Subject: SMH: Moerdani - Charismatic, sinister Soeharto man

Charismatic, sinister Soeharto man By David Jenkins September 10, 2004

Benny Moerdani, Former Indonesian, commander-in-chief, 1932-2004

General Benny Moerdani, who has died in Jakarta at the age of 71, was a special forces officer who went on to become the head of Indonesia's widely feared intelligence services and the architect of his nation's brutal subjugation of East Timor. He was for many years the second most powerful man in Indonesia, after his mentor, President Soeharto.

Moerdani did not, as is often supposed, plan the botched December 1975 invasion of East Timor - he was, in fact, privately scathing about the way his military colleagues went about the task - but he had directed Indonesia's earlier covert intervention in the territory, and he was to go on to supervise a merciless campaign against the Fretilin independence movement.

Moerdani always thought East Timor belonged within Indonesia, and was consumed with bitterness when, in 1999, President Habibie, whom he'd always detested, allowed East Timor to vote itself out of the republic.

However some of his country's failings in East Timor weighed on his conscience and he once apologised to the governor, Mario Carrascalao, who had been appointed by Jakarta to rule a devastated territory in which at least 100,000 people had died, many of them after they were driven into the mountains without food or medicine.

There was never any apology, however, for the continuing army operations, which were pursued without quarter. Nor was there an apology for the deaths in East Timor of six Western journalists, at least two of whom appeared to have been killed in cold blood by Indonesian forces.

In May 1980, not long after the first dreadful years of the Indonesian occupation of East Timor, I came across Moerdani in the coffee shop at Jogjakarta airport. He was sitting alone, a darkly handsome man, dapper in a pinstripe suit. We chatted for a while and I asked if I could take a photograph. His response was revealing: "You want to take a picture of the two-headed monster of East Timor?"

Carrascalao, a man well placed to judge him, did not see Moerdani as a monster at all. "Benny Moerdani," he confided not long afterwards, "is the only one who is dedicated. He told me, 'When I think of our broken promises to the Timorese people I could cry.' "

A Eurasian Catholic with granite features and a combative personality, brusque to the point of rudeness, yet modest and endowed with considerable charm, Moerdani came to national prominence as a red beret commander and went on to direct an intelligence network that not only kept tabs on every important aspect of Indonesian civilian life but also watched, hawk-like, for any dissension in the army, the bedrock of Soeharto's 32-year rule.

There were, as a perceptive Indonesian newspaper editor observed, two major threads running through Moerdani's career.

He was, first and foremost, a professional soldier, well trained, capable, ruthless. He had seen action on all the major islands in the Indonesian archipelago, fighting the Japanese, the Dutch, the British and the East Timorese, as well as CIA-backed Indonesian rebel colonels and Muslim extremists bent on turning Indonesia into an Islamic state.

Hardened in battle and no stranger to violence, Moerdani believed that the ends justify the means. He had a reputation for shooting from the hip and his language was sometimes intemperate, even when he held high office. He once shocked members of an Indonesian parliamentary committee by saying, in effect, that if he had to sacrifice the lives of 2 million Indonesians to save the lives of 200 million Indonesians he would do so.

In the parlance of the Indonesian army, Moerdani was "a fighting animal". He was not in any real sense a political animal. He lacked the political instincts of the late General Ali Moertopo, an older, freewheeling intelligence officer who handled any number of bag jobs for Soeharto, himself one of the most consummate of all Indonesian politicians, despite his professed disdain for politics.

The second salient point about Moerdani is that he was a Soeharto loyalist through and through, at least in the years when the president needed him most. As Moerdani saw it, Soeharto was the only person who could hold the vast and ethnically diverse Indonesian republic together.

Later, it is true, the two men fell out. Moerdani became disenchanted in the 1980s as Soeharto bestowed increasing power on Habibie, who, as minister for research, was permitted to make forays into the budgets of other departments, including military procurement.

Moerdani worried, too, that the untrammelled greed of Soeharto's children was becoming a political liability for the regime, and in 1988 dared to tell Soeharto as much. Not long afterwards Soeharto dumped him as armed forces commander in humiliating circumstances. As they parted, Moerdani assured him: "You don't need to ever doubt my loyalty."

That was probably true, but Soeharto, knowing Moerdani's power and influence and never a man to take chances, proceeded to root out all those officers associated with Moerdani in a campaign that came to be known as "de-Benny-isation".

"Benny was disenchanted with Soeharto," a friend recalled, "but at the same time could not liberate himself from his loyalty to Soeharto. Soeharto had become a symbol of the state of Indonesia and the centre of his life."

