13 September 1999: Military manoeuvres: The Indonesian army is on the political offensive on the home front. The shift in the balance of power may leave it giving the orders in more than just East Timor

Gen Wiranto, defence minister and commander of the Indonesian armed forces, may have won two battles but could well lose the war, if not his army.

Mr Wiranto appeared every bit the statesman as he strode into Indonesia's presidential palace last Thursday, sporting a smart suit, and checked his appearance in a giant mirror. Few observers would have guessed that the jovial little man who met a United Nations mission minutes later, joking with reporters and rolling his eyes as if he was a stand-up comedian, was the real president, rather than B.J. Habibie.

Both men have denied rumours that a coup had taken place, and Mr Wiranto still refers to Mr Habibie as "my president". But some Indonesians felt the use of the possessive, in Indonesian, sounded just a bit too possessive. "Maybe the coup has already taken place," one diplomat suggests.

No one but the insiders really knows how far the power balance has shifted during last week's tiff over East Timor but, at the very least, the military have told Mr Habibie that they, and not the president, are in charge of East Timor.

The military has shown that other attempts at autonomy in this fragmented country, the largest Moslem country in the world, will be met with force. But at the same time, Gen Wiranto and his colleagues have damaged the military's reputation badly enough to diminish its own influence. Mr Habibie had toyed with inviting UN peacekeepers in early but the military insisted on completing their operation, a scorched-earth tactic that eliminates both the infrastructure and the pro-independence intelligentsia, before withdrawing from East Timor.

Some diplomats suggest Mr Wiranto has even told Mr Habibie that the armed forces no longer support him and could send him packing any time. If he behaves, Mr Habibie may be left in the palace until presidential elections scheduled for late October or early November, but he may be forced to drop his bid for re-election, they suggest.

In fact, at least part of the military had abandoned Mr Habibie earlier and was deemed responsible for leaking embarrassing tapes - that could be made only by military intelligence - of telephone conversations.

An early removal of Mr Habibie is unlikely. Gen Wiranto was eager to observe at least the semblance of constitutional process when he backed Mr Habibie as Mr Suharto's successor last year. He appears bent on keeping up appearances now, leaving the election of a new president to the highest legislative, the People's Consultative Assembly, in late October or early November.

More importantly, Gen Wiranto lacks an easy alternative to Mr Habibie and, it appears, too little political strength of his own to impose his own choice. "They are sailing on the same boat," says Salim Said, a military expert. "Neither of them can afford to toss the other overboard."

In his stand-off with the outside world, Gen Wiranto has scored a pyrrhic victory at best. Deadlines from UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan came and went, sanction threats escalated, but Indonesian soldiers were still assisting pro-Indonesian militia in bestial attacks on unarmed refugees. Half an hour after a UN mission toured the East Timorese capital of Dili and left on Saturday, shooting erupted again.

Gen Wiranto appeared to relent over the weekend, agreeing with Mr Habibie that foreign peacekeepers would be allowed in early. Neither he nor Mr Habibie gave any indication when that would be. At the first hint of such a policy change last Friday, he had insisted that his military "will first calm down the situation in East Timor, so that when a UN peacekeeping force comes in they will be welcomed by all levels of the East Timorese people".

The handover of East Timor has not been in serious doubt as Gen Wiranto endorsed the results of last month's referendum on independence from Indonesia. Moving in peacekeepers will make little difference if he allows his military to destroy East Timor first.

The military would have achieved its apparent objective of showing to the rest of Indonesia, and to the world, that any region pondering secession is asking for trouble. Foreign governments sympathetic to the notion of self-determination, such as the US, will think twice before supporting Acehnese or Irianese independence movements elsewhere in Indonesia. Gen Wiranto made a telling faux pas when, in a meeting with visiting UN ambassadors last Friday, he kept referring to his subordinates as his "insubordinates". Earlier this month, the general and his staff arrived in Dili's Komoro airport but got no further, offering the most tangible sign that Gen Wiranto may not be in control of his troops and some senior officers.

