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Military winners and losers

Military winners and losers
Asia's downturn threatens a reformist breakthrough 
Letters and comments in June 5th Asiaweek
Sweeping political reforms needed in China
Myanmar and Brunei to boost ties in wide range of areas 
Calls grow for return of 'Suharto trillions' 

Asiaweek (June 5, 1998)
Military winners and losers
THE MILITARY IN ASIA has long had a bad habit - launching coups, putting
down a few civilian protesters and trying to run the country. The results
have been mixed at best, disastrous at worst. Fortunately, the trend in
recent years has been for soldiers to stick to what they know best. South
Korea has seen its military stay out of politics, as have Thailand and
Pakistan. Now Indonesia appears to be taking steps toward joining the
If that comes to pass, you would have Gen. Wiranto to thank. The
51-year-old chief of the armed forces (ABRI by its Indonesian initials) is
something of a paradox: a handpicked Suharto loyalist who stands apart
from the corrupt, heavy-handed ways of his mentor's administration.
Sympathetic to the cause of reform - as long as it proceeds
constitutionally - he gave passive support to the student protesters by
not cracking down on them (as he easily could have done). Even though
Suharto had said in mid-March that ABRI could use "repressive measures" to
stop them, the military by and large held back. That, plus his informing
Suharto on May 20 that it was best to step down, ensured that the
political transition was relatively peaceful. 
Wiranto further burnished his reformist credentials when he announced on
May 25 that at least 14 soldiers were being investigated for the shooting
deaths of four students at Trisakti University, which had triggered the
recent riots. He also revealed the resignations of his wife and daughter
from the lawmaking People's Consultative Assembly, presumably to head off
any charges of nepotism. 
Wiranto is not alone in his proreform leanings. Perhaps at no other time
in the past 30 years has the ABRI leadership been as responsive to demands
for change. One reason is that many of today's high-ranking generals
graduated from the military academy (as opposed to past generations, who
saw revolutionary service). They are therefore far more likely to consider
the army as a strictly professional body representing a career rather than
a way to exercise influence in politics. 
It is too early to say whether this means the military will soon be
returning to the barracks for good. ABRI is said to have formed working
groups to study what its position on "reformation" will be. It has invited
religious, legal and political experts to discuss issues of reform.
Everything - even the hallowed dwifungsi (the "dual function" concept that
allows the military to dabble in politics) - is said to be on the table.
Perhaps little or nothing will come out of the discussions, but just the
fact the generals are listening to ideas is significant. 
Wiranto's departure from the old order was marked in another way: the May
21 removal of Lt.-Gen. Prabowo Subianto from his position as head of the
army strategic reserve, Kostrad. Prabowo, a son-in-law of Suharto, was
shunted off to a command college in Bandung, largely considered a post of
exile. The move appears to be aimed at eliminating a risk factor and
distancing ABRI from Suharto. Also falling from grace was Prabowo buddy
Maj.-Gen. Muchdi Purwopranjono, head of the special forces unit Kopassus,
while another ally, Jakarta commander Maj.-Gen. Syafrie Syamsudin, seems
set to follow. 
Is Prabowo out of the game altogether? Perhaps. But it seems he did not go
without putting up a fight. The night of Suharto's resignation May 21,
says a military source, a furious Prabowo ringed the palace and
presidential offices with troops loyal to him. He wanted to force B.J.
Habibie to honor a deal made months earlier that he would be made armed
forces chief if Habibie became president. But Wiranto, who had the chain
of command and more troops behind him, prevailed. 
A man of ambition, Prabowo was feared by the public as a dark figure
rumored to have a role in instigating unrest and in kidnapping activists.
His removal is a boost for Wiranto, who did not get along with him anyway.
Says ex-minister Sarwono Kusumaatmadja: "Now it depends on Wiranto himself
- whether he wants to remain an officer, or be the next president." Given
the political capital Wiranto has gained recently, the latter scenario is
by no means farfetched. 
- By Sangwon Suh, with reporting by 
Jose Manuel Tesoro and Dewi Loveard/Jakarta 

Asiaweek (June 5, 1998)
Asia's downturn threatens a reformist breakthrough 
GARRY PRIOR, a British businessman, 
has lived and worked
in East Asia for the past quarter century 
and is now based in Kuala Lumpur. 

