Subject: Bulletin: Gunning for the Generals


June 30, 2004


At the height of the East Timor crisis, Australia gave General Wiranto a stark ultimatum: back off or else. Now the former army chief has a strong chance of becoming Indonesian president, and Canberra is feeling nervous. Paul Daley reports.

The last time Australia had official business with Wiranto, the Indonesian former four-star general, it offered him a choice: let international troops into East Timor or face the consequences. Next time, Wiranto could be president of Indonesia, the world's most populous Muslim nation, and an archipelago central to Australia's strategic interests and the global war against terrorism.

Wiranto, an ambitious, fiercely nationalistic egoist with matinee-idol good looks, is known as "the singing general". But there is a sinister streak behind his penchant for belting out cheesy ballads and handing out his CDs at shopping centres.

To Australia's leading politicians, diplomats and spies, Wiranto remains foremost an indicted war criminal, an Indonesian military (TNI) leader who, at best, watched while his troops encouraged pro-Jakarta militias to raze East Timor and kill some 1500 of its people after the 1999 autonomy ballot.

The official candidate for Golkar ­ Indonesia's largest, most nationalistic party, it also has the strongest TNI base ­ Wiranto enjoys the patronage of the old Soeharto cronies. His opponents believe he has already promised 50 cabinet posts and that he has an unmatchable war chest of some $US50m ($72.78m).

While a Wiranto presidency would present, in the words of a senior serving Australian diplomat, "a complete and utter diplomatic nightmare" for Australia, the message from Canberra to Jakarta is unambiguous: we have no choice but to work with whoever wins.

But Canberra dreads a Wiranto presidency. It fears he'll take a strong military approach in West Papua, a strategic hot spot because of its border with Papua New Guinea, and that military tensions could rise correspondingly in East Timor, where 450 Australian troops face thousands of TNI across the border with West Timor.

As presidential aspirant, Wiranto has spoken kindly about Australia. He has even promised a priority visit if he's elected, something neither the Coalition nor Labor, which both anticipate huge protests, wants.

Foreign Minister Alexander Downer's reaction could not have been more telling when he learnt of Wiranto's nomination. "If we started attacking General Wiranto, that might turn out to be a bit of an election winner for him, so we won't comment."

Wiranto doesn't much like Australia either. He has good reason. The Bulletin can reveal that, at the height of the East Timor crisis, Canberra issued Wiranto a stark ultimatum: let international troops secure East Timor or face daunting possibilities, including a joint United States-Australian military force, crippling trade sanctions, a tarnished international reputation and international criminal action.

It was not the first showdown Wiranto had with Australia. But will it be the last?

This is how it happened.

New York, September 10, 1999

East Timor, having recently voted for independence, is ablaze. Indonesia's special forces, Kopassus, and the hand-picked goons from their militias are killing hundreds in the streets and churches. Perhaps 200,000 are being pushed into Indonesia-controlled West Timor, the phones are dead and United Nations staff and most of the international media have fled to the UN compound. There's little accurate information about what's happening and the world is talking genocide, of possibly tens of thousands of East Timorese being slaughtered. Who knows?

Here in New York, there's big talk of sanctions against Indonesia ­ and even war crimes charges against Wiranto ­ unless Jakarta quickly authorises an Australian-led military force to restore security. There's a catch: Indonesia must invite the force in, otherwise it would be an invasion. No chance. Indonesia's erratic president, B.J. Habibie, seems immovable. His military keeps declaring that foreign troops who enter "Tim Tim" (East Timor) will pay with their blood. The time for talk is over. And everyone knows that when Habibie says something, it's really Wiranto talking. There is, it seems, just one way to change Habibie's mind: get to Wiranto ­ and do it quickly.

Meanwhile, an outraged Australian public is demanding John Howard's intervention. The PM has already decided enough is enough. He summons his Chief of the Defence Force, Admiral Chris Barrie, and asks: can we get a message to Wiranto? We must get Wiranto to move on this.

Manhattan at dusk. Allan Behm sits in a 33rd-floor office on East 42nd Street, Australia's permanent mission to the UN. Behm, head of the Australian Defence Force's International Policy Division, is a multilingual TNI expert with many contacts in the Indonesian military. He has even helped run seminars for the Indonesians on military-civilian relations. He is an accomplished musician and a family man who ­ not foremost though infamously ­ steadfastly bucks late-20th-century sartorial dictates with his persistent, almost defiant, sporting of loud bow ties. Coupled with his somewhat fruity delivery, it lends Allan Behm something of an air of an Oxbridge don. The phone rings. It's Barrie.

