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Wednesday, September 8, 1999 Published at 09:25 GMT 10:25 UK

World: Asia-Pacific

General Wiranto: Army leader under pressure

General Wiranto is mobbed by reporters at the State Palace in Jakarta

By Jakarta Correspondent Jonathan Head

One man straddles both of the key pillars of power in Indonesia: the defence minister and army chief of staff, General Wiranto.

As reactions to the crisis in East Timor reverberate around the world many believe it is he who holds the fate of the territory in his hands.

East Timor
For more than 23 years, the military ran East Timor single-handed. Outsiders were excluded, civilians had no influence. All that changed with the fall of President Suharto last year, and the offer by his successor, President Habibie, to let the East Timorese choose their own future.

The man who had to manage this difficult transition was General Wiranto.

Now, with the militias running riot in East Timor, he is a man under intense pressure. He still insists, despite all the evidence, that his soldiers are not backing the paramilitaries.

So is Indonesia's army commander really in charge, or have events in East Timor slipped beyond his control?

The same question was asked of General Wiranto last year, when mass riots, backed by some elements of the military, engulfed the Indonesian capital. Back then, he skillfully restored order to preserve his position.

Suharto's support

An intelligent but conservative officer, who rose swiftly through the ranks, the 53-year-old general owed part of his success to his loyalty to former strongman Suharto.

[ image: Riot police are deployed in Dili, East Timor]
Riot police are deployed in Dili, East Timor
He was once his personal agitant. He has since managed to develop a working relationship with President Habibie. But he has had more difficulties keeping control of the rank and file without Suharto's imposition of authority behind him.

There are those who believe the mayhem in East Timor is yet another more serious challenge to his leadership:

"It is evident that Indonesian military and Indonesian government cannot guarantee the security in East Timor," says opposition politician Laksamana Sukardi. "In my view, it's been too late ... I mean, people have already died."


General Wiranto rarely reveals his personal views on Indonesia's chaotic transition.

He is probably opposed to letting go of East Timor. Like most officers, he spent several years serving in the territory.

But his record suggests he will be unlikely to challenge President Habibie directly over the issue.

Unless he can quickly bring his troops under control though, it may also be the issue which brings an end to his career.

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