MUCH TO MY REGRET, a year-long stay in Myanmar ended in February when my
planned business venture was not able to raise the requisite funds because
of the regional economic downturn. But I maintain my interest in Myanmar
and I hope that its people will be spared the pain of purely exploitative
modernization. No matter how unfashionable the view, I believe that a
strong degree of central control is necessary to help nations make the
initial transition from agricultural subsistence to a modernizing
semi-industrial economy and that it is the job of other nations, through
their governments, investors and commentators, to try to ensure that
oppression is ameliorated and that the benefits of development are shared
with the populace. 
Local oppositionists are inevitably weakened during such a transition, and
their audience is quite rightly the international media, who do much to
shape perceptions. In one sense, that is an extension of the marketplace.
I do not share the view that Asian Values are dead or never existed. They
served their purpose in most countries - without them Asia would not have
been taken seriously on the world stage - and they should now be adapted
to meet the new circumstances. Myanmar is among countries that still need
to complete the initial transition. A so-called open democracy will not
lead to a utopia but instead allow the economy to be hijacked by vested
interests who may prove more unattractive than the military. Whatever its
faults (and they are legion), the military at least recognizes that it is
a transitional government. 
Until I went to Myanmar (and despite spending 26 years in the region), I
believed what I read: that it was ruled by a stupid, brutal regime. I was
pleasantly surprised on nearly all fronts. When I got to know them, I
found that most members of the State Law and Order Restoration Council
(SLORC) wanted workable solutions. They juggled within a collective
responsibility to achieve a consensus between the wildly disparate views
of fighting generals who want the fruits of victory and the genuine
reformers who want more durable benefits. The ensuing inertia led to the
virtual coup last November which brought in the State Peace and
Development Council (SPDC) - and possibly a temporary victory for the
moderates. This breakthrough came as Asia's economy slumped, drying up
investment. Now there is a risk that without economic progress, the
reformers will be rejected by the military, who were not pleased to see
SLORC colleagues put under house arrest. 
The tragedy: I believe that Lt.-Gen. Khin Nyunt, the SPDC's secretary-1,
was trying to create a dialogue with the National League for Democracy
that would have led to some accommodation with Aung San Suu Kyi. But she
flatly rejected the overture for rather selfish reasons and put him in an
impossible position in the SPDC and the international community. It is
never good negotiating tactics to totally alienate the most sympathetic
party in the opposing camp and yet that is what she did, encouraged by
some but not all of the diplomatic community. The military is a fact of
life in Myanmar. Although it is widely detested, even its hardcore
opponents know that sooner or later they will have to negotiate with the
soldiers and co-exist. 
That Suu Kyi is treated as an international icon who is above criticism
and therefore the SPDC is seen as an international pariah, only makes it
harder to reach a sensible solution. The SPDC is no worse than many
regimes and a great deal better than some. By demonizing it, the (mostly
Western) press makes a dialogue more difficult. SPDC members feel the
abuse personally and it warps their perceptions of what is worthwhile and
doable. I have talked with several of the more moderate figures shortly
after an attack; deeply angry and hurt, they expressed themselves in
understandably emotional terms. Repeated abuse makes it more difficult for
them to defend their moderate stance and may force them to take a harder
line just to stay in the game. Myanmar's people are not helped by this. 
Disenchantment with the polarity of Suu Kyi's and the SPDC's positions is
evident among an increasing number of former "radicals" in Yangon who want
to see some progress. In my year in Myanmar, I came to admire the people's
cheerfulness in the face of poverty and the fear of repression. It is
testament to their decency that after 50 years of civil wars, there is no
general resort to terrorism. In my year there were three bombs and one
fatality. During one week I was in Hong Kong when there were bomb scares.
No one in the media suggested that Hong Kong was becoming unsafe. But
after the Myanmar blasts, the State Department warned Americans against
visiting, much to the indignation of some I knew who went in anyway to
find no troops on the streets and smiles on people's faces. 
U.S. Embassy reports are driven by a political agenda, not shared by the
embassy staff, that interprets facts in the most hostile manner. Sadly,
this is not unusual in Western analysis of Myanmar today. I suppose that
is why the very small band of us who try to look beyond stereotypes and
political correctness sometimes go too far in the other direction in
trying to present a more balanced picture.