Can we get a message to Wiranto so we can get him to move on this? asks Barrie, who knows Wiranto well, having played golf with him in Indonesia.

Behm says he has three choices. "First, you can ring Wiranto directly. Second, you could get somebody else in Australia, maybe [Deputy CDF Air Marshal] Doug Riding to call [Indonesian Security Chief Susilio] Bambang [Yudhoyono], or third, we can go in at a much lower level and inform someone who can get a message to Wiranto … to let him know what's actually happening here today is that, for the first time, the UN is talking war crimes against him unless the force is allowed in."

Barrie goes back to Howard. Howard tells Barrie he wants to keep his options open. In the words of someone else in the loop: "The prime minister's direction was that we might need to give ourselves a few goes at this. That if, for example, Wiranto refused to take Barrie's call, we would have cracked our egg but not got it in the bowl."

Barrie calls Behm back. Someone else should get the message to Wiranto through an intermediary, he says. What about you?

It's the middle of the night in Jakarta when the phone rouses Rear Admiral Yoost Mengko. A former Indonesian defence attaché to Australia and now general chief of staff and intelligence assistant to Wiranto, he knows Behm well. Mengko, Wiranto and some UN special rapporteurs are due to fly to Dili at 5am aboard Wiranto's VIP Hercules. Behm's timing could not be better.

Today, four years later, Behm ­ who now works as a private risk analyst and strategy consultant ­ will not detail his conversation with Mengko. But it is understood Behm asked Mengko to tell Wiranto that unless Indonesia acquiesced, "there could be serious downstream consequences both for Indonesia and for you [Wiranto]". There was also an ambiguity that hinted at a potentially heavy military threat.

Whatever Behm's precise words, they had the desired effect; the next day, Sunday, September 12, Habibie said the international force could enter East Timor. Eight days later, the TNI welcomed the force, led by then Major General Peter Cosgrove, into the province.

"The fact of the matter was we knew that we'd got the message through to Wiranto because the result that we got was exactly the result that the government wanted," Behm told The Bulletin.

"The consequences would have been that if the Indonesians had decided they would oppose the UN Security Council resolution, we would have had to think very, very much more seriously about the consequences of leading a party in, in the short term … I suppose the second thing that was implicit in it was that if they weren't going to accede to our advice, the nature of the force going in would change. The force would have had to have been much heavier, which would have meant a serious American component, probably coming from the Third Marine Expeditionary Force at Okinawa. And I mean they could work out what the likely second step was … while [US 7th Fleet flagship] Blue Ridge was sitting there in the water off Dili, just to make it very clear that the Americans had an interest. So I don't think the Indonesians were going to say no."

Hugh White, the Defence Department's deputy secretary and chief strategist during the East Timor crisis, does not believe "Indonesia feared a unilateral military operation if they hadn't acquiesced".

"But then I'm not sure," White says. "I just don't know. We certainly in Australia did not, at that point, contemplate deploying forces to East Timor without Indonesian permission. If Indonesia had not given us permission and the situation had continued to deteriorate, who knows what would have happened. And who knows what TNI feared might have happened. I have never asked, but it would be very interesting to ask the Indonesians what they thought the message was."

Mengko, now retired from the Indonesian military, told The Bulletin: "Yes, Allan called me that time in the middle of the night to inform me that … there would be sanctions against Indonesia if … Indonesia rejected inviting the international force [into East Timor]. That was the story. I really got that message. I delivered it [to Wiranto] right after I talked with Allan."

The Bulletin: "Was the threat to Indonesia only of international sanctions or was there an implied military threat too?"

Mengko: "No, I didn't get these things … he said there would be sanctions against Indonesia if there is not a clear response regarding a multinational force … I don't think it went so far [as the threat of military action]. We were thinking of the session in the UN, and how we will be the subject of an embargo or whatever. Yeah, I heard that it could be developed that far [to military action] but, to me, I got the point already that the session at the UN would be the critical point. So I reported to General Wiranto and his response was very quick … One of his responses was: 'It is really not fair for the UN to take that step before they get feedback from its special envoy who is still in Jakarta and on their way to Tim Tim'."

