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FEBRUARY 14, 2000 VOL. 155 NO. 6

He's The Boss
Talking tough, President Wahid forces a dramatic confrontation with Indonesia's military by asking embattled General Wiranto to leave his cabinet

Charles Dharapak/AP
General Wiranto, Coordinating Minister for Security and Politics, has been asked to step down by President Wahid.

For much of the past two years, Indonesia has lived up to its reputation as a theater of shadows. Unknown gunmen sparked the riots that led in 1998 to the fall of former dictator Suharto. Anonymous "ninjas" spread terror across eastern Java a year later. Mere rumors have prompted bloodbaths on outlying islands. So the crisis that now grips the country is almost shocking in its clarity. In one camp stands civilian President Abdurrahman Wahid, who asked General Wiranto, Coordinating Minister for Security and Politics, to resign last week after he was implicated by a local commission investigating human rights abuses in East Timor. In the other stands Wiranto, who refuses to step down. In between hangs the question of whether Indonesia can close the book on decades of military domination over society.

Indonesian officials once called East Timor a mere "pebble" in the government's shoe. Now the former Portuguese colony, annexed by Indonesia for 23 years, has turned into a boomerang that could cut Indonesia's powerful armed forces down to size. Wahid's instructions to former military chief Wiranto were clear: "If he doesn't resign, then I will ask him," he said from London, the fourth stop on a 16-day trip overseas. "Then I will remove him from office." Wiranto's response was equally unambiguous: he attended a cabinet meeting the next morning as if nothing were amiss. Legally, the fact that the general was named in the report means little at the moment; he has yet to be charged formally with any crime and may not be tried for months, if ever. But his stubborn refusal to step down when asked poses a direct threat to the President and his fledgling administration. Either Wahid, who returns to Jakarta on Feb. 13, persuades him to leave peacefully, thereby asserting a degree of civilian control over the military not seen in more than three decades, or he fails, and Indonesia's hard-won renewal of democracy is stillborn.

Although both sides have tempered their rhetoric, the stakes are obvious to everyone involved. "If the whole process moves too fast, you could get a kind of Nigerian-style re-militarization," says Hasyim Wahid, the President's younger brother. "We have to move slowly and carefully." Thus far most observers have discounted the possibility of a coup staged by Wiranto supporters. "TNI is an asset to the President and recognizes that he has the authority," says Lieut.-General Agus Wijoyo, Chief of Staff for Territorial Affairs, using the military's Indonesian acronym. But even without a takeover of power, Wiranto's defiance could so seriously undermine Wahid's authority over an already fractious administration that the President may not be able to govern. In last week's cabinet meeting Vice President Megawati Sukarnoputri reportedly took no notice of the fact that Wiranto was supposed to have quit, and other ministers later dodged questions about his presence.

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If the drama is stark, its resolution remains as murky as ever. The report issued last week by the Commission Investigating Human Rights Violations in East Timor recommended that 33 military and civilian officials be investigated for their roles in the "mass killings, torture, sexual slavery, forced deportation and rape" of East Timorese after a referendum last August, in which East Timorese voted to reject Jakarta's rule. Wiranto is cited for not controlling his troops, a charge echoed in a separate U.N. report on Timor also issued last week. "Wiranto needs to accept some responsibility because he did not take effective steps to stop the violence," says commission chief Albert Hasibuan.

The general and his lawyers say he is not obliged to resign. "The report is only preliminary, has no legal value, and is more of a political recommendation," says Adnan Buyung Nasution, a former human-rights advocate who now heads Wiranto's legal team. Nasution argues that not only did the commission have no mandate to accuse specific figures, but its report lacks "evidence and concrete facts." Wiranto himself seems to have been emboldened by the charges, vowing to stay and "fight for the truth like any good soldier."

He has some reason to stonewall. Since those implicated in the East Timor report include both civilian and military figures, a special human-rights court may need to be created to hold any trials. The law that could authorize such a body has been bogged down in parliament for months, as legislators debate whether the rules should encompass rights abuses committed in the past. Meanwhile, other fact-finding reports -- investigating the May 1998 riots, the deaths of Acehnese at the hands of the military and dozens of corruption cases -- languish in the Attorney General's office.

Indonesians, however, may no longer be willing to wait. Newspapers in the capital have demanded "accountability" for the crimes committed in East Timor. Regions like Aceh and Irian Jaya that feel they have suffered similar depredations under the military are watching closely to see whether they can expect justice from Jakarta. "The people are getting impatient for results and want to see justice done," says Minister for Human Rights Affairs Hasballah Saad. "We want to destroy the myth that military officials can act with impunity, or that anyone exists above the law."

A growing faction within the military seems to agree with that goal. Although the Jakarta stock index dropped 2.2% on the day Wahid asked Wiranto to resign, hardly anyone believes the general has the backing for a coup. Wiranto, who rose through the ranks on the strength of his connection to Suharto rather than his military exploits, commands only mixed loyalty among the officer corps, where the views of reformers have begun to percolate. "TNI realizes that it is no longer a dominant political force and that it must be held accountable for its actions," says Wijoyo. Major-General Agus Wirahadikusuma, the reformist commander of the Sulawesi military region, is even more direct: "It would be better for Wiranto to step down and to demonstrate to the international community that TNI is committed to human rights and the supremacy of the law."

From far-off Europe, Wahid, who is popularly known as Gus Dur, may thus have judged the mood well. "Gus Dur is not afraid of the military," says his brother. When Wahid took office, he added only four military men to his 35-member cabinet, and he removed troops from Wiranto's direct control. At the end of last month, he signed a decree that would require any officer serving in the cabinet to resign his military position. The President's supporters see his ultimatum to Wiranto as only the latest strike in a well-orchestrated campaign to establish a civil society in Indonesia. "Gus Dur does not look at this as some kind of confrontation," says presidential adviser Said Aqil Siradj. "He has been educating the people for 15 years on the importance of civil rights and civilian supremacy, and he thinks that now is the time to respond." That may be true, but his actions have raised the political stakes. Says Hasibuan, "If we fail this time, faith in our ability to uphold the law will be lost at home and overseas. Our credibility will be gone." Neither Wahid nor Indonesia can afford to lose that gamble.

Reported by Jason Tedjasukmana/Jakarta

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