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Indonesia military regains ground

General Sutarto pledged to cooperate with any country, including the U.S., in the global war on terror  

By Amy Chew

JAKARTA, Indonesia (CNN) -- Indonesia's once mighty military -- which saw its powers reduced by democratic reforms following the ousting of former President Suharto -- is expected to regain lost ground under its new armed forces chief General Endriartono Sutarto.

Democratic reforms -- which pushed the military to hand over its vast political power to civilians -- is expected to slip, more by default than design, as the public grow tired of civilian leaders who have shown themselves to be fractious and weak.

Three years into the reform era, the civilian leaders are still unable to put aside their differences to end the country's prolonged economic crisis and devastating social and sectarian violence.

By comparison, the military has remained a solid institution, putting aside differences to speak with one voice when faced with challenges.

"Their (the military's) role will increase in line with the trend of conservatism that is now gaining ground here because people are just sick and tired of these civilian leaders bickering and making fools of themselves," former Maritime Minister, Sarwono Kusumaatmadja, told CNN.

During Suharto's rule, the military was given top jobs in the cabinet, government departments and state-owned enterprises, ensuring their domination in the running of the country.

Military fill vacuum

Indonesia military protest
The Indonesian military has been accused of committing human rights abuses  

Analysts and reformist generals have repeatedly warned civilian politicians to get their act together to end the country's crisis or risk paving the way for the military to stage a comeback.

And Sutarto, 55, a tough, no-nonsense officer who served as the commander of former President Suharto's presidential guards prior to his ousting, is one general who can be counted on to take decisive action when the need arises.

"They (the military) seem to be concerned about the lack of leadership within the civilian elites. I think they sense there is room for them once more due to the weakness of the political leadership by civilians," said Sarwono.

A nationalist and a conservative, Sutarto is a firm believer in the unitary state of Indonesia and views separatism as a serious threat to the country's survival.

The weak civilian leadership has emboldened several provinces to make all kinds of demands -- ranging from Aceh and Papua seeking independence -- to hardline Muslims in the province of South Sulawesi demanding the implementation of Islamic law and threatening to break away from Jakarta-rule if their demands are rejected.

Sutarto believes that separatist groups should be quelled, with military force if necessary, as part of efforts to hold the country together.

Support from new quarters

Sulawesi violence
Sutarto is expected to take a firm stance against separatists, particulary in Aceh  

The disintegration of Indonesia is a major concern of many foreign governments as they believe it will destabilize the rest of the region and spawn lawlessness beyond the borders of the vast archipelago.

As an individual, Sutarto, is generally well-accepted domestically and internationally for his tough stance against the current background of uncertainty.

"I am optimistic. General Sutarto has good ideas, some vision....he also strongly believes in law enforcement," a Western diplomat told CNN.

Sutarto is also expected to take a firm stance against militant groups -- be it Muslim organizations, labor unions or other activists.

And Sutarto can count on the military's second most powerful officer, the newly-installed army chief, Lieutenant-General Ryamizard Ryacudu, to back him up.

Ryacudu spent most of his career in field operations. The three-star general is known more as a fighter than a thinker, who spends much of his time with his men and commands their loyalty. Together they make a formidable pair.

"They (Sutarto and Ryacudu) have no faith in militant groups. They will be more firm on labor unions, Muslim groups, leftists students....they will be cracking down on them," said Sarwono.

However, placing the military's leadership under Sutarto, who hails from the army, has raised concerns it would once again strengthen a service which is accused of human rights abuses and which used to dominate the country's political life.

The army accounts for two-thirds of the military's 300,000-strong personnel.

While Sutarto and Ryacudu are untainted by human rights abuses and have constantly instructed their men to respect human rights and uphold the law, reformers fear this tough pair may steamroll basic rights in their rush to curb separatists.

Self interest fears

Sutarto's appointment is also a reversal of a policy started by the former reformist President Abdurrahman Wahid.

He promoted officers from the navy and air force services, which are considered untainted by human rights violations and which have played little role in the country's politics.

Sutarto's predecessor, Admiral Widodo, was the first non-army officer to lead the military in more than three decades and was appointed by Wahid.

Wahid has blamed the military and Sutarto for backing the movement to oust him last year and the general was criticized by pro-democracy campaigners for interfering into the country's politics.

Sutarto's previous brush with politics has caused unease with reformers who worry he might be used by politicians for their own interest in the near future. "I worry that he may have the potential to be coopted by politicians for their own interest," a senior military source told CNN.

Only time will tell whether Sutarto holds true to his military oath of honor to fight for the people and country, and not the vested interest of a few power-hungry politicians.


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