April 22, 2004 | WebMemo on Asia
The upcoming presidential election in Indonesia presents the Bush administration and members of Congress with a dilemma. Wiranto, a retired general who was indicted by the United Nations for human rights abuses, has been nominated by Golkar, one of Indonesia's main parties. Criticism of Wiranto from Washington-especially at this early stage in the presidential campaign-could bring attention, support, and perhaps victory to this otherwise unpopular candidate. Those in Congress and the administration who are concerned about Wiranto's candidacy would do well to mute their criticisms, at least for the time being.
A War Criminal?
General Wiranto was Commander-in-Chief of the Armed Forces of Indonesia when Suharto fell from power in 1998 and when Indonesia's armed forces withdrew from East Timor in 1999. In both instances, the behavior of the military was less than glorious. In 1998, several protesting students were shot and others were kidnapped, allegedly by members of the military. No top officers were ever prosecuted for this attack.
In August 1999, East Timor voted for independence from Indonesia, and in a bloody withdrawal-some say retribution-Indonesia's military and proxy militia were accused of killing more than 1,400 people, displacing hundreds of thousands more, and destroying three quarters of East Timor's infrastructure. The United Nations indicted Wiranto for his alleged inaction during the immolation of East Timor, but he has never stood trial. Wiranto denies that he did anything wrong in either case and claims that the allegations are designed to derail his presidential bid.
Wiranto was selected to represent Golkar, former dictator and kleptocrat Suharto's party, at its April 20 party convention. Golkar is enjoying a revival of sorts after the April 5 legislative elections. Although the party won fewer votes in 2004 than it did in 1999, this year's widely dispersed voting pattern left Golkar, with only 21.1 percent of the vote, as the largest party.
Two other candidates substantially lead Wiranto in public opinion polls. The current President, Megawatti, is in second place in the race, and another retired general, Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, leads the pack. There is little reason to believe that Wiranto can beat either opponent, but American officials making fiery condemnations of his candidacy will only draw more attention, and perhaps sympathy, to him.
To understand how innocent and entirely justified comments by senior American officials can be misunderstood in Indonesia, one has to look no further than Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge's March visit to Indonesia.
While in Indonesia, Secretary Ridge expressed his disappointment with the Indonesian Supreme Court's decision to halve the sentence of the Jemaah Islamiyah leader and terrorist mastermind Abu Bakar Bashir. Although Secretary Ridge made many positive statements about Indonesia, Ridge's comments about Bashir received the most attention. Many Indonesians felt Ridge's comments were an unwarranted interference in Indonesian affairs.
Yudhoyono, the leading presidential candidate, felt compelled to announce that he "respected" the decisions of Indonesia's supreme court, and another Indonesian official called Ridge's remarks detrimental to the war on terrorism.
As a candidate for President, Wiranto has many weaknesses. Indonesians are fed up with passive and corrupt leaders, and Wiranto is both. Army generals officially earn only a few hundred dollars a month, but Wiranto retired a very wealthy man and has no explanation about the source of his wealth. His claim that he is the only candidate strong enough to hold the country together contrasts sharply with his principal excuse for his lack of action in East Timor, that he did not know what was going on there and that he could not control his own forces. Finally, Wiranto was Chief of the Armed Forces when the military was the most hated institution in the country.
Indonesia has a free and dynamic media that is reporting all these facts and more to the public. Without interference from outside the country, Indonesia's voters will most likely reject Wiranto's bid for the presidency. Comments by well-intentioned American politicians and senior officials will not be seen as informative, but insulting, and may backfire.
America's principal interest in Indonesia is a free and fair election, not who wins it. So from now to the July 5 presidential election, the best policy for Congress and the Administration is to withhold comment on the candidates and trust Indonesia's democratic process.
Dana R. Dillon is Senior Policy Analyst in the Asian Studies Center at The Heritage Foundation.