Juwono Sudarsono, Indonesia's first civilian defense minister, is a soft-spoken intellectual who served as education minister under former president B.J. Habibie and environment minister under Habibie's predecessor, Suharto. Still recovering from a stroke he suffered in January, Sudarsono faced the task of reasserting civilian control over the military when General Wiranto, the former armed forces chief, was forced to step down pending an investigation into the military's role in East Timor atrocities. (See TIME's extended interview with Wiranto here.) A leading thinker on the Indonesian military educated at Berkeley and the London School of Economics, Sudarsono, 58, spoke with TIME reporter Jason Tedjasukmana. The online-only interview:
TIME: How did you break the news to General Wiranto that President Abdurrahman Wahid wanted him to resign?
Sudarsono: I told him that perhaps it would be wise to put himself in an inactive position rather than resign. But he insisted the Commission Investigating Human Rights Violations in East Timor report was biased and said he wanted to meet Gus Dur [President Abdurrahman Wahid's nickname]. We agreed that the best way was to wait for the President to return from his foreign tour. I think Wiranto had it coming because he knew from the beginning that Gus Dur was unpredictable.
TIME: Does Wiranto have any career left in politics or the military?
Sudarsono: It depends on how soon the Attorney General can get to the gist of the findings. He said it would take three months--I think that is too long. Once we have a list of suspects, if Wiranto's name is not on it, he could theoretically be reinstated.
TIME: Cabinet Secretary Marsilam Simantjuntak said the suspension of Wiranto was taken for the sake of national stability. If Wiranto's name is cleared in connection with atrocities in East Timor, could that then endanger national stability?
Sudarsono: No, I don't think so. I think the real question is between Wahid and Wiranto because they have had a strong personal relationship for the past two and a half years, going back to May 1998. I think whatever differences they may have, Wahid certainly owes Wiranto for some of the successes he--Wahid--went through, particularly in September and October last year. I think he recognizes that Wiranto, as a person and as commander of the armed forces and minister of defense then, played an important role in the outcome of him becoming president. But circumstances change and he is a literal pragmatist. Wahid knew that something had to be done about the perceived role of Wiranto during the post-referendum period. There was a concerted attempt by the United Nations--and I must say that the United Nations is now a virtual arm of American diplomacy--of trying to get Wiranto and the army as part of this democratization process that the Clinton Administration is trying to push through, particularly through Madeleine Albright and Dick Holbrooke. It reminds me of 1979-80 when the Carter Administration took credit for the release of political prisoners which the army initiated over the role of PKI [communist] political prisoners. This is not new for me.
TIME: Did you find it strange that Wiranto's successor was immediately inducted in a formal ceremony?
Sudarsono: That is just one of the quirks of the government now. Most of the people in the government now, about 80%, are from nongovernment organizations and social unions and are unfamiliar with the bureaucracy. Wiranto and I are the two leftovers from the past.
TIME: Has de-Wiranto-ization already taken place in the military?
Sudarsono: The moment Wiranto was appointed Menkopolkam [coordinating minister for politics and security] his power base was greatly diminished. It was only a question of time. What seems a bit galling to Wiranto is that since he is retiring on March 31, why advance the whole process? The president could have waited until March to let the legal process go on. If he is named a formal suspect, then remove him from office.
TIME: Is the international community intervening too much in Indonesia's internal affairs?
Sudarsono: Yes. There is a distinct link between democratization, human rights, the environment and aid. This is a very powerful instrument and the United States plays that role in every corner of the world--Latin America, Africa and Indonesia. It has had less success in China simply because China is more powerful in terms of resistance. We should be reminded of [first president] Sukarno's legacy. Sukarno taught us in Indonesia that behind every diplomatic nicety is power politics.
TIME: Some fear Wahid might be moving too fast in making changes within the military. Do you fear the possibility of a military backlash?
Sudarsono: No. I think the process of "civilianization" is irreversible, Given the context of the past two years--particularly revelations about the abuses of the military in some parts of the country. It is virtually impossible for any military leader to try to make a grab for power. The real danger is if the civilians do not get their act together and the whole political system stalls--then the army, as in Pakistan, could think of a creeping coup.
TIME: Is Gus Dur too susceptible to international pressures? Sudarsono: No. He's very aware of them.
TIME: Perhaps international pressure and the arrival of U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan forced Gus Dur to speed things up and remove Wiranto?
Sudarsono: That's the link. Foreign investment and aid commitments are the benchmark and litmus test for Gus Dur. The president has this view about linking global issues with local capabilities. He's a believer in social empowerment and he believes foreign investment is the key to the Indonesian recovery.
TIME: How do you rate Gus Dur's attempt to assert civilian rule of the country?
Sudarsono: He has the best credentials for building a civil society. The only problem is that he doesn't have enough organized, collective support in the Cabinet, PKB [National Awakening Party], NU [a related Muslim organization] and from other political parties. Al of the political parties in the Cabinet are virtually prominent figures who have followers but don't have good organization. Most of the money they get is from their friends in business and the bureaucracy.
TIME: Is there a lack of unity in the Cabinet with most ministers beholden to their parties as opposed to Gus Dur?
