JAKARTA: A controversial former military chief accused of atrocities during Indonesia’s brutal occupation of East Timor was appointed top security minister on Wednesday, with activists calling it a step backwards for human rights.
Wiranto, named to the powerful post in a Cabinet reshuffle, was among senior officers indicted by United Nations prosecutors over gross human rights abuses during the 24-year occupation of tiny East Timor.
Around 100,000 people are estimated to have been killed, mainly by Indonesian forces and their proxies, or to have died of starvation and illness during the occupation, which occurred during dictator Suharto’s three-decade rule.
Markets however cheered the appointment of prominent reformist Sri Mulyani Indrawati, currently a World Bank managing director, to the post of finance minister—six years after she resigned from the same job after coming under attack from conservative forces in the government.
Wiranto’s appointment was met with disappointment by rights activists. President Joko Widodo, who took power in 2014, was the country’s first leader from outside the political and military elites and it was hoped the influence of the old guard would wane under his leadership.
“It is a setback,” Andreas Harsono, Indonesia researcher for Human Rights Watch, told Agence France-Presse. “The message might be that Jokowi (Widodo) is not going to be as progressive as before in pursuing his human rights agenda.”
Widodo was likely trying to balance his unwieldy ruling coalition, said Keith Loveard, a senior risk analyst at Jakarta-based Concord Consulting.
Wiranto’s Hanura party, a small partner in the coalition, lost two other ministers in the shake-up, which saw 13 changes to the cabinet and was the second reshuffle under Widodo.
Wiranto, who like many Indonesians goes by one name, was head of the armed forces when the Indonesian army and paramilitaries went on a bloody rampage in East Timor after it voted to become independent in August 1999. The country formally became independent in 2002.
He denies any wrongdoing and has never faced court over the atrocities.
He replaces Luhut Panjaitan in the key role of chief security minister, overseeing five ministries including foreign, interior and defense.
Observers suggest Panjaitan caused concern among the military elite and Islamic groups by taking unprecedented steps to probe a bloody 1960s purge of communists and their supporters.
Cabinet Secretary Pramono Anung defended the appointment of Wiranto, describing him as “tested and experienced”. He has previously held the posts of defense and security minister.
Despite the claims against him, Wiranto has managed to retain a prominent position in public life. He has been a presidential candidate in two elections and in 2009 was the running mate of Jusuf Kalla, the current vice president.
It was Widodo’s latest controversial appointment to the top echelons of the security establishment. He also faced criticism for making hardline ex-general Ryamizard Ryacudu defense minister.
Panjaitan moved to the post of coordinating minister for maritime affairs, still a key job at a time when Indonesia is embroiled in rows with China over the South China Sea.
Indrawati previously held the finance minister post in 2005 – 10 and won praise for battling corruption and keeping Southeast Asia’s biggest economy on track. But she eventually resigned after facing attacks over a controversial bank bailout.
The Jakarta stock market was up 1.2 percent following news of her comeback.