ABRI’s Dilemma

Arguably, by the beginning of the 1990s ABRI was confronting a dilemma. The New Order with which the military rode to power in 1966 was under pressure to renew itself. In common with other longserving regimes in the region, it was fast becoming a victim of its own success. There was a limit to how much longer the people could be convinced of the need for stifling order and stability at the expense of individual freedom to sustain national development. For once national development had been achieved to the successful degree so evident in the ASEAN states, the people possessed more materialistic means for assuring their own security, however intrinsically unstable the fabric of society was deemed to be. In this context, ABRI was torn between the reality of its role and the ideals of its doctrine.

To resolve this dilemma, the ABRI leadership sought a way of preserving its political pre-eminence in advance of the coming succession struggle. Thus ABRI’s articulation of the need for more openness seemed to be driven less by a desire to relinquish power, than by the necessity of maintaining their relevance in politics to enhance their popularity. As suggested above, this latter period of the New Order was characterised by a blending of society’s desire for political change with the elite’s more narrow concerns about political succession. In this respect, it remains to be seen whether ABRI’s commitment to political change survives the change of leadership.

Whether the future prospects for democracy are linked to the military’s reduced role in any future Indonesian power structure is a tempting area of speculation. Based on the above analysis it seems reasonable to assume that ABRI will be reluctant to yield its position as a key political institution and its role as guardian of the state. As stated by one senior officer in 1980:

… it is clear that the armed forces would never abandon what it perceives to be its responsibility towards the people, which is to be active in the total life of Indonesian society (Nugroho 1980:95).

In fact, the signs are that though its room for manoeuvre has been weakened by Suharto’s canny use of divide and rule tactics, ABRI continues to dominate the competition for power at the top. Few Indonesians believe that the next president will not be drawn from among its ranks. Although the notion of a civilian vice president gained currency towards the end of President Suharto’s fifth term, the most likely contenders for power in a post-Suharto power-struggle are either in the armed forces, or are retired senior officers.

Indeed, Suharto’s selection of former armed forces commander General Try Sutrisno as vice president in March 1993 was interpreted in ABRI circles as a signal that a military successor was guaranteed. But nothing in politics is guaranteed, and Suharto’s concession to ABRI esteem was skilfully counterbalanced by his promotion of civilian interests soon after his re-election as president in March.

As Suharto embarked on his sixth presidential term, he seemed once again to be juggling his political support, and keeping the military at bay. The political leeway he granted to men like Professor B.J. Habibie, the artful minister of Research and Technology whose ambitious – not to mention costly – schemes for Indonesia’s technological development irked the innately conservative military establishment, had parallels with Sudharmono’s role in the previous five-year period.

In political terms, the licence Suharto appeared to grant Habibie guaranteed that ABRI would be preoccupied with attempts to block him, leaving Suharto free to focus on his broader national and international agenda. The succession question was, in this way, neatly shelved for the time being.

The crucial question is whether the current democratisation debate, and the slight relaxation of freedom of expression accompanying it, is a function of this competition for power, or a manifestation of actual progress towards more democracy in Indonesia. One of Indonesia’s most respected civilian political figures, head of Nahdlatul Ulama, the vast rural-based Islamic organisation, is optimistic:

Once you open the door you can’t shut it completely – that’s the lesson, what happened to Nikita Krushchev after he opened the door by criticising the Communist Party. It accumulates you see, during the Brezhnev era and after that Gorbachev and then the emergence of Boris Yeltsin. All those things show that, however little, sediments of democratic spirit will come through the filter and accumulate. So I don’t think the next government will be able to reverse the situation (interview with Abdurrahman Wahid, Inside Indonesia October 1990, pp. 4-6).

Such optimism may be justified in the light of the changing global situation, and specifically in the light of persistent international pressure on the Indonesian government after the 12 November 1991 incident in East Timor. But so long as the armed forces act as the principal agent in the filter Wahid refers to, it is hard to imagine a radical departure from the current patterns of social and political control practised by the New Order.