1988-1991: ABRI Faces an Uncertain Future

The end of the 1980s saw Indonesia recover its composure after the disastrous fall in oil prices which sent the economy hurtling into decline. A combination of artful macro-economic reform and full support from the country’s aid donors not only has helped the economy to recover, but also shows signs of at last living up to its considerable potential. But with the economic boom of the late 1980s came calls for political liberalisation. Some intellectuals saw little point in granting the private sector more freedom without accompanying political reforms.

Pressures for political reform surfaced against a background of mounting concern in elite circles about Suharto’s tenure in office. Soon after his re-election for a fifth term of office in March 1988, debate focused on the succession. Suharto entered his seventieth year in 1991 showing no signs that he intended to retire before the next election in 1993, and behaving as if he wanted to stay the course for a sixth term. This intensified concerns about how to manage the succession smoothly. Talk of succession has been a perennial feature of the New Order’s political cycles, but this kind of talk surfacing so soon after Suharto’s 1988 re-election suggested new urgency. Altogether, calls for more openness and debate over the succession generated a highly charged political atmosphere, one in which ABRI found itself to some extent intellectually outclassed and encumbered by anachronistic ideas.

While senior ABRI officers continued to harp on vigilance against the Communist threat and ‘national discipline’ as the keys to stability, civilian intellectuals were arguing that democratisation was needed to renew and preserve the New Order. It was not long before certain military leaders saw the political advantages of adjusting to this new thinking and coopting those who were behind it. Far from being ideologically inspired – or necessarily committed to democracy – as will be argued below, ABRI needed a political constituency.

The year 1988 taught ABRI just how low their political stock had sunk under the New Order. A move to pass a new soldiership law through parliament was blocked in late 1987 after the executive branch mobilised the parliamentary factions to raise objections to the draft. The draft bill included alterations to the soldier’s oath which emphasised allegiance to the constitution and by implication de-emphasised loyalty to the government of the day. It also sought to neutralise the president’s notional powers as supreme commander by sharpening the authority of the ABRI commander. The draft bill, for instance, proposed increasing the mandatory retirement age from 55 to 60 (Vatikiotis 1987:35). Subsequent revisions to the draft were forced on ABRI after lengthy debate in parliament, which ironed out these conspicuous attempts – using constitutional means – to enhance military power, and the bill was passed.

Worse was to come. When ABRI signalled its objection to Suharto over his choice of vice president in the 1988 presidential election, they once again found their influence much weakened. Suharto had earlier indicated he wanted Sudharmono, the chairman of Golkar and state secretary, to have the job. Sudharmono, the shrewd ex-Army lawyer who was the architect of much of the New Order’s legal and bureaucratic edifice, was considered unsuitable by ABRI. As Golkar chairman he had worked assiduously to reduce ABRI’s influence over the party. Using the state secretariat, he had effectively drained a good deal of ABRI’s pool of extra-budgetary funding. In the eyes of the military, Sudharmono represented a dangerous threat to their political supremacy.

ABRI was overruled. By demonstrating so openly his disregard for ABRI’s advice, and insisting on Sudharmono becoming vice president, Suharto demonstrated that he no longer needed ABRI as a prop to sustain his power. The political fallout made a deep impression on the military and triggered introspection on ABRI’s role in politics and its relationship with the national leadership on one side, and the people on the other.

ABRI’s catharsis was expressed in two ways. The political setbacks of 1988 almost immediately led to further disaffection within the ABRI leadership. Most notably, the former ABRI commander, General L.B. Murdani, smarting from his curt dismissal before the presidential election, signalled that his patience with Suharto was wearing thin. He joined the ranks of the dispirited, but retained a cabinet position as Defence minister. Showing how much more important personalities can be than institutions in Indonesian politics, as ABRI commander Murdani overshadowed the Defence minister. Once he was in the job, the position once more assumed importance.

Murdani, aided by his extensive intelligence network, set about laying ambushes for Sudharmono almost as soon as he was elected vice president. Rumours surfaced, for example, of his involvement in the Communist uprising at Madiun in 1948. Sudharmono took these seriously enough to publicly deny his Communist sympathies in late 1988. For a political culture steeped in the art of discretion, the anti-Sudharmono campaign broke all the rules. One prominent retired general even refused to hang his portrait beside that of President Suharto.

Arguably, though, the ABRI leadership’s sniping at the vice president was wasted ammunition. For Suharto, the advantage was two-fold: the campaign against Sudharmono drew some of his opponents out into the open, and it also drove a wedge into Golkar. Ironically, this was useful because it served to weaken Sudharmono’s strong grip over the party – thus denying him a power base. He lost the chairmanship of Golkar in November 1988, in spite of a furious campaign mounted by his supporters. It also ensured that some of the smart – and increasingly popular – civilian politicians fostered by Sudharmono would not fall into the arms of ABRI. Interviews with senior Golkar officials, like Secretary General Rachmat Witoelar, and his predecessor Sarwono Kusumaatmadja, conveyed a sense of ambiguity towards ABRI, despite the traditionally close relationship between the two institutions. Sarwono’s view in May 1988 was:

In a tactical sense, the army is losing out. Suharto is increasingly civilian in his outlook, if not by concept then by association (interview with Sarwono Kusumaatmadja, 16 May 1988).

The boldness of such views jeopardised popular attitudes towards the military simply because of the influence Sarwono and other prominent civilians in Golkar were beginning to have on the debate about the country’s political future. At the same time ABRI also embarked on a re-appraisal of its role and standing in society.

There seems little doubt that the younger generation of ABRI officers harboured misgivings about the dual function. This has been apparent since at least the early 1980s, when Jenkins (1984:261) detected that younger officers took more pride in their professional role as soldiers and paid less attention to their socio-political role. The logical consequences of this trend were partly offset in the past by the fact that many such officers once injected into the socio-political role soon lost their misgivings about the system.

