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By John McBeth, a senior writer for The Straits Times News
August 2, 2007 Thursday
Pictures in this blog taken from Rakyat Merdeka collection.

THINGS have turned full circle for the family of the late Lieutenant-General Sarwo Edhie Wibowo. The notorious special forces commander had been cast aside by former president Suharto after playing a leading role in overthrowing president Sukarno and the bloody purge of the Indonesian Communist Party (PKI).

Now, more than four decades on, one of his daughters, Mrs Kristiani Herawati, is the wife of President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, another is married to Army Strategic Reserve (Kostrad) commander Erwin Sudjono, and his eldest son, Brigadier-General Pramono Edhie Wibowo, is in the running to become the next head of the Indonesian Special Forces (Kopassus).

A third daughter is the wife of retired army colonel Hadi Utomo, the chairman of Dr Yudhoyono’s Democrat Party. In fact, Dr Yudhoyono, Lt-Gen Sudjono and Col Utomo married the three sisters on the same day – July 30, 1976. The next morning, Dr Yudhoyono flew to East Timor to take up his new post as a Kostrad platoon commander.

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The President has predictably been accused of nepotism for signing off on the promotion of Lt-Gen Sudjono, but while that and Brig-Gen Wibowo’s possible appointment may reflect a Javanese urge to shore up loyalty in the ranks, the days are long gone when it will improve his chances of winning a second term in the 2009 presidential election.

‘This has nothing to do with nepotism,’ armed forces commander Air Chief Marshal Djoko Suyanto said in a statement he was forced into issuing after Lt-Gen Sudjono was named to the Kostrad post last year. ‘It is based on his track record. I look at it purely from a professional viewpoint.’

Brig-Gen Wibowo, who served for three difficult years as adjutant to former president Megawati Sukarnoputri, faces stiff competition for the Kopassus job from two other career special forces officers – Brig-Gen Hotma Marbun, a North Sumatran Muslim, and Brig-Gen Hotma Panjaitan, a Christian and the son of one of the six generals murdered during the alleged communist coup attempt of Oct 1, 1965.

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Brig-Gen Marbun is currently deputy commander of the army’s Bandung-based education command, and Brig-Gen Panjaitan is in charge of the army territorial centre. Both are 1977 Military Academy classmates, but Brig-Gen Marbun was the first to make general rank and, as a result, is probably the strongest contender.

Though all three candidates get high marks for their professionalism from Western analysts, seniority still obviously counts for something. Brig-Gen Wibowo is, in fact, a 1980 graduate and his promotion to head the elite 5,000-man force would cause a major stir. That’s because not one of the graduates from the preceding class of 1979 has received a second star so far.

The father of seven children, Lt-Gen Sarwo Edhie died an embittered man at age 62 in 1989, his name indelibly associated with the massacre of up to 500,000 people in the wake of the 1965 coup. Historians from that period say many of those killed in the military-triggered frenzy were not PKI members, but the victims of land disputes that broke out over Sukarno’s agrarian reform programme.

The general’s wife, Madam Sunarti Sri Hadiyah, 77, who transformed herself from a dutiful tea-pourer into the family matriarch after his death, must now take some satisfaction from seeing her family win back a place at the head table of Indonesia’s political-military elite.

This has nothing to do with business, even if the rest of the children are in the private sector. One other sister is married to Mr Gatot Suwondo, the director of syariah banking at privately owned Bank Danamon, and another sister is the wife of Mr Erwin Siregar, a retired Public Works Ministry official. Brig-Gen Wibowo’s younger brother, Mr Hartanto, is also in private business.

Instead, it is much more about pride and family honour and the legacy of a charismatic, but ruthless, general whom Suharto saw as a possible threat in the uncertain dawn of his 32-year rule.

Lt-Gen Sarwo Edhie was head of the army’s crack Para-commando Regiment (RPKAD), the forerunner to Kopassus, at the time of the alleged coup. The six generals were kidnapped from their homes and murdered in the early hours of Oct 1, their bodies dumped into a well on the outskirts of Jakarta.

Versions of what happened vary to this day, but the RPKAD had a crucial part to play because the ongoing Confrontation with Malaysia and its Five Power backers had drawn most regular units away from Java and left the seat of power exposed to PKI machinations.

