Suharto and ABRI

President Suharto dates his official entry into the Indonesian Army on the same day it was founded, 5 October 1945. His subsequent military career bears some examination, because it tells us something about his own attitude towards the army and the army in politics. Suharto drifted into the new republic’s army after brief service in the Dutch colonial army (KNIL) and a spell in the Indonesian militia organised by the Japanese occupation forces. Like many young men in Java at the time, he claims to have been drawn to the cause of fighting for independence. His prior formal military experience under the Dutch and Japanese almost certainly explains why he was given a local command in Central Java.

Suharto’s actual role in the war of independence is a subject of controversy. The official history grants him a leading role in the 1 March 1949 ‘general attack’ on Jogyakarta, when Indonesian forces surprised the Dutch and briefly occupied Jogyakarta. In his autobiography, Suharto relates how he was at the centre of things, discussing strategy with the revered army commander, General Sudirman. Others have subsequently cast doubt on his importance during the campaign, arguing that he was but one of many local commanders, and even casting aspersions on his capabilities in the field. General Nasution claims, for example, that Suharto was reluctant to follow orders, preferring to wait and see what others did first.

Naturally, both sides of the story are heavily cloaked in later political interpretations. Any objective assessment, however, must assume that Suharto’s presence in Central Java at the height of the war placed him in a position to participate in significant military action, and the fact that soon afterwards he commanded troops to put down a regional revolt in Makassar suggests that his abilities and experience were recognised by the high command.

The more interesting period of his military career began with his transfer to Central Java in 1952. After a spell as chief of staff of the regional divisional command, he was elevated to regional commander in 1957, with the rank of full colonel. These were difficult times for ABRI. The fledgling state was unable to find funds to finance a fully-equipped professional army, so ABRI was encouraged to seek independent financing by establishing its own businesses. To do this, ABRI officers formed business liaisons with local Chinese businessmen. The nationalisation of Dutch companies declared by Soekarno in 1957 also saw many lucrative enterprises fall into ABRI’s hands.

Suharto demonstrated consummate skill at satisfying the quartermastering demands of the division, striking up a relationship with one businessman, Liem Sioe Long, who later became the largest corporate player under the New Order. Here too he established the core group of officers who were later to serve as his closest aides after 1966, men like Ali Murtopo and Sudjono Hurmurdani. The period was therefore formative for Suharto, and determined some of the methods he applied to his rule after becoming president. The conditions faced by Suharto in Central Java represented the harsh realities of ABRI’s struggle to survive. Confronted by budgetary difficulties and the threat of Communist-led insurrection, ABRI was forced to adapt and deploy unconventional methods. The territorial system developed to combat regionalism and Communism ensured that the military presence was pervasive right down to the village level. Yet it was less a strategy of warfare than of the imposition of strict control over the population.

To fund military operations, deals were cut with local businessmen. They helped set up local foundations to act as fronts for the imposition of taxes on most economic activities. The activities of Suharto’s division were so lucrative they attracted the attention of the Jakarta high command, which had Suharto quietly removed from the position in 1959 and sent to staff college. Suharto continued to use social foundations, yayasans, after coming to power; in fact they became a major source of funding for the military elite, and provide the lion’s share of funds for important political institutions like Golkar. The fact that Suharto was effectively fired because the army considered these practices corrupt in the late 1950s, seems to have had no effect on the perception of the system as it is applied on a much larger scale today.

The important point is that Suharto brought with him to the presidency both the methods and the men from this period in Central Java. Neither was looked upon as orthodox by the intellectual military elite in Jakarta at the time. General Nasution relates that Suharto told him in 1968 : ‘General, my politics are at the point of a bayonet’. Nasution contends that from the beginning Suharto surrounded himself with men who were not from the army’s mainstream:

Soeharto became more or less presidium of the army’s political think tank, Panitia Sospol, led by Basuki Rachmat and Sutjipto. Into this Soeharto brought in Murtopo as his asintel (assistant for intelligence). With him came the Tanah Abang Group (mainly Chinese Catholic students under Murtopo’s wing) with their strategic plans for the future. Not the army. We had no plans. In this sense, the army more or less faded away in its influence on Soeharto (interview with General A.H. Nasution, 11 November 1989).

Nasution himself was perhaps by this stage less representative of the mainstream. But his point underlines the extent to which the generation of officers with more educated and intellectual backgrounds had been marginalised – or eliminated – by 1966.