Letters and Comments in June 5 Asiaweek
leaders like Suharto rise and fall, some in a few years, others in several
decades. There are several creative ways of "over-staying." One has only
to review the recent history of Asia to appreciate this. One thing is
consistent, though: excessive and prolonged power can and will corrupt
anyone who receives it. It blinds the perception of human dignity,
reality, justice and honor. Whether it is dollars, rupiah, yen, peso or
ringgit, the results are always the same - corruption, nepotism, guns,
goons, and gold for the "powerful one." But did we ever learn? 
Percival Punzal
via the Internet

A LONG-SUFFERING BURMESE, I will always remember the live broadcast of the
resignation of Suharto on the morning of May 21. I was thrilled for the
Indonesian people. But my happiness was tinged with jealousy as the
Burmese are still firmly under the military yoke. The ruling Burmese
generals unashamedly tried to copy the Indonesian military's dwifungsi
[dual function] principle and are tampering with the constitution to
enshrine their political role. After eight years of drafting by their
handpicked body, they still refuse to come up with a constitution. 
Who would have thought that Indonesia's endgame would come so swiftly, and
almost bloodless compared to the 1965 massacres? Having witnessed the
terrible nationwide killings by the Burmese army in 1988, I was
psychologically preparing myself for a bloodbath in Indonesia. Credit must
go to the leaders of both sides for pulling it off in such a civilized
Perhaps Suharto's biggest blind spot was the obscene greed of his family.
His longtime friend, Gen. Ne Win, is wiser on that front. He distributed
corrupt wealth among the rank and file of his army and created a new class
of Burmese belonging to the military. The only advantage the Burmese have
over the Indonesians is Aung San Suu Kyi, a leader waiting in the wings.
The price the Burmese will have to pay for Indonesian People Power is more
paranoid and repressive military rulers, who will now close the institutes
of higher learning - already shuttered for years - indefinitely. 
Maung Maung
[real name, address provided]
Hong Kong 

YOUR COVERAGE OF INDONESIA is excellent [May 29]. The explosive situation
was contained by the professionalism of Gen. Wiranto and the Indonesian
Army. The reports of President Suharto's family having a net worth of up
to $30 billion may be exaggerated. Companies affiliated with the Suharto
family may have total capitalization of that amount. But much of this may
be bank debt, not equity. 
The $80 billion foreign debt of Indonesian companies is not the
responsibility of the people. It is, however, a big problem for the
foreign banks that made the huge loans. The government should assist the
conversion of this debt to equity and help the banks collect the
outstanding loans. If the loans have insufficient collateral, the banks
should be held responsible for lending foolishly. Indonesia is
resource-rich with a big domestic market. With good government and a
financial lifeline from the International Monetary Fund, the economic
problems can be resolved. 
I have always felt that Indonesia and Burma were in a tight race for the
third Asian government to be toppled by the regional financial crisis.
Next to go will be the military regime in Burma. 
Myint Thein
Dallas, Texas

Saturday May 30 1998

Sweeping political reforms needed in China

I read with interest Elsie Tu's letter headlined, "Stand behind diligent
and effective leader" (South China Morning Post, May 22). 
It seems to me that Mrs Tu has taken a very one-sided view of things. 
If I am not mistaken, Mrs Tu (then Elsie Elliot) won a landslide victory
in the 1967 Urban Council elections due mainly to her popularity with the
Hong Kong people at the grassroots level. Since then, there has been a
change of tack, a move towards leftism and this resulted in her losing in
the Legco elections in 1995. It is a pity she did not learn from
experience and then she would have understood Tung Chee-hwa's slump in
The "97 phobia" spread after the June 4 crackdown in China. The memory of
that crackdown still lingers in the minds of Hong Kong people. They will
continue to think about it, unless a thorough programme of reform is
implemented in China. 
By subordinating himself and the people of Hong Kong to mainland political
thinking, Mr Tung has forfeited their confidence. They are also unhappy
that he lays so much stress on business interests, especially those of
property developers, who were also much admired by the colonial
administration. Current property prices are still prohibitive and far
beyond the means of the average wage earner. 
I hope that the Indonesian crisis and the student demonstrations there
will serve as an example to us and help the PRC leadership to wake up and
recognise its past mistakes. 
Kwun Tong 

