Just five weeks ago, when a respected, soft-spoken academic, Juwono Sudarsono, was named Indonesia's defense minister, the choice was heralded as the political eclipse of the once-powerful military as the country entered the new democratic era.
Indonesia had just chosen a popular new president, Abdurrahman Wahid, known as "Gus Dur," who, despite his physical frailty, began to immediately assert his authority. The armed forces commander, Gen. Wiranto--once considered a top contender for vice president or even president--was suddenly sidelined to a nominal cabinet job with little real power. Juwono, as the first civilian defense chief in decades, was the most obvious sign of a break from the past, and the beginning of civilian supremacy over the armed forces.
But Juwono, in an interview this week, said he sees the process of getting the army out of politics as a gradual one. In fact, he cannot even answer with certainty his own rhetorical question: "Am I a nominal or a substantive civilian defense minister?"
"I'm just the beginning of an eventual form of civilian control," Juwono said, speaking candidly and at length about the complex power relationship between the government and the military. "It will take a few months, or years.
"I would like the commander of the forces to be subordinate to me. That would be my long-term goal." But to those--including members of the U.S. Congress--who want to see more immediate civilian control, he said simply: "Things are not as easy as they look."
One complicating factor is Wiranto's continued dominance in the power game. He has managed to survive Indonesia's transition to democracy--and the loss of the armed forces commander's job--with most of his power intact, even enhanced. His new job, coordinating minister for political affairs and security, had been mainly a figurehead position. But Wiranto has used the job to make himself something like a powerful chief of staff to the nearly blind Wahid.
In cabinet meetings, Wiranto sits to Wahid's immediate right, chairing the sessions deciding the agenda and laying out policy options, Juwono said. And in a cabinet of mostly newcomers, there is little give and take, and not much debate.
"Wiranto on occasion becomes effectively the president and the vice president at the same time," Juwono said. "He's a very effective briefer. It's a powerful role."
He said the meetings tend to be "rather structured, because there are limits to what Gus Dur can remember."
Juwono said Wiranto's role has become even more important given the president's impaired vision, which makes it impossible for him to read documents. "At the moment, we are worried that his only source of information is what is whispered in his ear," Juwono said. He added, however, that Wahid is an avid listener to Indonesian radio and television news broadcasts.
Wiranto played a crucial role from the beginning; he was one of five people who helped draw up the current cabinet--the others being Vice President Megawati Sukarnoputri, Golkar party chairman Akbar Tandjung, People's Consultative Assembly Speaker Amien Rais and Wahid. "All of the other four recognized that [Wiranto] was a force to be reckoned with," Juwono said.
Juwono calls it a paradox that Wiranto's power has increased in the era of democracy, precisely as the military's record of abuse--under Wiranto's stewardship--has come under intense scrutiny. "Paradoxically, he provides the continuity," Juwono said.
Wiranto made a power play early on, signing off on a new military promotion list while Wahid was out of the country, and without first clearing it through Juwono.
Another measure of Wiranto's clout is that he has moved into his new position without first resigning from active duty in the military--which leaves him in a more powerful position within the armed forces, even though there is a new commander, Navy Admiral A.S. Widodo.
Two other active duty generals who moved into Wahid's cabinet, Lt. Gen. Bambang Yudhoyono and Lt. Gen. Agum Gumelar, as ministers of mines and communications, respectively, also have not resigned their military positions, as was widely expected.
Juwono said the refusal of Wiranto and the others to retire from the service is evidence of their influence in the new civilian government.
"By law, they should retire," Juwono said. "The fact that Gus Dur still tolerates them as acting officers, without declaring their retirement from the services, is indicative of their real bargaining power." He added, "There's still that mutual need on both sides."
The mutual need, according to several analysts, is that Wiranto needs Wahid for protection against an ever-tightening noose of human rights probes, by internal bodies looking at past military abuses in the restive province of Aceh and in East Timor, and by a U.N. team investigating atrocities committed by army-backed militias after East Timor's independence vote in August.
Earlier this week, Indonesian lawmakers grilled Wiranto and two former generals over abuses in Aceh while, coincidentally on the same day, East Timorese resistance leader Xanana Gusmao came to Jakarta and publicly singled out Wiranto as responsible for the violence that ravaged his homeland after the independence referendum. On Wednesday, a government panel investigating the East Timor violence blamed the armed forces for a campaign of killing and destruction, including a Sept. 6 church massacre in the town of Suai that killed 26 people, including three Roman Catholic priests.
Wahid, on the other hand, needs the support of the military against his true rival, Muslim leader Amien Rais and the Islamic bloc that essentially gave Wahid the presidency by endorsing him over the popular Megawati, who was the longtime front-runner for president.