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A Kinder, Gentler Military

October 25, 1998|Peter Eng | Peter Eng, a former Associated Press reporter, has covered Southeast Asia since the mid-1980s

BANGKOK — For decades, they propped up autocrats, crushed dissent and ousted civilian governments. Now, economic crisis and political reform are streamlining and restraining Southeast Asia's militaries. But instead of fading away, the generals in Indonesia and Thailand are adjusting to the times and remain power brokers by championing national reforms, including reform of the military itself, identifying with popular aspirations and projecting themselves as a new breed of professional soldier. They are seeking social acceptability in a new order in which it appears that any institution can quickly collapse if it loses popular support. Rather than be enforcers of the authorities, they want to be seen as protectors of the people.

Economic crisis and the resulting public unrest have claimed two former generals: President Suharto of Indonesia and Prime Minister Chavalit Yongchaiyudh of Thailand.

Indonesia's conflict has pummeled the exalted status the military had earned from leading the country's struggle for national independence. People have demanded that the army be held accountable for the carnage that preceded Suharto's downfall in May: rioting in which 1,000 people were killed and 170 women raped; the shooting deaths of students; and the abduction and torture of other activists. House cleaning is proceeding quickly, considering that the military had backed Suharto for 32 years. Soldiers have been detained and a commander who is Suharto's son-in-law was sacked for ordering kidnappings. Military abuses dating back to the 1970s are being exposed with the discovery of mass graves in East Timor, Irian Jaya and Aceh, where the army fought separatist rebellions. Ironically, the military's withdrawal from these areas because of a shortage of funds led to the grisly finds. With calls for justice so widespread, the military has little choice but to cooperate, although the pace and depth of reform will likely moderate because of army chief Gen. Wiranto's reported promise to protect Suharto in his retirement.

"The military is not yet on the side of the people. It is on the side of itself," says one skeptic, journalist Ahmad Taufik, who blames the military for the two years he spent in jail. "Abri [the military] wants to save itself because the people are angry at Abri for having supported Suharto."

Crucial to Indonesia's future is to what extent the military will pull back from "dual function," the constitutional doctrine that rewards it top posts in the government. Wiranto wants dual function to be redefined, not abandoned, and he may be right. A sudden pullback could lead to chaos. From new President B.J. Habibie on down, many Indonesians still see the military as the only institution that can preserve unity in a nation that has 200 million people and is torn by economic crisis, political transition and protests on the streets. Yet, contrary to expectations, the military did not seize power when Suharto fell and it has since had trouble carrying out its "instinct to rule," says Gerry Van Klinken, editor of the Australia-based magazine Inside Indonesia. In part, this is due to the military's damaged image, factionalization and bafflement over how to deal with the country's economic crisis. But just as in 1965, "the economic crisis could create so much social chaos that civilian elites will once more ask the army to play a bigger role," Van Klinken says. "There are signs that Indonesia's current army leadership would not refuse such an invitation. This would represent a tragic failure of an embryonic political process."

Thailand's military was tarnished in 1992, when soldiers opened fire on an antigovernment uprising. The public outrage led to reforms that sapped the military's power, and the era of forceful intervention--soldiers have attempted 17 coups since Thailand became a constitutional monarchy in 1932--appears to be over. Yet, the generals have been deeply involved in politics in the past year--and few Thais are complaining, because this time they are siding with the people.

Last year, Chavalit's government tried to block passage of a new, more democratic national constitution. Intervention by then-army chief Gen. Chettha Thannajaro was crucial in ensuring approval. Chavalit resisted when Thais took to the streets to demand that he resign for ruining the economy. Chettha's intervention left him with few options but to leave. Chettha also helped lead the "Thai-Help-Thais" campaign for victims of the economic turmoil.

Current Prime Minister Chuan Leekpai is also defense minister, the first civilian in that post in two decades. He is slashing the number of generals and has ordered unprecedented audits of the military's "secret funds." Not long ago, such moves would have provoked a coup; today, the military sees them as inevitable sacrifices of "the IMF era."

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