Air Force still bears PKI stigma

Had the New Order leader Soeharto -- a former Army general -- not been deposed, few Indonesian Air Force officers would likely hold important roles within the Indonesian Military (TNI). Under the 32 years of Soeharto's authoritarian rule, military politics was dominated by the Army, and the Air Force laid low after it was stigmatized as a sympathizer of the banned Indonesian Communist Party (PKI).

At that time, few Air Force officers held strategic posts at the TNI headquarters -- a stark contrast to the era of president Sukarno, Soeharto's predecessor.

Sukarno loved to call Air Force officers Anak Lanang President, a Javanese phrase that means "the sons of the President". That situation was reversed after the aborted 1965 coup blamed on the PKI. That incident claimed the lives of six Army generals and a lower-ranking Army officer. The identities of the true masterminds of the attack are still being debated today.

Several top-ranking Air Force officers, including then Air Force chief Omar Dhani, were implicated in the coup attempt, which led to the massacre of hundreds of thousands of PKI members across Indonesia. When the three-star Army officer, Soeharto, the former commander of the Army's Strategic Reserves Command (Kostrad), took over the presidency, Omar Dhani and several PKI members were taken to court. The military tribunal dominated by Army officers declared them guilty and sent them to prison or to death by firing squad.

At the time, anything and anybody associated with PKI was despised and the Air Force removed all pictures of Omar even in Air Force premises. The winds of change began to blow in 1999, when Abdurrahman "Gus Dur" Wahid became president. After his election, Gus Dur appointed a two-star Air Force officer, Ian Santoso Perdana Kusuma, to a portfolio post at the TNI headquarters.

A son of the country's national hero, Halim Perdana Kusuma, Ian was later promoted to head the TNI's Strategic Intelligence Agency (BAIS). At that time, former Air Force chief Marshall Hanafie Asnan also put up a new picture of Omar among other senior Air Force officers. "It is a good thing that the Air Force is leaving its dark past behind in connection with the 1965 tragedy. The nomination of an Air Force officer (Marshall Djoko Suyanto) to become the top TNI commander will reduce these psychological wounds," said Ikrar, a researcher from the Indonesian Institute of Sciences (LIPI).

*Published by The Jakarta Post on January 18, 2006