The assumption that Gen Wir anto was the "good guy" facing insubordinate officers in a series of incidents long held sway among diplomats in Jakarta, and deterred direct pressure on him. They ignored evidence that Gen Wiranto was at least allowing his military to obstruct policies of Mr Habibie, and by January he had removed most of his supposed rivals.

Mr Said is a defender of Gen Wiranto but his own analysis leaves the general very much responsible for his army's actions. "There is no breach in the chain of command," says Mr Said. "Stop thinking of this as a western army." Mr Said suggests that rather than breaking up, the line of command is diluted as it goes down the ranks. Most analysts see Gen Wiranto as in control by Indonesian standards, but too weak to discipline his officers or even troops for ignoring his orders all across Indonesia in the past year. Gen Wiranto's style is Javanese, in that he does not publicly humiliate anyone, but quietly sidelines his rivals. Western notions of discipline are secondary, and assumed counter- productive.

On East Timor, most of all, Gen Wiranto's own ambivalence about the referendum, imposed by Mr Habibie without consultation with the military, has allowed lower-ranking officers to push the limits of his tolerance and exceed or ignore orders.

Belatedly, last week, the outside world concluded that the "good guy" theory was either wrong or no longer relevant amid the killings. US President Bill Clinton and UN ambassadors switched to blaming Gen Wiranto directly over the weekend for events in East Timor.

"You are failing the international community, you are failing the people of East Timor and you are failing Indonesia," UN ambassador Martin Andjaba told Gen Wiranto last Friday. "Perhaps it is a question of lack of political will on your side."

How much Gen Wiranto is the victor, therefore, is open to question. He had long been considered the prime candidate for the vice-presidency under either Mr Habibie or Megawati Sukarnoputri, both weak figures who need the military votes in the assembly to get elected, but now he will be a liability to any new government.

At home, he will be held responsible for failure to restore order in East Timor, while the outside world directly blames him for organising the massacres. Any government with Gen Wiranto in it cannot claim to have a clean slate, which may affect restoration of aid to Indonesia. This would be the first challenge for a new government, due to take office at the end of the year, probably under Ms Megawati.

Other than losing his personal war in the end, Gen Wiranto is certainly losing a war for his country. The East Timor crisis, coming on the back of an embarrassing banking scandal, has already helped undo much of this year's recovery of the rupiah and share prices, masked only partly by central bank interventions.

The US and Britain have hit his military by cutting off training and arms sales. The Paris Club of creditor nations has taken the lead in adopting sanctions that hurt the whole nation, by delaying any discussion on Indonesian debt rescheduling until next year.

The International Monetary Fund and the World Bank had already been expected to delay new aid tranches on economic grounds, pointing at corruption and slow bank reforms, but are now forced to link a suspension to East Timor. Restarting aid to a new government may prove more difficult now that this link is made explicit.

While early sanctions may be held back by Indonesia's concession to let in foreign peacekeepers, the long-term damage to Indonesia is potentially serious. Aid to Indonesia will seen as politically incorrect, no matter how far Gen Wiranto gives in now, and foreign companies will feel coy about announcing new investments there for months to come.

Indonesia's fledgling democracy has been singed, like the charred ruins of Dilli. The military has sidelined the civilian president, parliament has had little or no say in handling the crisis and the press is blocked from entering East Timor. By arousing nationalist sentiment, the military is trying to silence any domestic criticism.

Efforts by Mr Habibie's aides to placate restless regions with a larger share of revenues and more say in government have been thwarted by a military crackdown on separatism, not just in East Timor but also in Aceh and Irian Jaya. This violence has so far been counter-productive, pushing the Acehnese in particular into a harder line against Jakarta.

Some analysts, nevertheless, see one positive consequence of last week's shift in the balance of power: the military may be doing Indonesia a favour by blocking Mr Habibie's re-election, which would certainly spark social unrest.

It is about the only favour the Indonesian military have done for Indonesia. For the rest, it has done its country a great disservice.

The Financial Times

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