The 300,000-strong Indonesian Armed Forces (TNI) enjoys a reputation and clout that far outstrips its relatively small size.

National historians place it at the centre of the nation's post-war struggle for independence and the security forces have used that legacy to reinforce their dual role, known as duafungsi, as both a political and military force.

It was a role developed and nurtured through the 32-year Suharto regime when compliant cabinets and a rubberstamp parliament top heavy with former military men, signed off on legislation that turned Indonesia from a sprawling, underdeveloped backwater state into one of Asia's economic "tigers".

It also created extraordinary personal wealth among a tight circle of Suharto business and military confidantes. According to Transparency International, the retired armed forces chief and his immediate family looted the national treasury of upwards of $30 billion.

Student groups still have strong
misgivings about the army's role

And while rank-and-file soldiers continue to struggle to make ends meet on salaries below the national minimum wage, the nation's toniest neighbourhoods are home to hundreds of well-heeled military families.

Power curbed

The TNI maintained a fairly low profile in the years immediately following Suharto's resignation in May 1998. Weakened by popular, pro-reform uprising, its reputation at an all-time low and stripped of its powerful patron, the military was forced to negotiate measures to curb its power.

It was stripped of its power over the national police, forced to give up its appointed seats in the national assembly, and TNI officers were told to remain utterly neutral during the election campaign.

More striking to both the general public and casual observer, however, was the humiliating series of public trials of high-ranking serving members of the TNI, most recently the chief of the notorious special forces unit Kopassus, accused of egregious human-rights abuses.

While hailing some developments, many analysts believe these steps have been purely cosmetic and that true reform remains elusive.

There has been an educational process ongoing in the military but you don't have to look too far to find that while they have revised the optics, they've not changed the mindset. They still believe they're a superior breed"

Dewi Fortuna Anwar, former presidential adviser

"Officially, of course, they are no longer permitted to have a political role for example. But that does not mean that civilian control is strong enough to remove them as a political actor," says Dewi Fortuna Anwar, who once advised BJ Habibie, who served as Suharto's vice-president for many years and briefly held the top job.

"There has been an educational process ongoing in the military but you don't have to look too far to find that while they have revised the optics, they've not changed the mindset. They still believe they're a superior breed."

Several recent criminal and legislative developments serve to highlight the TNI's continued influence.

The past two weeks have seen the dismissal of criminal charges against two senior army officers for the murders of hundreds of civilians in separate incidents in Jakarta and East Timor. Critics say prosecutors - cowed by the powerful figures in the dock - buried the most powerful evidence at their disposal.

Rare reprimand

Ex-general Yudhoyono may well
win the presidential runoff vote

In the latter case, only one person, an East Timorese politician, has been jailed in connection with what international human-rights agencies call the military-orchestrated destruction of the former Indonesian province following a 1999 vote for independence. Upwards of 1500 people died prior to and following the UN-sanctioned referendum.

The United States, which maintains an embargo prohibiting the sale of offensive weapons to Indonesia it imposed in the wake of the East Timor atrocities, issued a rare reprimand of its Southeast Asian ally last week.

"We are dismayed by this decision, and we are profoundly disappointed with the performance and record of the Indonesian ad hoc tribunal," a State Department spokesman said. "We think that the overall process was seriously flawed and lacked credibility."

"The military is one of the most disciplined groups in Indonesian society and they could come forward as unifying force in turbulent times"

Bantarto Bandoro,
The Centre for Security and International Studies, Jakarta

National parliamentarians, 70% of whom lost their seats in April's legislative elections, are on the verge of signing a bill that will give the TNI broad powers that critics say turn back the clock on six years of national reformist sentiment.

Among other things the bill, which has been roundly condemned by human-rights activists and civil society groups, gives the military authority to conduct a campaign for up to three days without seeking presidential approval.

According to Fortuna Anwar, "There's a wide streak of praetorianism in the military. They might be prepared to sit back in the shadows, but there's always the possibility we'll have a Turkish situation in as much as the civilian government will be beholden to the military for its survival. That's one of the things that worries me."

At the same time the bill contains no provisions to dismantle the so-called territorial command structure that maintains a military presence down to the village level.

The bill fails to seat overall control of the TNI in the Ministry of Defence a pre-requisite before it can be said to be under effective civilian control. Nor does it act to reign in the military's extensive business interests.

Regardless of whether the bill passes or not, and notwithstanding the decision to give up its legislative seats, it appears the Indonesian electorate is ready to tolerate the TNI reasserting itself on the national political scene.

Mixed reaction

The most popular politician in the country, retired four-star General Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, appears poised to win the run-off presidential election on 20 September against the incumbent Megawati Sukarnoputri.

Abuses, such as the East Timor
atrocities, are well documented

Considered a reformer within the TNI, the US-trained Susilo's campaign team features more than a dozen former generals and a leaked list of preferred cabinet appointees contained five retired military men in prominent positions.

Not everyone sees the return of the generals as a bad thing. There is widespread support at the grass roots for the kind of centralised tough love that student activists and pro-democracy campaigners railed against in the dying days of the Suharto regime.

"The military is one of the most disciplined groups in Indonesian society and they could come forward as unifying force in turbulent times," says Bantarto Bandoro of the Centre for Security and International Studies in Jakarta.

"The TNI is a part of our society, and part of the national political landscape so like it or not, they're here to stay."