The Straits Time
MAY 31 1998 
Myanmar and Brunei to boost ties in wide range of areas 
YANGON -- Myanmar and Brunei have agreed to strengthen bilateral relations
in various fields, the Myanmar Foreign Ministry said yesterday. 
It said the two countries pledged to boost ties during a meeting on Friday
between Senior General Than Shwe, the chairman of Myanmar's ruling State
Peace and Development Council (SPDC), and Brunei's visiting ruler, Sultan
Hassanal Bolkiah. 
It said in a statement that the two countries had agreed to form a joint
commission for promoting bilateral cooperation in the economic, trade,
social and cultural fields. 
>From June 28, Myanmar and Brunei citizens holding diplomatic and official
passports will enjoy a 14-day visa exemption, the ministry said. 
Meanwhile, sources said that when the Sultan arrived on Friday, there was
a small hiccup as his entourage apparently found the state guesthouse
below the standard expected for their leader. 
The advance party from Brunei arranged for him to stay at a modern hotel
built with foreign funds, the sources said. 
His visit, a largely ceremonial one, is the latest in a series by regional
leaders since Myanmar joined Asean last July. Reuters, AFP 

MAY 31 1998 
Calls grow for return of 'Suharto trillions' 
JAKARTA -- Attacks are intensifying on the Suharto family amid moves by
the new government to curb the economic favouritism that allowed the
family's fortunes to flourish. 
As Suharto rested at his Jakarta home on Friday, playing golf and jogging,
according to his half-brother, a groundswell grew for the return of the
fortune of up to US$40 billion (S$64 billion) that he and his six children
allegedly siphoned from their country's economy. 
Newly-liberated newspapers competed to display ever-bolder headlines about
the "Suharto trillions" -- counted in Indonesian rupiah -- and street
vendors passed out photocopied lists of the Suharto holdings, complete
with mugshots of family members. 
The mood here echoes the weeks following the 1986 ouster of former
Philippine strongman Ferdinand Marcos. 
Critics called for an investigation into the Suharto family's wealth, a
cancellation of questionable contracts and the return of any ill-gotten
Public anger is particularly keen because the family's extensive wealth --
estimated at between US$16 billion and US$40 billion -- is coming to light
at a time when Indonesia faces its worst economic crisis in three decades. 
"Can you imagine how many people that would feed?" asked an angry taxi
driver, pointing to an Indonesia newspaper article on the topic. 
Given the public discontent, members of the Suharto family, friends and
business partners should be prepared for increased criticism and possibly
even prosecution, according to Mr Roderick Brazier, who had just completed
an extensive study of the first family holdings for the Castle Group, a
Jakarta-based consulting group. 
"Someone is going to be made an example of," he said. 
"Suharto will be spared because many people believe he did much good for
the country. In his case, the good outweighs the bad. But his kids, if
they stay in the country, they will suffer." 
With a wave of reform sweeping Indonesia, government ministers are
responding to the popular mood by initiating moves to dismantle the
family's economic grip. 
Arrangements in which a well-connected Suharto family member was included
as a partner, and exclusive government-backed contracts for businesses
related to the family, are coming under increasing scrutiny. 
Pressure has also mounted to remove the former leader's children from
corporate boards and other positions of influence. 
On Friday, Chief Economics Minister Ginandjar Kartasasmita, himself a
Suharto appointee, announced a series of steps aimed at ending the kind of
manipulation that produced huge profits for the former President's
relatives and friends. 
On one front, he said procedures for approving investments would be
streamlined, ending a long tangle of red tape that allowed Suharto family
members to step in as silent partners, at huge fees. 
On a second, he said tax holidays would be made public and would be
available on the basis of merit, rather than being handed out, as in the
past, as presents to Suharto family members. 
On a third, he said factories would be allowed to open anywhere, as long
as land regulations were obeyed, and not be restricted to industrial zones
owned by favourites of the Suharto family. New York Times, Los Angeles