WASHINGTON, Oct. 26 -- Newly elected Indonesian President Abdurrahman Wahid cut the political head off Indonesia's long-feared army Tuesday, reducing its political clout to a level not seen in more than 40 years. Wahid announced a new 35-member cabinet that was low on experience but high on integrity. And he stripped Defense Minister and Armed Forces Chief Gen. Wiranto of both those key positions, kicking him upstairs into an honorific, but essentially powerless, cabinet post as political and security affairs minister. Tuesday's appointments appeared to derail Wiranto's steady rise in Indonesia's power structure. Wahid went so far as to appoint a civilian, Education Minister Juwono Sudarsono, as the new defense minister, according to reports from Jakarta. That was an unprecedented humiliation for the armed forces, stripping them of the power at the top political echelon that they have come to see as their right since the mid-1950s. Sudarsono was Wahid's personal choice for the role. He is a former deputy governor of Indonesia's National Defense Institute, and Jakarta insiders said Wahid believed this experience would prove reassuring to uneasy senior army officers. Wahid also stripped the army of the key position of Armed Forces Commander, which has always held it of right. He gave it to Adm. A.S. Widodo, the former head of Indonesia's small, badly equipped and under- funded Navy, which -- unlike the army -- has never involved itself in domestic politics. Widodo has only held the revived position of deputy armed forces commander since July 17.
According to Jakarta analysts, Wiranto only appointed him because he was confident at the time that he would soon be appointed vice president. Wiranto, the sources said, believed Widodo was a political nonentity who could not challenge him while he continued to exercise real power over the armed forces. The appointments of Sudarsono and Widodo were a humiliating setback for the suave and soft-spoken, but also ambitious and ruthless Wiranto. As recently as last week, he was dropping broad hints in public speeches that he was prepared to serve as vice president in the interests of the nation. But Wiranto did not realize that Indonesian society had changed in front of his eyes over the past 18 months, since his mentor and hero, former President Suharto, was forced to resign after Indonesia's economy was wrecked by the Asian financial meltdown and violent protests erupted in the streets. Wiranto, 52, spent his adult life quietly rising in the army, which truly ruled Indonesia during Suharto's 32 years in office. He got his big break in 1989 when Suharto chose him as his personal military aide. In that post, over the next four years, he forged extremely close personal links to Suharto. One general even told the Jakarta Post newspaper: 'They were very close. There was a father-son relationship.' After that, Wiranto's career took off like a rocket. On Feb. 12, 1998, Suharto appointed him to the crucial dual position of defense minister and armed forces chief of staff. Suharto was forced to resign only three months later. At first, Wiranto seemed to be a sure superstar. He was widely seen as essential to maintaining security and unity across the vast nation of 210 million, scattered across 17,000 islands in an area the size of the United States. His quiet assurance compared favorably with the often undignified, though sincere efforts at reform of President B.J. Habibie, the former vice president who had been unexpectedly catapulted into power by Suharto's resignation. Wiranto spoke repeatedly about the need to remove the armed forces from politics -- but not just yet. 'We will eventually leave the political stage,' he told the Jakarta Post in an interview printed March 5, 1999. 'But it has to be done gradually.' At first, Wiranto's talk of professionalizing the army won widespread popularity at home and professional acclaim abroad. He also assured himself of U.S. and Australian support by maintaining, and even upgrading, Indonesia's close security relationships with both nations. In August 1998, he toppled his one great rival to run the army, former Special Forces Commander Gen. Praebowo Subianto, Suharto's son-in-law. Praebowo was forced into exile in Jordan. Then it all turned sour for Wiranto. First, in January 1999, Habibie ignored his advice and approved a referendum vote on independence for the restive territory of East Timor, which Suharto had seized in 1975. After that, the distrust and tensions between the two men steadily grew. Habibie called democratic parliamentary elections and made sure they were free and fair. But when they were held on June 7, the ruling Golkar party -- which had run the country for decades hand-in-glove with the army -- won only 22 percent. Democratic reformer Megawati Sukarnoputri stormed to prominence with 34 percent of the vote, more than any other candidate. Wiranto and his top generals produced in early July what they regarded as an acceptable compromise listing the conditions under which the army high command would agree to work with Megawati. But she humiliated them by rejecting it publicly later that month. Then, on Aug. 30, the people of East Timor voted for independence. Immediately, militias of Javanese settlers in the territory who had been armed and equipped by the Indonesian army, according to the private assessments of United Nations officials and human rights workers, unleashed a reign of terror that killed thousands of people and forced hundreds of thousands to flee the territory. Western intelligence analysts and diplomats supported the assessments of the U.N and aid workers in East Timor that the armed forces command in Jakarta, including Wiranto himself, must have planned and approved the militia rampage as an attempt to terrorize the people of the territory into staying within Indonesia. The violence also undermined President Habibie. Later, Wiranto negotiated with several politicians, including Golkar party chief Akbar Tandjung and Wahid, the leader of a 'Central Axis' of several moderate Muslim parties, about serving as the vice president to any of them. The intrigues backfired when Indonesia's parliamentarians finally chose the country's next president last week. It was Wahid who won, with both army and Golkar party support, but he then appointed Megawati -- Wiranto's harshest critic -- as his vice president. Now he has lost no time in taking steps to sideline Wiranto and other top army commanders from the political power they had come to take for granted as their birthright. Wiranto, Indonesian analysts have privately said, still mentally lives in the soft-spoken world of intrigue and coups that had catapulted his hero Suharto to power in 1966. But Indonesia has changed since then. When Wahid was faced between choosing as his vice president Megawati, who commands a mass following of tens of millions among the young and the urban poor, or Wiranto, whose traditional military policies of intrigue and terror had backfired disastrously in East Timor, he chose the new over the old. Wiranto probably will not disappear immediately from public life, Indonesian political commentators say. But less than two years after emerging on the national scene as Indonesia's 'Man of the Future', many of them are already referring to him as a figure from the past -- the man of destiny whom history passed by. ---
Copyright 1999 by United Press International. All rights reserved. ---