There was a curious calm amid the usual maelstrom of East Timor as Wiranto's VIP aircraft touched down in Dili that Saturday morning; it was proof, the general's many critics argue, that Wiranto could switch the violence on and off, on call.

Before returning to Jakarta that afternoon, Mengko says Wiranto had decided to let the international force in. "Actually he had decided already, in his capacity as commander-in-chief of the armed forces, that we will go in that direction. General Wiranto had made that decision on the end of the day of the visit, so before we took off from Tim Tim, he told me he had decided to grant the wish … and he will report it to the president," Mengko says.

The Bulletin: "So was it Wiranto's decision that mattered?"

Mengko: "I cannot make a comment like that, but that's what I know. The decision was made and he [Wiranto] conveyed this message that he had made, that we will go in this direction and you will hear it from President Habibie tomorrow."

Asked if Wiranto was angered by Australia's intervention, Mengko said: "No, no, he welcomed it as very nice and sincere advice from a friend, through my personal contact Allan. Emotional … yes. But angry, I cannot say that he was angry. Upset, maybe."

If Wiranto was upset then, he'd been angry five months earlier when he, Habibie, Howard, Downer, Defence Minister John Moore and Australian officials met in Bali.

One observer recalls Wiranto "metaphorically exploded and thumped the table with his fist, before telling Habibie that he [Habibie] would not let foreign troops enter East Timor" when Howard stridently suggested Habibie allow an international security presence before the August ballot.

"Wiranto was fuming, telling the Australians to butt out and telling Habibie that he would not be dictated to," the observer says.

White, a participant, recalls: "My recollection is that he didn't bang the table but that he expressed himself very strongly, very unambiguously … he was very focused on limiting an international peacekeeping presence in East Timor during the lead-up to the elections. It was very clear that he was putting real pressure on Habibie at that meeting."

The big questions are, of course, whether Wiranto's resentment is residual and whether Australia's leaders will bury the past, forget about the UN-sanctioned charges against Wiranto and deal pragmatically with the singing general if he emerges victorious from Indonesia's presidential election process, beginning on July 5.

Six candidates will contest the first ballot. If none wins 50% of the vote ­ as seems likely ­ there will be another vote on September 20 to decide between the two top candidates.

Wiranto is running a distant third behind the unpopular incumbent Megawati Sukarnoputri, and the favourite, another, but reputedly more moderate, military man, the aforementioned Susilio Bambang Yudhoyono (SBY), who is Australia's favoured candidate. Wiranto is gaining on Sukarnoputri.

"Nobody could predict how this will turn out. With the force of Golkar behind him, Wiranto could make big gains between a first and second ballot," says James Castle, a Jakarta-based business consultant and Indonesian political observer. "He is definitely in the race."

Having been a forceful proponent of democracy throughout the Asia-Pacific for so long, Australia will find it difficult to turn its back on Indonesia's first truly democratically elected president. Even if it is Wiranto.

"The point, I think, is that if you're an advocate of democracy, you need to accept the results whether you like them or not," says Richard Woolcott, a former Australian ambassador to Jakarta and DFAT secretary. According a diplomatic source: "The point is that neither Australia nor Indonesia has put enough into government-to-government contacts. Mega [Megawati] doesn't like Howard at all, their foreign minister doesn't like Downer. Do you think things are likely to get any better if Wiranto's elected?"

But would the relationship fare any better with a Latham government and a Wiranto presidency? Mark Latham has been suitably cautious. In government, the ALP leader and his probable foreign minister, Kevin Rudd, could face internal dissent if they adopted a "softly, softly"' approach to a Wiranto presidency.

Canberra hopes SBY wins. SBY also has the greatest ability to attract the confidence of the Europeans and Americans. He is a demonstrated TNI reformer and, like all the major candidates, committed to a nationalist secular state. But his fledgling Democratic Party does not have the depth of Golkar's support.

President Wiranto would rankle in Washington and throughout the European capitals where he is a pariah on par with Zimbabwe's Robert Mugabe. But it will mean nothing to Indonesia's 145 million voters that Europe, the US or Australia do not want Wiranto to win. And it is they that Wiranto must convince. He may yet succeed.

See also, "Tempting Faith"

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