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Indonesia's General Wiranto Claims Innocence, Prepares Presidential Bid


Indonesia's former Defense Minister General Wiranto is protesting his innocence of charges that he committed war crimes in East Timor in an effort to prevent it from breaking free of Indonesia.

Despite numerous allegations against him of past human rights abuses, the retired general is looking at a political career and a bid at Indonesia's presidency. It is October 2000, slightly more than a year since East Timor was burned to the ground and eight months since General Wiranto lost his position as a top security minister for President Abdurrachman Wahid. About 500 members of Indonesia's political elite are gathered at a luxury hotel in central Jakarta, and the atmosphere is expectant. Out of view on one side of the ballroom, General Wiranto prepares to step before the crowd, to sing. The occasion was the release of General Wiranto's music CD, a collection of songs dedicated to the people of Indonesia. Prior to the dinner, General Wiranto explained to journalists that he wanted to do something to help the more than one million people within Indonesia forced to flee fighting and civil strife in various areas for the safety of refugee camps.

"My government faced the many problems not only for the refugees. And I think it's better if all Indonesian people like me, do something to help them," he said. "And I try to… sell my song, and… and this profit I would like to give to refugees through the Indonesian Red Cross. And I hope that not me, but the other Indonesian people can follow my activity to help the refugees." But General Wiranto declined to take any questions from journalists, including the one on most reporters' minds: Did he feel responsible for creating these refugees crises that he now sought to resolve? First appointed Defense Minister by Indonesia's former dictatorial President Suharto, General Wiranto also served as the head of Indonesia's Armed Forces. It was a key posting: At the time, generals, who controlled some of the seats in the national assembly, vastly influenced Indonesia's political decisions.

General Wiranto held both posts throughout the tumultuous months surrounding Mr. Suharto's fall in May 1998.

As Mr. Suharto fell, Indonesia's capital was engulfed by riots that were set off after the shooting deaths of four student protesters at Trisakti University. Mobs ran rampant throughout the city, attacking homes and businesses. An estimated 1,500 people were killed. President Suharto had been in power for 32 years, and his ouster revealed a series of fault lines running through Indonesian society. Ethnic and religious rivalries kept in check by his regime again erupted. The armed forces were criticized for years of human rights abuses throughout the country, especially in the breakaway provinces of Aceh, West Papua and East Timor. But Mr. Suharto's fall also ushered in a new era of political reform and the first steps toward ending the military's powerful influence over political leaders. General Wiranto not only survived the political machinations that went on within the upper ranks of the armed forces at this time, but apparently thrived. He was again appointed defense minister under Mr. Suharto's successor, President BJ Habibie. Calm returned to the Indonesian capital, but not for long.

People pray in the emergency room in a central Jakarta hospital as wounded students are rushed in for treatment. It is Friday the 13th of November 1998, a date now known as "Black Friday" to some, and the "Semanggi tragedy" to others. Six months after the Trisakti student killings, Indonesian police are again alleged to have fired on unarmed student protesters. Security forces, under the command of General Wiranto, killed at least 13 people. The anger in the emergency room was palpable. "You can explain the world, Wiranto, Habibi, Suharto, they are murder[ERS]" said one person.

"I believe General Wiranto should be responsible for this. It will not happen if the commander of the armed forces do not permit the armed forces to attack the students," said another. Despite demands by opposition leaders, General Wiranto refused to resign either his position as defense minister or as head of the armed forces. It wasn't until more than a year later, in early 2000, when he was politically out-maneuvered and forced out of the cabinet by Mr. Habibie's successor, President Abdurrachman Wahid.

This week, General Wiranto was faced with some of the most serious allegations ever made against him.

U.N. prosecutors working for East Timor's human rights court indicted General Wiranto and seven other senior officials on charges of crimes against humanity. The indictment says General Wiranto plotted and carried out the destruction of East Timor in 1999, the year the territory voted to break free of Indonesian rule. Rights workers believe armed militia groups, which the U.N. indictment says were established and commanded by the Indonesian Armed Forces, led by General Wiranto, killed hundreds of people.

General Wiranto dismissed the allegations, saying that as head of the armed forces, he did everything he could to ensure peace in East Timor. He added that he will not run and hide like a criminal that wants to hide his mistakes. Yet again, General Wiranto declined to answer questions from reporters about some of the larger implications, such as whether the charges would affect his political career. Indonesia's second largest political party, Golkar, has named the retired general one of five possible presidential candidates for next year's general election. Wimar Witoelar was one of Indonesia's most popular pro-reform media figures until he was drafted as a presidential spokesman under former President Wahid. He says a Wiranto candidacy shows how out of touch Indonesia's political elite is with the reform movement that toppled President Suharto. "Of course it's a big disappointment," he said. "But in a way we half expected that, because Indonesia is fast turning into one of these cowboy towns in the grade "B" movies where whole town is run by the bad guys, straight from the sheriff, to the judge, to the newspaper editor. If you're not a bad guy, you're not in control here. The elite is full of convicted people or about to be convicted people, or people who should be convicted… you name it… everybody's a crook.

"In that kind of environment Wiranto is very much at home…," he added. "Because what we have in Indonesia is where the elite in Indonesia are no longer in touch with the people who were behind the reforms of 1998." Indonesia's next presidential election is at least a year away. That is when Indonesia can see if the retired General Wiranto can make a comeback, if he was really ever gone.

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