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Mainstream, Vol. XLVII, No 45, October 24, 2009

Indonesia Today: Post-Election Reassessment of the Military

Sunday 25 October 2009, by Navrekha Sharma


The following article reached us quite sometime back but could not be used earlier due to unavoidable reasons. However, in view of the undiminished validity of its contents, it is being published now. —Editor

Indonesia’s second direct presidential election on July 8 took the country a step forward in consolidating the amazing democratic experiment it started 12 years ago. The financial crises of 1997, the end of 32 years of authoritarian rule under President Soeharto in 1998, the referendum which lost East Timor to Indonesia in 1999, and subsequent events of 9/11 caused plummeting growth rates, financial despair for millions, communal disturbances in Maluku, Poso, West Kalimantan etc., terrorist attacks (twice each) in Bali and Jakarta and increased demands for autonomy in Aceh and Papua. The settlement of these problems called for political acumen, hard economic decisions, clever investigative work by the police and the strong hand of the military, in different doses. The East Timor referendum in particular tested Indonesia’s resilience to the utmost: the fact that the country did not break apart like Yugoslavia is attri-butable, above all, to the inherent wisdom of the Indonesian people and the practical common sense of its leaders. After Soeharto’s departure, two Presidents followed in quick succession, during whose terms major and far-reaching decisions affecting Indonesia’s constitutional future were taken. Some of these had an immediate effect on calming the troubled waters while the effect of others became apparent later.

When insurgency in Aceh flared up after East Timor’s independence, Meghawati had just become President (August 2001). She was inclined to be a conservative rather than a reformer of the military. Soon followed the events of 9/11, after which the US Government dropped its sanctions regime and became interested instead in establishing counter-terrorism cooperation with the Indonesian military.These two developments emboldened the Indonesian military to use a heavy-handed “security approach” in Aceh. One of the largest military campaigns in Indonesian history followed but even that did not stop the insurgency. After the 2004 Tsunami and the death of 130,000 people, however, a solution appeared possible: Sushilo Bambang Yudhoyono (SBY), who had just been voted to power in Indonesia’s first direct presidential election, deftly used the window of opportunity to negotiate the Helsinki Accord, a political settlement helped with massive outpourings of international sympathy and foreign aid. Two years ago Aceh held a democratic election and its Governor today is a former rebel of GAM: truly a success story!

The recent bomb attack (July 17) in two of Jakarta’s hotels is certainly disturbing, but hopefully its causes will be isolated and dealt with promptly through effective police action, as were the terrorist attacks between 2002 and 2005 in Bali and Jakarta. It is possible that the very success of these earlier investigations made the country’s authorities complacent, in which case the July events should act as a wake-up call for the future. A problem which offers no easy solution, however, is the insurgency in Papua, whose complexities of history, geography, ethnicity and religion make it almost intractable. Still, with his accumulated experience and a newly refreshed mandate, SBY may be the country’s best hope in solving it. Notorious for the slow pace of his decision-making in his first term, SBY promised to be a more “decisive” President if re-elected.
Another priority area in which this resolve will be tested is in the yet-unfinished agenda to draw the military fully under civilian oversight. For the last 40 years, that is, during Sukarno’s Guided Democracy (1957 to 1965) as well as for the entire duration of the Soeharto presidency (1966 to 1998) the Indonesian military was the backbone of the Indonesian state. Under Soekarno it was obliged to share power with the PKI (Party Communist), but after the Communists were either killed or banished, the military under Soeharto became Indonesia’s single most important institution after the presidency. Fully legitimised in General Nasution’s formulation of Dwi Fungsi (dual function) which mandates a developmental role in addition to a security role, the ABRI (as Indonesia’s military plus police was then called) saw itself as the “superior” organ of the state, entitled to many special privileges. At the base of this self-perception was four years of guerrilla war against the Dutch between 1945 and 1949. Although the diplomatic struggle by the civilian leadership was probably more instrumental in shaming the Dutch to leave Indonesia in 1949 (they did not leave Irian Jaya, now Papua, until 15 years later!) the myth was encouraged by Soeharto to boost his Praetorian Guards vis-a-vis Islamic forces whose presence had become redundant after they had killed the Communists and helped install him into power. A short-lived period of liberal democracy under Sukarno (1950-57) had discredited civilian politicians as weak, fractious, corrupt and responsible for various insurgencies which had nearly broken the country apart. So people were disposed to welcome the military, overlooking the fact that many of the problems of that period (and the coup of 1965) started from internecine disputes within the military itself!

Soeharto as President did not wear his uniform but had the insider knowledge, guile and ruthlessness to keep individual military officers permanently at odds with one another so that no single General became a threat to him. As the country turned away from its erstwhile Communist friends and towards the West, its economy stabilised, foreign direct investment poured in and enough wealth and stability was generated to keep all major stakeholders happy. The President, Chinese conglomerates, Western multinationals and the military prospered like never before.To the credit of President Soeharto it must be said that even the common people’s basic bread-and-butter needs were taken care of better than in the past. The loss of freedom of speech, human dignity and justice was accepted by the people for lack of a choice, while the rulers glorified them as “Asian Values”. Later, when declining oil revenues and growing demands of the First Family for a share in the national pie caused the military to grumble, Soeharto opened the political door slightly for Islamic forces to enter and counterbalance the incipient threat. In this kleptocracy which was Soeharto’s Indonesia, a middle class evolved, but very slowly, over 30 years.

