COURIER-MAIL: City on the
Edge [Jakarta teeters towards a military coup]
Saturday, February 05, 2000
While Indonesia's new President tours the globe
trying to shore up his country's finances, tension
mounts at home, writes Michael Ware in Jakarta.
THE question is on everybody's lips in Jakarta this
weekend: will there be a military coup?
Political turmoil has engulfed Indonesia's fledgling
democracy and the strain is apparent.
People's lives go on, the streets remain choked with
traffic and business continues, but the tension is
The republic's new President, Abdurrahman Wahid, the
enormously popular, near-blind and ailing Muslim
cleric, is overseas trying to lobby world leaders and
financiers on his country's behalf to support his
troubled economy while, at the same time, assuring
foreign leaders he is still in control.
But his absence now, of all times, has played into
the hands of those who, some fear, might seek to
destabilise his new Government.
Prompted by the findings by an Indonesian human
rights commission of widespread military involvement
in the destruction of East Timor as it opted for
independence in an August 30 ballot sponsored by the
UN, Wahid has been forced to accelerate moves to
dismantle the military's privileged position of power
The military power bloc had been led, until recently,
by General Wiranto.
Appointed armed forces chief by then-president
Suharto, who assisted his early rise to prominence,
and kept in the position by interim president B.J.
Habibie, who made him defence minister, Wiranto was
stood down as commander last year by Gus Dur, as
Wahid is affectionately known.
The Defence Ministry portfolio was taken from him and
the lesser post of Co-Ordinating Minister for
Political and Security Affairs was given in its
Since then the balance within the military has
shifted with seismic-like impact.
The navy, a more moderate arm of the services, has
been elevated to a new dominance, with Wiranto's
successor an admiral.
Wahid's revamping of the military has been adept, but
The reason for Indonesia's teetering on the brink is
the clash of these forces: the old and the new.
WIRANTO was named with 32 others, according to his
lawyers "unfairly" and "in denial of natural
justice", as being indirectly responsible for the
horrors of East Timor.
Now his President has ordered him to resign from his
remaining Cabinet spot and surrender his
And, a worse indignity, it is said the president has
signed-off on his removal as a general.
The people have never seen anything like it. For
three days Wiranto has refused to go.
How Wahid resolves this stand-off will, in many
respects, define the nature of his democracy.
And every Indonesian, from the educated elite to the
soldiers in the ranks and the vendors on the chaotic
streets, knows it.
Most don't want to discuss it, not with a newly
arrived foreigner. But everywhere you go people are
keenly watching their television sets for news.
Each new press conference, like yesterday's with
Defence Minister Juwono Sudarsono, and every little
development, is avidly discussed.
However, almost everyone you speak to wishes Gus Dur
was back at home.
"Oh yes, it would be better for him here, I know it
would make me happy," is typical of the reply.
Instead he is walking the halls of power in Europe on
a 13-nation tour.
BUT running an administration as diverse and
problematic as his -- the first to be freely elected
in 44 years -- by remote control is proving a
His vice-president, Megawati Sukarnoputri, is in
charge until his return. But, it is reported, she
failed to confront the defiant general when he
appeared at Wednesday's Cabinet meeting, less than a
day after being ordered to resign.
The people now wonder what this means for her, with
the topic of Wiranto's dilemma not even discussed by
Instead, images of Gus Dur ambling out along a red
carpet or of a nighttime meeting with Dutch leaders,
have been playing continually on Indonesian
television and satellite news channels all day.
The shots are fleeting but are designed, perhaps, to
Meanwhile, local news and current events programmes
have screened interviews with generals, officials and
politicians dispelling the rumours of an overthrow by
disenchanted elements of the Indonesian armed forces,
presumably those loyal to Wiranto or the five other
The people certainly want to believe, but no one is
sure. And for every word of assurance is another of
On the other side of the globe, Wahid has revealed
claims that a group of generals held a "covert
meeting" somewhere in Jakarta's Chinatown, implying
their agenda was to plot a coup.
He added that a massive demonstration of Muslim
militants was being plotted by those with "dirty
The new armed forces chief, Admiral Widodo, and the
National Police Chief, General Roesdihardojo, had
been given full authority to deal with the situation,
The flames of speculation were fanned on every street
corner and in every restaurant conversation.
The change in tone was evident.
Mention the issue and people, who moments before
spoke well-practised English, suddenly look at you
devoid of all expression.
"I'm sorry," they mutter. "I do not understand."
In the morning press most analysts and commentators
are stressing just how unlikely a coup really is.
But the rumours have been enough to dampen the stock
market and hurt the value of the rupiah.
The smart money, though, is banking on Wiranto's
stand being merely a time-soaking ploy to produce a
better deal for his departure.
The people of Indonesia, meanwhile, simply wait.
They've seen it all before, and sometimes worse,
especially when the armed forces were truly at their
peak, yet their faith in Wahid is strong.
"Ya, Wahid," they say with a smile when they pick his
name out of your conversation.
Ask for anything more, and a smile and a nod is all
that comes back.
However, most seem comfortable with the events,
believing, in their hearts, that all will be well.
They're banking on the fact the reformists, most
importantly in the military, appear to be gaining the
Or so the people hope.