'TNI to shun elections despite right'

To celebrate its 58th anniversary, which falls on Oct. 5, the Indonesian
Military (TNI) has picked "Make the general election a success" as the commemoration's theme. The following is an excerpt of the question and answer session with TNI Commander Gen. Endriartono Sutarto, which was attended by The Jakarta Post 's Tiarma Siboro.

Question: In the 2004 general election, the military will have the right to
vote, but why did you once tell soldiers not to exercise that right?

Answer: We, the military, agree that the 2004 general election is the mostimportant moment for this country because at this time, the country will seethe direct election of leaders by the people. Along with the police, we wantto safeguard the event by being neutral and impartial. We hope all parts ofthe country will support us.

How do you implement it?

As a state apparatus, the military has not exercised the right to voteand consequently, the institution was granted free seats at the legislativebody. For a long time we have not exercised our political rights. Butchanges have been made since politicians amended the 1945 Constitution andprovided us with the right to vote. Indeed, our seats at the House ofRepresentatives will be scrapped in 2004 and at the People's ConsultativeAssembly in 2009.

Looking at the current situation of the country, which remains far frombeing mature in politics, I think it will be unwise to let the soldiersmaintain impartiality while at the same time voting for certain political parties. Therefore, again, I ask Indonesian people to allow the soldiers notto exercise their political rights.

What kind of compensation will you ask for?

We have never asked for any compensation from legislators due to ourposition. TNI belongs to the people, therefore our aspirations should be inline with those of the people. We no longer need to pursue our politicalinterests and, moreover, we don't ask for certain posts in the cabinet norother political institutions. If the government decides to appoint militaryofficers as cabinet ministers, I think the decision must be made based onmeritorious and professional considerations.

Do you anticipate a deadlock in the direct presidential election?

I don't think there will be a deadlock. (But) Perhaps the winner will notwin by an overwhelming number of votes. No matter who contests thepresidential election, the TNI will safeguard the event until the countrychooses a president who is elected constitutionally.

How does the military respond to retired officers who wish to contest thepresidential election?

Principally, everybody has the right to run for presidency as long asthey follow existing regulations. Regarding the retired military officers, Ihave to state that they are no longer within our structure. So there will beno obligation for us to support them. Also, I ask these retired officers notto seek support nor take benefits from either military individuals or themilitary institution. I also demand that the military avoid being"exploited" by candidates during their campaign.

Why did you pick politics and general elections as a theme instead ofmilitary professionalism?

I have to talk about politics because the 2004 general elections isconsidered to be the momentum for the country to emerge from the currentcrisis. It is such a critical moment for this country.
How about the elections in certain troubled provinces, such as Aceh?

Regarding Aceh, the TNI has no right to decide whether or not the martiallaw there should be lifted or extended. The decision lies with thegovernment and legislators. The six-month period of the martial law willexpire on Nov. 19, so we can leave the matter to the politicalauthorities... whether or not they will maintain the status. Our obligationto Aceh people is to enable them to exercise their right to vote, even ifthe political authorities decide to keep the emergency status.

How about the plan to renew military's weaponry?

Principally, the state will be able to defend its sovereignty and dignityshould its security force be provided with enough supporting equipment. Ireally want to see the military possess adequate weaponry to safeguard thestate's sovereignty and safety.

Although the country is currently facing a difficult economic situation, Ithink the TNI's need for weaponry should not be a problem because we canrely on domestic companies which produce military equipment, such as(Surabaya-based state ship maker) PT PAL. We can purchase it fromneighboring countries through counter trade deals.

I wish to equip the Air Force with a squadron of Russian-made Sukhoi jetfighters; or six MI-35 assault helicopters for the Army; or strengthen ourNavy with dozens of vessels to guard our vast territory (with some 17,000islands). But, that's just what I wish.

(Surabaya, Oct. 2003)