries in the region.

Unable to really defend a country of Indonesia's size and geographic complexity, the armed forces concentrated on countering internal threats.

Its methods have traditionally been defended by tired anti-communist rhetoric and its soldiers operated within a culture of impunity.

Nowhere was that culture more evident than in East Timor - a territory closed off to the outside world until the early 1990s.

Independence sympathisers killed

The covert plan to annex the territory was masterminded by the government's special operations unit or OPSUS.

Riot police face rampaging students in 1998
Riot police quelled rampaging students in 1998
Once the army got in, the atrocities mounted. Aerial bombardment, mass executions, torture, imprisonment, and disappearances were reported.

There were encirclement campaigns involving the rounding up of communities who were then transported to camps where Fretilin independence sympathisers were killed.

There were disturbing echoes of some of these methods in East Timor this year with the imposition of martial law, the enforced movement of the population by Indonesian troops and the weeding out of those refugees visibly supporting independence.

Warning to Aceh?

General Wiranto's right-hand man in East Timor was General Zacky Anwar Makarim, fresh from his previous job as head of military intelligence.

A stand-off with police in Jakarta
A stand-off beween police and students in Jakarta
He has experience of all of Indonesia's troubled areas, including Aceh and Irian Jaya where separatist movements are gaining strength.

Many observers took the view that the chaos perpetrated and tolerated by the armed forces in East Timor was designed in part to warn Aceh of the consequences of attempted secession from the republic.

Indonesia is in a dangerous period of transition once again following the fall of President Suharto last year and June elections this year, which the ruling Golkar party lost.

President Wahid has moved to curb the military's tough tactics in Aceh, but this has only led to increasing pro-independence demonstrations and unrest in the province.

Military leaders have urged the president to impose martial law in order to restore calm, a proposal he has rejected.

The risk is that the handling of the Aceh issue will lead to a confrontation between the new and relatively weak government and the still powerful military.

See also:

11 Oct 99 | Asia-Pacific
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