However, by the end of the 1980s the government was faced with a chronically demoralised civil service, low on esteem because all the plum jobs went to ABRI personnel. Civilian elements in the cabinet clamoured for the injection of more esprit de corps and some sort of career-track policy. They argued that the government’s economic reform programme would be jeopardised without the back-up of a more efficient, dedicated civil service. In response, the government took steps to limit the number of ABRI personnel in civilian posts. Ironically enough, one man who helped implement the policy was a former army chief, General Rudini, in his new capacity as Home Affairs minister. In August 1990 Rudini announced that military appointments to civilian posts, known as karyawan – ‘cadres’ – would be decreased gradually ‘in areas where they are not needed’. Already in force was a policy which reduced the number of military district officers to 40 per cent of the total, and insisted that posts below that of deputy governor in provincial seats must now be held by civil servants. His argument drew on ABRI’s historical justification for political intervention :

kekaryawan is a small part of the dual function. It existed because of the situation and conditions. In 1965, after the coup, many civilian officials were afraid to execute their jobs. They were afraid of Communists. Only ABRI wanted to do the job. After the situation stabilised, everyone agreed that kekaryawan could decrease step by step in areas where they are not needed (speech by General (retd.) Rudini to the Jakarta ‘Executive Circle’, 7 August 1990).

While the actual participation by the military in civilian administration was being reduced, there was no sign that the military was relinquishing its function as a ‘dynamiser’ of society. Senior military officers, if anything, intensified their efforts to influence society by speaking up on a range of political issues. However, in a marked departure from the familiar ABRI catechism on security, stability, and the need for national discipline, senior ABRI leaders began echoing the debate in civilian intellectual circles about openness.

The change often seemed more of a nuance than a volte face. For example, in a speech he made on 20 May 1987, with the title ‘National Discipline and Development of our Democracy’, Murdani started out with the familiar theme of national discipline. ‘The role of discipline in national and constitutional life is to guarantee the creation of peace and order in daily life’, he intoned. But later in the speech he noted :

Discipline must not cause initiatives and creativity to disappear. Obedience and loyalty must not produce passive ... people ... there is indeed the fear that the obligation to do everything with full obedience and loyalty might produce humans who are like robots/automotons that move only when commanded (speech by General L.B. Murdani, 20 May 1987).

By 1989, with the debate on openness in full swing in civilian intellectual circles, Army chief of staff, General Edi Sudrajat had this to say:

Having enjoyed better education, our people want differences discussed more openly. As such they want more active participation in the decision-making process on national problems and in social control (speech by General Edi Sudrajat, at Magelang Military Academy, 5 December 1990).

In December 1990 Sudrajat presided over an army seminar which attempted to project the make-up of what was euphemistically termed the ‘human resources’ (sumber daya manusia) of Indonesia in the years ahead. Some of the seminar’s recommendations and conclusions indicated the army’s understanding of society’s more liberal urges:

  1. The concept of development should not be static.

  2. The people will become more critical and desire more participation as society becomes more open.

  3. They will want more of a say in electing the leadership.

  4. Current social and political institutions are not fully developed.

  5. They are characterised by too much paternalism.

  6. Education is unevenly distributed.

  7. Officials must know when to step down.

  8. Their period of office must be clearly defined.

ABRI’s embrace of the need for more openness, and acknowledgement of the need for reforms in this direction took some people by surprise. In the first place, the perception prevalent among the civilian elite was that ABRI’s continued belief in a ‘security approach’ to the safeguard of national stability ruled out their espousal of so-called ‘Western liberal ideas of democracy and free speech’. More savvy commentators understood ABRI’s strategy as less to change the system as to bring about a change of leadership:

Apparently the game, even at this late hour still seems to be to try again with words to trigger somebody’s senses into realising that it is time indeed to change (Indonesian Observer, 5 December 1990).

Indeed, some of ABRI’s actions appeared to contradict the new political rhetoric of its leaders. Whilst tacitly supporting student demonstrations on campuses in Central Java, West Java and Jakarta, in the course of 1989 the incidents of local discontent were dealt with in the familiar harsh fashion dictated by the ‘security approach’. In March 1989 a minor disturbance in the South Sumatran province of Lampung resulted in an army assault on alleged Muslim extremists in a village, leaving at least forty, and possibly as many as two hundred, dead.

ABRI’s decision to adopt a kinder, gentler approach to the people of East Timor after international diplomatic pressure forced the government to open up the disputed province in early 1989, did not bring a halt to army intimidation of those suspected of disloyalty to the state. Faced by increasingly militant Timorese youth in urban areas, the army showed little leniency. On 12 November 1991, troops fired on mourners in a cemetery on the outskirts of the capital, Dili, leaving by a later official account at least fifty dead. When a low-level insurgency re-erupted in the North Sumatran province of Aceh in early 1990, the army’s response was as fierce and uncompromising, leaving hundreds dead.

While ABRI debated openness and democracy with intellectuals in Jakarta, senior officers were maintaining that when it came to threats to national security, ABRI was above the law (attributed to a senior ABRI staff officer by a representative of a humanitarian organisation in Jakarta October 1991). In this respect, ABRI’s true orientation with regard to the democratic tendencies emerging in Indonesian society was not easy to define. Some observers felt that the assertive action taken by the military against irredentist movements in Timor and Aceh was partly a product of knowing no other means to deal with the situation. Political enlightenment may have seeped into the upper ranks, but at the local command level the legacy of basic training which emphasised the use of brute force to deal with social disturbances still prevailed. Some recognition of this by 1990 was evident after the military sanctioned for the first time the use of civilian university teachers to enhance the curriculum at the military academy at Magelang.