Suharto had become suspicious of Lt-Gen Sarwo Edhie after seeing him leave the presidential palace in Bogor as he arrived to meet Sukarno on Oct 2, the beginning of the process that would lead to the founding president’s downfall. What also raised Suharto’s hackles was the way the student movement treated the RPKAD chief as a hero after the PKI was crushed.

Lt-Gen Sarwo Edhie’s already-questionable loyalty to Suharto was called into more serious question in 1967-68, when he and the four generals in charge of the Kalimantan, East, Central and West Java regional commands began to publicly agitate for political reforms, including the introduction of a two-party system.

All were subsequently shuffled out of their key positions, with Lt-Gen Sarwo Edhie first being transferred to North Sumatra and then to Jayapura, where his troops enforced the 1969 Act of Free Choice that legalised Indonesia’s annexation of then-Irian Jaya. He was later made ambassador to South Korea.

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Ruthless he may have been, but Lt-Gen Sarwo Edhie was probably no different than most of his colleagues. ‘Military people are part of a machine,’ explains one prominent Indonesian academic. ‘If there are instructions to get rid of something, then they will. That’s why you can never trust a military officer. They can be used for good and they can be used for bad.’

No one has accused Lt-Gen Sarwo Edhie’s daughter Kristiani Herawati of being ruthless, but her influence as First Lady cannot be


under-estimated. People who know the presidential couple better than most say that she is his closest adviser in an inner circle that remains remarkably small and devoid of genuinely trusted retainers.

Insiders say it was Ibu Ani, as she is called, who summoned a family gathering and got the President off the fence when he was wavering at the last minute over whether to resign from Megawati Sukarnoputri’ s Cabinet and run against her in the 2004 presidential election. ‘You have to stop dodging and weaving and start punching,’ Dr Yudhoyono was reportedly told.

The next day he announced his resignation and Mrs Megawati’s husband, Taufik Kiemas, famously called him ‘childish’ – a remark that was responsible more than anything else for East Java-born Dr Yudhoyono winning so many votes from annoyed Javanese constituents.

From what can be determined, the military men in the family spend little or no time at the presidential palace, where retired officers such as Cabinet Secretary Sudi Silalahi and political advisor T.B. Silalahi, Dr Yudhoyono’s mentor at staff college, serve as the effective gatekeepers.

Lt-Gen Sudjono is scheduled to retire early next year after spending 25 years of a 31-year military career in Kostrad, Indonesia’s regular combat force which maintains two fully equipped infantry divisions in Jakarta and on the outskirts of the East Java city of Malang.

Born to Catholic parents in the West Java capital of Bandung in 1951, he graduated from the Military Academy’s 1975 class along with incumbent Army chief of staff Djoko Santoso. In 1990 he served a tour as head of Indonesia’s United Nations peacekeeping contingent in Kompong Thom, Cambodia.

In 2003, he was given command of Kostrad’s 2nd Division, which spearheaded the government’s final push against the separatist Free Aceh Movement (GAM) – a mission that this time was relatively free of the human rights abuses which had marked previous offensives.

Before taking over as Kostrad chief, Lt-Gen Erwin Sudjono spent two years as chief of the Kalimantan regional command. There, he is reputed to have had some success in curbing the military’s involvement in illegal logging that has stripped much of the territory of its rainforest.

Brig-Gen Wibowo has earned his spurs in a similar fashion. He has been deputy commander of Kopassus for the past two years and has spent much of his career in the much-maligned unit, serving as commander of the West Java-based Group 1 and later as head of the Detachment 81 counter-terrorism unit.

In April 1997, he was coordinator of the first South-east Asian expedition to conquer Mt Everest. A special forces sergeant and an Indonesian civilian made it to the summit after five months of training with Russian high-altitude specialists.

Military analysts say even if Brig-Gen Wibowo does not get the Kopassus command in the coming weeks, he will almost certainly do so the second time around. How he feels about his father’s legacy is not well known, but even US-trained intelligence officers like Brig-Gen Hotma Panjaitan still regard communism as an ever-present threat – more so even than Islamic radicalism.

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