Jul 24, 2024 Last Updated 5:22 AM, Jul 16, 2024

Review: Suharto’s guardians and reluctant reformers

Review:  Suharto’s guardians and reluctant reformers

A new publication tells the story of the first graduates of the joint Indonesian Armed Forces Military Academy

Bob Lowry

On Indonesian Armed Forces Day, 5 October 1966, President Sukarno presided over the military parade in what was to be his final public appearance as president. In the weeks and months leading to this moment, as Suharto entered the final stages of wresting power from Sukarno, one of the first items on his agenda was the unification and revitalisation of the armed forces. One such measure already evident at the parade that day in the form of its newly minted banner was the establishment of the joint Indonesian Armed Forces Military Academy (AKABRI).

The idea of an integrated academy was not new, but it was in the highly dynamic months in 1967 that Suharto authorised and financed it as part of his planned reforms for the military. The irony of Sukarno’s presence that day was stark: some of AKABRI’s first cadet intake in 1967 had participated in demonstrations that helped to end his reign.

The class of 1970

The first intake to AKABRI took place as Suharto was carrying out his takeover of the country from Sukarno. The economy was in tatters. A son of one of the generals kidnapped and killed in the first days of the coup was one of the first entrants. Agus Widjoyo (Lieutenant General – retired) would become a leading light of the ‘Class of 1970’ and is the intellectual director of this book. 

The book is well-structured and well-written. It is arranged thematically, outlining the military and political highlights of the New Order and the post-Suharto reformation period, and drawing attention to the role played by the Class of 1970. The initial draft was written by Carmelia Sukmawati Nainggolan, who had produced an earlier commemorative book of the Class. A team was then formed, comprising members of the four services and two professional writers, to enrich and enhance the draft based both on their own experiences and the input of other classmates.

It opens with brief statements by the senior service representatives of the Class and one of its prime benefactors and is then presented in four parts. Part one details the operations and specialisations the Class undertook from graduation onwards. Part two covers the reasons for the establishment of AKABRI and the Class members’ experiences as cadets. Part three covers the fall of Suharto and military reform thereafter and Part four focuses on the Class’ post-retirement engagements.

Action in East Timor

Perhaps one of the most intriguing parts of the book and reflective of its formative place in the Class’ military experience is a chapter in the first section dedicated to East Timor. It offers an overview of the 1975 invasion of East Timor through to the referendum that led to independence in 1999. The Class of 1970 provided some of the junior leaders of the special-forces, company commanders, and junior staff officers at the time of the initial invasion.

Members of the Class of 1970 record the incompetence of their superiors in planning and conducting the initial operations, and how, although trained and prepared for the conventional operations that lasted until August 1976, they struggled when the Timorese resistance forces engaged in guerrilla warfare thereafter. The historical counter-guerrilla lessons Indonesia had learned between the 1940s and 1960s had not been thought relevant to the future, and had not been enshrined in doctrine or taught to the new generation of officers. They record how they used their informal contacts developed at AKABRI to circumvent slow or unresponsive operational procedures, to get air support while in action against the Timorese resistance, or to transport troops or logistical supplies to trouble spots.

Several members of the Class won rapid promotions for their actions in the invasion. Of particular note is Lieutenant Subagyo H.S. who was promoted to captain for his role in the capture of Suai in February 1976. In 1981 he was also a member of the team which recaptured the high-jacked Woyla aircraft in Bangkok. Upon return to Jakarta all members of the recovery team were advanced another rank and awarded Indonesia’s highest medal of gallantry (Bintang Sakti). It was a rare distinction and Subagyo would end his career as one of the Class’ four four-star generals and one of two to become Chief of the Armed Forces.

Colonel Johny Lumintang (Lieutenant General – Retired) was the only member of the Class to command East Timor, in 1993-94. The book gives an account of some of the actions and campaigns that occurred throughout Indonesia’s 24-year occupation of East Timor, but mainly as a setting for describing the actions and involvement of some of the Class of 1970, with a focus on the early and final years.

The description and analysis of the crisis around the ballot in East Timor is comprehensive and challenges many of the misconceptions prevalent in Indonesia. It is based on the report of the Commission on Truth and Friendship established by the governments of Indonesia and East Timor (of which Agus Widjojo was a member), which acknowledges the deliberate and systematic involvement of the government, military, police and militia in the violence. It also makes an oblique reference to the decision made to subvert the intention of the agreement to secure the ballot signed with the UN on 5 May 1999, but attributes this to the relative weakness of the civil government of the time relative to the military and police.

