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Who's in Charge Here?
In the quest for lasting peace, civilian control of the military is key

Defining Identity:
Japan should grant its 'Koreans' full citizenship.

Mao Zedong clearly knew his stuff. Power does come out of the barrel of a gun, as the Great Helmsman famously observed. No wonder any democrat worth his bill of rights has insisted that armies be firmly under the command of elected leaders. Otherwise, democracy could quickly turn into government of the soldiers, by the soldiers and for the soldiers. Which makes one worry about recent goings-on in the Philippines and Indonesia. Both face serious security problems, mainly from ethnic strife, which have boosted the military's importance and clout. The question is: Has civilian control over the army been eroded amid all the shooting?

Hang on, violence-weary Indonesians and Filipinos may retort, with kidnappings, terrorist bombings and communal strife, why fret over the finer points of civilian-military relations? Can't this wait until the gunsmoke clears? Frankly, no. Get this straight: keeping troops under civilian control is crucial to ending ethnic bloodletting, whether in Aceh, Ambon, Maluku, Timor, Mindanao or anywhere else. In flashpoint after flashpoint, once the army takes over security policy, the fighting never stops. Why not? Because lasting solutions to longstanding conflicts demand dialogue and compromise — very hard to do with guns blazing in one's face.

So are the generals thumbing their noses at the authorities in Jakarta and Manila? In the former there is undoubtedly a problem. Even President Abdurrahman Wahid has bewailed his endless difficulties with the men in uniform, most prominently at the United Nations Millennium Summit. In New York last month the Indonesian leader declared that an attack that week on U.N. relief workers in his country's West Timor province was a calculated ploy by militias and military elements opposed to East Timor independence to embarrass him. In fact, many in Indonesia have accused rogue elements in the armed forces, including some top brass, of fueling the very strife they are supposed to pacify. The presumed aim: to make it appear that Wahid can't rule and should step aside. If he does, the next leader would almost surely feel even less able to stand up to a military that just maneuvered to unseat the head of state.

Militarists in TNI, the Indonesian armed forces, have plenty of reasons to try to cut the government down to size. They fear Jakarta's moves to put army officers and men, as well as military-backed militia fighters, on trial for rights abuses. They have resisted a public clamor to reduce TNI's once-sacrosanct role in government, pushing back the scrapping of the military's parliamentary seats from 2004 to 2009. There are generals who hold fast to the decades-old duty to defend Indonesian territory and prevent any part from breaking away. Many of them see nothing less than treason in negotiating with separatists and punishing soldiers for ruthlessly suppressing rebellion. This faction blames Indonesia's new democracy for igniting rebellion, even though it was decades of iron-fisted repression that stoked the fires of ethnic hatred, which flared up once dissent was allowed.

By contrast, Manila and its military seem to be enjoying very good relations. Perhaps too good. Just listen to President Joseph Estrada sound off on what he has in mind for the Muslim rebels his troops have been fighting since midyear. In his State of the Nation address in July, amid an all-out attack on the Moro Islamic Liberation Front, the main rebel group, Estrada thundered: "You don't coddle a rebellion. You crush it." Last month, when he ordered the assault on Abu Sayyaf extremists who abducted dozens of Filipinos and foreigners this year, the president pledged to "reduce them to ashes." Such aggressive words and the overwhelming firepower he has deployed, despite the danger of high civilian casualties, make his avowed policy of seeking to end the rebellion by peaceful means somewhat less credible.

Further fueling such doubts is the way Estrada's political fortunes now depend on victory in the battlefield to offset unwelcome economic news like the falling peso and escalating oil prices. So far, the military campaign has paid off for the president, with the rescue of two French journalists and a Filipino evangelical group. But things could change if the war drags on and the body count mounts. Keen to inspire the troops, the government has obtained $170 million in new defense funding. There is also moral support from top officials. Amid growing criticism of the bombing, Defense Secretary Orlando Mercado has lined up with Armed Forces Chief Angelo Reyes to assume responsibility. Very gallant, but shouldn't the top civilian official in charge of the military urged it to address public concerns over the conduct of the war, instead of shielding it from criticism?

To be sure, the fighting man's task is fraught with enough danger and hardship without bothering with things like human rights and civilian supremacy. Amid battlefield confusion and with countless lives at stake, it would be no surprise if abuses abound. All the more reason to keep the military on a tight civilian leash. Jakarta and Manila need to do that more firmly. Otherwise, the likely excesses by an unbridled military and the consequent loss of confidence in democratic institutions could well stir up even greater conflict.

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