Born in Cepu, Central Java, Leonardus Benyamin Moerdani was the sixth of 13 children. R.M. Moerdani Sosrodirdjo, his father, was a member of the Javanese nobility and a Muslim who worked as an official in the Dutch-run railways. His mother, Jeanne Roech, was a Catholic of German and Javanese descent. The family spoke Dutch at home and lived a largely European existence. The children attended Dutch-language schools and played the piano.

In 1945, not long after his 13th birthday, Moerdani got hold of a Japanese rifle and joined the so-called Student Army in the struggle for independence from Holland, only to be sent home from one early battle because of his youth. He stayed on in the army after the Dutch left Indonesia, and carved out a reputation as a bold and courageous officer.

By the early 1960s, Moerdani was a favourite not only of senior army officers but also of President Soekarno, who decorated him for his achievements in West New Guinea. According to one story, Soekarno tried to get Moerdani to marry one of his daughters. In the event, Moerdani married Hartini, a former Garuda flight attendant. Soekarno held a party for the couple at the presidential palace in Bogor.

In 1974, after Soeharto's regime was shaken by violent anti-government and anti-Japanese demonstrations, Moerdani was brought back from a diplomatic posting in Seoul and appointed head of intelligence at army headquarters.

From then on, his star rose rapidly, with Soeharto giving him an unprecedented number of intelligence and security positions. On policy matters, he proved to be a hardliner and a hawk. Subtlety was not his strong suit.

In August 1975, when the defence minister, General Panggabean, briefed Soeharto on plans for a full-scale invasion of East Timor, Soeharto asked who had drawn up the plans. When told it was Benny, his manner was gently dismissive. "If you listen to Benny," he said, "you'll get into a war every day."

Sometimes the fighting animal side manifested itself in inappropriate ways. In the late 1970s Moerdani was in a party of Indonesian cabinet ministers who found themselves holed up in the London School of Economics during an anti-Indonesia student demonstration which was turning ugly.

As the ministers prepared to run the gauntlet of the protesters, Moerdani took a fork from the lunch table and slipped it into his pocket. Outside, people were shouting, in Indonesian, "Pembunuh! [Murderer!]" An Indonesian colleague, seeing Moerdani reach inside his pocket, bundled him into a waiting taxi.

Moerdani's critics held him responsible for a string of human rights abuses, in East Timor and elsewhere. They pointed to the 1978 crackdown on students and the media. They complained about the so-called "mysterious killings" in which several thousand criminals were bound and garrotted, apparently by army death squads, who left their bodies in the open as a warning to others. They claimed that he was hostile to political Islam, and drew attention to his role in the Tanjung Priok incident, in which troops opened fire on Muslim demonstrators.

But there was another side to Moerdani's personality. In an army in which anti-Chinese feeling runs deep, he stood out as a campaigner for an end to discrimination.

Australian officials were never in any doubt that Moerdani had a lot to answer for. They believed, however, that he was a man they could work with and that he supported many of the things Australia supported, including a stable and prosperous South-East Asia and strengthened Australian military ties with the Indonesian defence forces.

One Australian diplomat, convinced that Moerdani would be a fitting successor to Soeharto but aware that no Catholic could aspire to the presidency, suggested to him on at least two occasions that he become a Muslim. Moerdani deflected the idea with a diplomatic disclaimer. "No one," he said, "would believe me."

What the diplomat did not know was that Moerdani was deeply offended by any suggestion that he might be prepared to change his religion to advance his career. As he said once to a fellow Indonesian Christian, "Do they think I'm that cheap?"

For a long time, Moerdani seemed to have little time for Australia or Australians, partly because this country didn't seem very important and partly because he had been irritated by Australian criticism of Indonesian actions in Timor. But he got over that and was happy enough to banter at Australia's expense.

In the early 1990s Moerdani hosted a meeting in Jakarta for then prime minister Paul Keating, who knew the Indonesian leaders less well than he sometimes supposed but who is remembered quite fondly in Jakarta as a breath of fresh air from Australia.

At the end of their discussions, Moerdani said to Keating, "You and I have a lot in common." As Keating preened, basking in the thought, Moerdani went on, "We both married air hostesses."

Despite his aura as a reticent, moody and somewhat sinister figure, Moerdani did not lack admirers. Indonesian editors, including some whose newspapers he had once closed, enjoyed his company. As one said, "He kills people. But I like him."

David Jenkins is a former Herald Foreign Editor.


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