The authors record the irony that the ‘East Timor chapter’ of Indonesian history began and ended with poor intelligence. They point to Major General Benny Murdani’s statements before the invasion, reportedly to the special-forces troops, that if they were dropped into Dili on Sunday they would be marching through the streets in a victory parade the next day; and how in 1999, the generals in President Habibie’s cabinet agreed to the ballot because they were sure that they could engineer a vote for autonomy within Indonesia.

Part One contains two further chapters on early but minor operations in Kalimantan, the development of information technology, and Indonesia’s involvement in international peace keeping operations. Curiously however, operations in Aceh or Papua do not get any serious coverage.

After Suharto

Another key section of the book includes the Class’ telling of the story of the fall of Suharto and the evolution of democracy. As the writers acknowledge, the majority of the Class supported the status quo and the continuation of the New Order under new management. A small group realised that conditions had changed and that the military had no option but to adapt to evolving social expectations and demands. A much smaller group wanted immediate and radical change. Agus Widjojo was the leading light of the evolutionary change group and was instrumental in convincing the military leadership to withdraw the last vestiges of its legislative representation five years earlier than previously scheduled.

There is some interesting detail in this section for those seeking to understand the circumstances of Suharto’s fall from power and the pressures for reform that engulfed the interim government of Habibie and the military. It also discusses in detail the presidencies of Abdurahman Wahid (Gus Dur) and Megawati Sukarnoputri thereafter.

Although no member of the class became commander-in-chief, one became deputy commander-in-chief (Fachrul Razi, 1999), two became chief of army staff (Subagyo HS, 1998 and Tyasno Sudarto, 1999), one chief of naval staff (Bernard Kent Sondakh, 2002), Luhut Pandjaitan was promoted to General in 2000 as Minister for Mines and Energy, and one became Chief of Police (R Suroyo Bimantoro, 2001).

Life after AKABRI

In the final section of the book we are presented with a somewhat intriguing set of reviews of the post-retirement lives of some of the leading members of the Class. These include Luhut Panjaitan (Army) who became a diplomat, cabinet minister, businessman and philanthropist. Timur Manurung (Army) who became a justice of the Supreme Court, Taufiqurachman (Police) the inaugural chairman of the Anti-Corruption Commission (KPK) 2003-07 and Bibit S Rianto (Police), deputy chairman of the KPK 2007-11. Agus Widjojo remained as head of the military and police faction in the People’s Consultative Assembly (MPR) until it was disbanded in 2004 and has since been active in academia, politics and business. A group of about twenty also helped form the Democratic Party and assisted with the election of Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, himself a graduate of the AKABRI Class of 1973.  Others joined General Wiranto (AMN, 1968) in establishing the Voice of the People’s Conscience (Hanura) Party.

Many more became business people, educators, academics and members of non-government organisations. The Class’ most controversial member, Muchdi (Major General – Retired) was a deputy in the National Intelligence Agency (BIN) and has since become active in education, sporting organisations and business. He was the special-forces commander when Suharto fell and, among other allegations, was accused but acquitted of ordering the murder of prominent human rights lawyer Munir in 2004.

The more enlightened views of Agus Widjojo and his associates are reflected in the book, but there is nothing to be gleaned about the intelligence and political machinations in support of the Suharto regime, or any discussion about how livelihoods were secured or enhanced by various means. Some of the Class have done well in retirement, most prominently Luhut Panjaitan, the prime benefactor of this project, and they have generally been supportive of classmates who have needed assistance. The book is an extension of the Class’ 40th Anniversary gathering in 2010, their desire to record their achievements and convey their place in history to future generations. They have partly achieved that, but there is much more for future historians to unearth.

Mengawali Integrasi Mengusung Reformasi: Pengabdian Alumni Akabri Pertama 1970 [Pioneers of Integration and Bearers of Reform] (Jakarta: KAta, September 2012).

Bob Lowry (robertwlowry@bigpond.com) is an observer of Indonesian defence and security matters and politics.

Inside Indonesia 113: Jul-Sep 2013{jcomments on}

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