Kopassus has a special place in RI history
Endy M. Bayuni, The Jakarta Post, Jakarta
Kopassus – Inside Indonesia’s Special Forces, By Ken Conboy, Equinox Publishing (Asia), 2002, 320pp
Some see them as heroes, others as villains. Some fear and hate them, others admire and hold them in high esteem. However one views Kopassus, no one can deny that the Indonesian Army’s Special Forces (Kopassus) are special indeed.
They are not necessarily special because of their skills or their performance; other countries have special forces too, and needless to say, some have performed better or are in much better shape.
Kopassus is special because it has played a pivotal role in Indonesia’s modern history since its inception in 1952, and because, for better or for worse, Kopassus and its men have also helped to shape that history.
Ken Conboy’s latest work is a brave attempt to look at Kopassus’ place in Indonesian history.
I say brave because in spite of its high profile in the history of the Indonesian Military, Kopassus is a complex subject that is not easy to comprehend.
Given the often secretive and controversial nature of its work — including special warfare and military intelligence — few outsiders have had a chance to obtain a glimpse of how the Indonesian Army’s Special Forces think and operate.
Conboy is one of those few outsiders privy to the inner workings and inner thinking of the command, and of its many commandants over all these years.
As the title suggests, the book tries to tell the story of the Indonesian Military’s most fearsome command from the inside.
Since many of the military campaigns in which Kopassus has been involved have been written about and are well documented, some might dismiss the likelihood of finding anything startling.
But no one has ever attempted to write from the perspective of Kopassus, from the eyes of the people who made up the command.
Conboy combines his analytical skills (he is a military analyst by training) with the views and thinking of the dozens of Kopassus officers he interviewed in writing this book.
The strength of the book therefore comes from giving both an outside-looking-in and an inside-looking-out view of all the national events in which Kopassus has been involved since 1952.
The author takes a look at Kopassus from 1952 to 1993, and with good reason: events after 1993 are too recent to write about objectively, and too recent for any of the people involved to speak openly and frankly about, the way their predecessors did in helping the author reconstruct history.
Still, this is a pity because Kopassus became more controversial and more involved in political power plays after 1993, right up to the end of the Soeharto regime in 1998. Widely discredited after that because of its close association with the authoritarian leader, Kopassus has been struggling ever since to repair its battered image and regain its public standing.
Inside Indonesia’s Special Forces helps us understand Kopassus better. And understanding the evolution of Kopassus explains why the force is the way it is today. And we learn that this evolution cannot be separated from the individuals who led and gave the force the vision that charted its historical path.
The idea to set up the Special Forces, for example, came from Slamet Riyadi, the Central Java lieutenant colonel, while he was fighting the Dutch colonial forces in Maluku in 1949.
He was so impressed with his adversaries’ fighting skills that he told his colleague, Col. Alex Kawilarang, while they were ducking Dutch bullets, “I want some of those for myself.”
Riyadi never lived to see his idea come to fruition as he was killed in a later battle, but Kawilarang picked it up three years later when he was chief of the Siliwangi Military Command in West Java in Bandung. Thus the Army’s Special Forces were born.
It was not a smooth path, and typically, like any evolving organization, it was a hard struggle wrought with personal rivalries, competition from other services and ultimately politicking, within the military and national politics.
Political infighting aside, the Special Forces quickly made their mark by spearheading some of the government’s military campaigns: putting down regional rebellions in the late 1950s, the Irian Jaya (Papua) campaign in 1960, the confrontation against British Malaya in 1964, the crushing of the communist forces in 1965, the East Timor military campaign in 1975, and the subsequent campaigns against terrorism, or anyone considered a threat to the Soeharto regime.
Kopassus’ main role in shaping history came in 1965 when it became the backbone of the Army, then politically fractured between pro and anticommunist camps, to crush the abortive coup blamed on the Indonesian Communist Party (PKI).
The force paved the way for Soeharto’s rise to power, and subsequently helped him stay in power for over three decades.
While Kopassus’ contribution to Indonesian history has been significant, not everything was glory for the force. Conboy’s book gives a sober account of both the failures and the successes, the ups and downs of Kopassus.
The force’s contributions were not limited to the military operations they were involved in. Probably much more significant was its success in producing some of the finest and most disciplined Army men, who went on to become statesmen long after they retired from Kopassus and the military.
A quick glance at the list of Kopassus men who appear in the book reads like a who’s who of the Indonesian Military.
Gen. Benny Murdani, although he never held the leadership baton, was one of the most prominent Kopassus alumni, having served in the command from its early years.
Other figures to have come from the command include Sarwo Edhi Wibowo, Feisal Tandjung, Kentot Harseno, Hendropriyono, Luhut Pandjaitan, Sintong Pandjaitan and Yunus Yosfiah.
Although Conboy based his book largely on official documents, including declassified U.S. intelligence reports, his lengthy interviews with many of the past Kopassus leaders allowed him to reconstruct history as seen from inside the command. The many anecdotes in the book help to sustain the reader’s interest.
Conboy is not a stranger to Indonesia or the Indonesian Military. His background as a military analyst and his work in Jakarta for the last 10 years as a consultant allowed him to become acquainted with the people that he writes about.
Inside is a powerful narration of the history of the military’s fearsome Special Forces.
Reading the book, one gets the feeling that Kopassus is far from becoming history. It will continue to play a major role in shaping Indonesia’s history for many more years.
The sequel to this book, if there is one, will be just as interesting to read as this present volume.
— Endy M. Bayuni