Indonesia’s powerful military is not giving up. After humiliating the country with its mishandling of East Timor, the armed forces have rammed legislation through the Parliament that gives the government new powers in the event of an emergency. Opponents fear that the groundwork is being laid for a coup, a charge that is denied by the military. Given recent events, the accusation cannot be lightly dismissed.
The armed forces, known as the TNI, must feel as if the noose is tightening. United Nations peacekeeping forces are taking control of the situation in the battered province of East Timor. Order is being restored. The militias that were set up and armed by the military and went on murderous rampages before and after the referendum are being tamed. There is mounting evidence of atrocities, and there must be concern that the evidentiary trail will lead to the TNI.
The U.N. Human Rights Commission is debating the dispatch of a special team to investigate human-rights abuses in East Timor. While conceding that crimes may have taken place, the Indonesian government wants any probe to be led by its own people. Given the complicity of that same government in the crimes committed in the province, there is little hope that such an inquiry would establish the truth.
The situation in Indonesia is explosive. The country has been humiliated: It has been forced to accept U.N. peacekeepers and threatened by the International Monetary Fund and some Western governments with the withholding of aid. President B.J. Habibie has been thoroughly discredited and proven incapable of controlling the government. Golkar, the ruling party, is deeply divided and mired in scandal.
Although the armed forces have been stained by the events in East Timor, their reputation is less damaged, if only because the national media has not reported the full truth about events in East Timor during the 24 years of occupation. Moreover, foreign pressure has driven Indonesians to rally around the flag, and the institution most intimately associated with the country — and most responsible for past successes — is the military.
This is the backdrop for the legislation that was passed by the People’s Consultative Assembly last week. The new “Prevention of Danger Law” updates a bill that was passed in 1959. It gives the president the power to declare a state of emergency in a province if requested to do so by local leaders and the national assembly. It permits the military to ban protests, ignore human-rights provisions and take over telecommunications and mail services.
The bill is troubling for three reasons. First, in the wake of the East Timor referendum, other provinces are demanding more autonomy. The bill effectively caps those ambitions. Second, the legislature dissolved last week. It is unlikely that the new assembly would have passed the bill.
Finally, there are fears that the military could be preparing to flex its muscles in just such an emergency. The parliamentary elections held in June, the first truly free and fair elections in Indonesia since 1955, overturned the existing power structure. One of the casualties was the military, which had arrogated itself a role as kingmaker in Indonesian politics. The bill gives the armed forces the power to discard civil liberties in the event of widespread unrest. Even if they do not attempt a coup, the bill has put the new legislature on notice.
The response could not have been better scripted. Thousands of students and other democrats have taken to the streets in protest throughout Indonesia. The government did not hesitate to use force against the demonstrators. Several people were killed, hundreds more injured. After two days of protest, it was announced that the bill would be “suspended.” That is not as encouraging as it seems. Suspended is not canceled. And notice of the suspension came from the military itself, not the Cabinet of Mr. Habibie, who must sign the bill into power.
Even without the imposition of martial law, the armed forces’ position has been strengthened. Hopes that this summer’s elections would signal a new beginning for Indonesian politics have been betrayed. It is almost as if the powers-that-be have seen what democracy can do, and they are scared. They have reason to be. Observers say that the protesters now are angrier than before. And with good reason: They thought that the overthrow of the Suharto government marked the end of his regime. Instead, the old order has retrenched.
Indonesia’s new president will be selected in November. The process will feature intense horse-trading behind the scenes. Last week’s bill is a clear signal that the military will not go quietly into the new Indonesia.
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