1970-1988: ABRI Under the New Order

This brief look at Suharto’s military origins provides a useful springboard from which to examine the development of ABRI’s role and position under the New Order. For if the New Order is considered in general terms as a military-backed regime, closer examination of the more recent period reveals that it has been Suharto rather than ABRI which has reaped the fruits of power. Compounding this sense of impotency was the progressive division of ABRI thinking into two schools: one closely associated with Suharto and enjoying the benefits of his power and patronage, the other increasingly estranged from the ruling group and advocating ABRI’s gradual withdrawal from politics (Jenkins 1984:255).

For much of the 1970s and early 1980s, ABRI found itself torn between these two poles. The steady consolidation of the Suharto group saw military men attain considerable power and prestige, but in the process, arguably, the military tenor of the regime became diluted. If one examines the methods of men like Murtopo and Sudharmono – two of Suharto’s closest aides over this period – much of what they achieved was at cross-purposes with the military. Murtopo’s opsus (special operations group) favoured unorthodox methods of intelligence and subterfuge to execute policy, often leaving the military high command in the dark. Sudharmono’s legalistic mind helped erect an array of legal props to Suharto’s legitimacy and gradually strengthened the civilian bureaucracy at the expense of the military. He engineered a presidential order (number 10) which deprived ABRI of considerable financial clout by diverting lucrative government tenders to businessmen close to the palace.

Those on the periphery of the ruling group grew steadily uncomfortable with what they saw as Suharto’s entrenchment in power. Some have since suggested that Suharto was not expected to last by the military elite.

I never thought he would last so long. In 1971 I expressed the view that the president should run only for two years, because otherwise his vested interests would take over. Suharto may also have seen the sense in this, but those around him told him to go on (interview with General Kemal Idris, 16 January 1990).

The effect this had on ABRI’s relationship with the leadership and the civilian elite cannot be underestimated. Arguably, growing disaffection towards Suharto in certain ABRI quarters by the mid 1970s lent strength to the view that ABRI should be less engaged in politics, for this implied a distancing from the leadership. In doctrinal terms, it produced by the late 1970s a move to purify ABRI’s position in the state above all groups.

Suharto’s grasp of the implications of such a position in terms of loyalty to the leadership prompted him to lash out at ABRI in 1980 for failing to see that defence of the constitution could not be achieved without supporting the New Order. Therefore, he said, ABRI must choose sides; it could not consider voting for any group other than Golkar, of which ABRI is a component part. The implications shocked many senior officers: ABRI a part of the Golkar family? ABRI serving the New Order? Such notions flew in the face of ABRI doctrine. But realistically speaking, they accurately located ABRI’s position under Suharto.

Against this background of diverging views and loyalties within ABRI, questions about ABRI’s role in politics and support for a more democratic style of government in Indonesia began to surface. From the above, it would appear that the stimulus for ABRI’s questioning of its political role was derived from the realisation in certain quarters that Suharto’s entrenchment in power was no longer serving ABRI’s interests, and indeed was hindering ABRI’s own ability to serve the people. Initial attempts to put a distance between ABRI and the Suharto regime surfaced in the mid 1970s. Suharto was able to check these potential threats to his position by his judicious manipulation of senior appointments in ABRI. Those generals considered a threat were sidelined. But this served only to define more sharply the distinction between those in ABRI who believed the military should play a less overtly political role, and those – considered close to Suharto – who had no intention of altering the status quo.

In his seminal monograph on the Indonesian military, David Jenkins concludes that however divided ABRI was becoming because of the power struggle at the top, ABRI was, as he put it, ‘dug in on the commanding heights of the political, economic and social landscape’ (Jenkins 1984:263). The anatomy he presents of the debate about ABRI’s role seems dominated more by semantics than substance. Arguably, the concerns were more political than real. Can the same be said of the more recent period? Is ABRI moving any closer to significant change in attitude towards its role in politics?