Sudarsono: Definitely. This is back to the '50s. The PNI, Masyumi, PKI [all political parties] and NU all used government largesse to increase their war chests in anticipation of the next elections. It will come to a head in August because, theoretically, the MPR [People's Consultative Assembly] can call for an accountability speech from the President.
TIME: Does the President face the possibility of having his speech rejected, or be the subject of a no-confidence motion?
Sudarsono: I don't think so. But there is a feeling that the other parties are keenly interested in creating a climate that Gus Dur has not been in full control of the Cabinet or controlling the violence in the country. I think it is unfair to blame it on him since the violence and unrest goes back to the Habibie era. There was also too much openness. We let loose the media and compounded the sense of hatred and ethnic violence because it was played through the media.
TIME: Should high-ranking officers be responsible for the actions of their subordinates?
Sudarsono: There are three positions on this. The European tradition is that the commander is fully responsible. The British position is that the commander is not responsible for what is done by his troops. The American position is that the person two steps up from the perpetrator is held to account. In the case of My Lai, William Calley was brought to court and his commander two steps up was indicted but not General Westmoreland. My own personal view is that General Wiranto should not be held totally responsible. He had command responsibility but he did not perpetrate, order, finance or direct what took place in East Timor. It was state policy which was decided by the Habibie government. It was a collective Cabinet decision.
TIME: Shouldn't Wiranto bear some responsibility for what happened not only in East Timor, but also for the hundreds that have died around Indonesia over the past two years?
Sudarsono: Given the nature of the conflict in East Timor over 15 years--between religious groups--I don't think any commander could have been able to take effective action. Given the history and links between the militias and the Indonesian military, it would have been virtually impossible for any commander, much less General Wiranto, to do what the international community at that time expected. I think Wiranto was a victim of circumstance. Even if he had wanted to, he could not have controlled the deep-seated violence of the conflict between the [pro-independence] Falantil and the militias.
TIME: Couldn't the violence have been minimized if the militias had not been as well-armed or trained by the military?
Sudarsono: My main objection to the Commission Investigating Human Rights in East Timor report is that it did not investigate the cheating of UNAMET or the armed activities of the Falantil. It was so one-sided against the Indonesians that they conveniently absolved the U.N. of any blame and absolved the Falantil of any blame.
TIME: Will investigations into past wrongdoing in Indonesia go all the way to the top? Will Wahid go after Suharto?
Sudarsono: I think Gus Dur would like to do a Wiranto to Suharto. The problem is that Suharto is very stubborn and doesn't acknowledge or recognize his guilt. We should elevate Suharto to Indonesian icon like Sukarno, absolve him of all guilt, pardon him--but insist that all the businesses of his sons and daughters should be turned over. That would be more just, convenient and efficient than going through this endless and futile process like the Marcoses.
TIME: Do you see any similarities in the fates of Wiranto and Suharto?
Sudarsono: Yes. We tend to be very dismissive of fallen leaders. That is our culture.
TIME: If you were asked to testify at any upcoming trials to whom would your loyalty be, the government or Wiranto?
Sudarsono: I would give a balanced view. I would identify the national, regional and international context of the conflict, and point out that the United nations was not a neutral partner on the ground. There was a systematic attempt to bamboozle us. We were had by the U.N., had by the Australians, had by the Americans.
TIME: Why is it that so little justice is carried out in Indonesia when the violations and those who committed them are apparent to most people?
Sudarsono: The court system needs more money to investigate, to look for evidence, to hire police. We don't have that infrastructure. The infrastructure of justice is very poor in Indonesia. This is why it is difficult for outsiders to understand why it is difficult to bring people to justice. What I would like to learn from the South African experience is to provide justice plus reconciliation. Why not have a package solution for Aceh instead of having five outstanding trials from 1996-99? The most outstanding of those five gets put into the package, have the victims and perpetrators face each other like in South Africa, and then we defend them through the reconciliation commission. It would serve justice and it would save a lot of money and time. In East Timor, I would prefer this system to reconcile East Timor and West Timor. It would serve justice, bring perpetrators to court and, at the same time, provide a very necessary form of reconciliation between the peoples on both sides.
TIME: Is the military on its way to becoming a more professional body?
Sudarsono: My job now is to instill a sense of professionalism and reduce their number of businesses, and cronyism with their local partners. I also want to reduce the unwarranted misuse of power at the local level and restrain the use of foundations and cooperatives but also in the long run provide a regular military budget that provides decent pay. We cannot have a professional military without professional pay.
TIME: Are those in the military cooperating?
Sudarsono: Yes. I've told them can no longer collect expensive toys, such as those owned by some outlandishly rich generals.
TIME: How long will it take to make the military more professional?
Sudarsono: Five years. My sense is that the colonels understand that the professionalism of soldiers is going to be much less lucrative but paradoxically they are proud of it. The colonels that I talk to in the army and navy realize that the good times are over.
TIME: What should Indonesians learn from Wiranto?
Sudarsono: That he is a very unlucky person. His name was so rosy. TIME magazine was full of praise of him in May 1998. And look what you're writing about him now. Wiranto restrained himself from grabbing power although there was a decree from Suharto in May 1998. He successfully facilitated the succession from Suharto to Habibie and from Habibie to Gus Dur. He was rejected by the military faction in Parliament to advance to become Vice President and he accepted that. He could have conveniently let the students storm Parliament during the special session in November 1998.