Jobs across-the-board were reserved for the military: in the MPR or People’s Consultative Group, the highest political body charged to nominate the President to power every five years, the DPR (Parliament), the Cabinet, to oversee the functioning of bureaucrats in all the Ministries and in embassies and consulates abroad. The judiciary was totally under the thumb of the military as was by and large, the press. The “Functional Group” called GOLKAR, the President’s political vehicle for legitimising his autocratic rule, was a military run operation. In the early Soeharto years as many as 80 per cent of provincial Governors, Bupatis or district heads and mayors of city councils were military men, although their numbers declined later to accommodate a growing middle class. Military officers ran several large PSUs including the State Oil Company Pertamina, small and medium industrial establishments and lucrative cooperatives and foundations (Yayasans). Other forms of income came from renting military lands and properties payments for guarding the premises of chinese conglomerates and land seizures for building condominiums, shopping malls and factories by Western multinationals and gradually, domestic businesses as well. Illicit income from logging and smuggling operations in mines and forests far removed from Jakarta was a lucrative source of wealth. These payments kept the military financially secure and autonomous and encouraged it to behave with impunity in cases of human rights abuse. No wonder that when, during the Asian financial crises of 1997-98, Indonesia’s students and middle classes forced President Soeharto out of office with cries for democratic reform (Reformasi) the military bore the brunt of the people’s anger next only to the presidency.

TODAY, 10 years after Soeharto, every formal superstructure with which the Indonesian military was identified has been effectively and, to the country’s credit peacefully, dismantled. Dwi Fungsi was formally abolished in 2000. Reserved seats in the MPR and DPR were withdrawn in phases, culminating in 2004. Except in the Ministries of Defence and the Coordinating Ministry for Security Affairs, military officers no longer hold posts in the government. The Minister of Defence for several years has been a civilian. The press in Indonesia is remarkably free. The Golkar has lost its unique privilege of representation and is now only one political party among several. Only retired military officers are appointed to the President’s Cabinet. Direct Provincial and District level elections, held in 2005 and 2007 (known as pilkada), resulted in reducing the number of military Governors/Bupatis/mayors. Many large PSUs run by the military, bankrupted during the financial crisis, have shut down since or been privatised.

Another major reform has been the separation of the police from the military. The military, now known by the acronym TNI, has been shorne of a role in day-to-day law and order duties including counter-terrorism operations and is thus less visible to the general public, especially in Jakarta and other cities. This has caused a loss of revenue to it and put it at odds with the Police but frustration at these changes appears to have been contained so far.

However, there is one structural reform which has still not been carried out. Under Soeharto, forty per cent of the Indonesian Army was broken into small units and dispersed all over the country to serve as a parallel administration alongside and in tandem with, the civil administration. This was the only way perhaps that in a poor and vast territory, troops could be quickly reached to every part of the country. Known as the Territorial Command Structure, this arrangement was at the core of dwifungsi and the source of the military’s power and pelf. Today, dwifunfsi has been abolished as a doctrine but its infrastructure, in the shape of military personnel still holding posts parallel with civil authority from the provincial levels down to village levels, remains intact. In the interior of Indonesia, military personnel still interact on a daily basis with civilians and supplement. The financial crisis rendered many large military-run PSUs bankrupt, but hundreds of small and medium enterprises, foundations and cooperatives continue to operate. Attempts by the government to draw up a comprehensive list of all military businesses as a first step to bringing them under civilian control ended in disaster four years ago and was not attempted again. The military also pre-empted the move by selling off several enterprises and encashing the sale proceeds. According to figures of the Ministry of Defence, 70 per cent of the military’s financing remains “off budget” which means that the military still enjoys considerable financial autonomy, and hence impunity. Recent indications are that the devolution of financial powers under “Reformasi”may have even increased availability of financial resources to the military in the provinces.

To conclude, the Indonesian military has accepted democracy but not yet endorsed it. The first generation of reforms can be called a success but second generation reforms still remain to be carried out. In a country where Institutional backing by the military of an autocratic state had for long created a deeply entrenched system of privileges with far reaching effects on laws, social norms and economic practices, the uprooting of these was always going to be difficult. But as long as the military does not part with the privileges and submit itself to civilian and democratic oversight, the self perception of superiority and hence danger of its reassertion in politics, cannot be ruled out. To professionalise Indonesia’s armed forces and wean them away from self-financing habits will also require financial compensation and much higher levels of spending by the state on modern equipment, armaments and training. Until now the Indonesian state has avoided making these hard choices. Will it do so in SBY’s second term? Recent bombings in Jakarta could make SBY less “decisive” than he has promised to be in executing these much needed “second generation” reforms. If so, what would that mean for the future of Indonesia’s Brave New World?

That all presidential/vice-presidential pairs in the recent elections had one candidate from the military is worrying also. Barely 10 years after Soeharto’s expulsion, every candidate for President is either himself a former General or has a former General as his/her running mate! Reformasi was supposed to herald in a vibrant democratic leadership and a new era of openness with free choice for the people of Indonesia. Is it out of disappointment with the civilian leaders who immediately followed Soeharto (Habibie, Wahid, Meghawati) that the country has chosen to turn to military men again in one form or other? SBY was always regarded as a different kind of military man, an intellectual with a soft heart, but what about Wiranto and Prabowo? Both were close associates of Soeharto and thoroughly tainted by that association.

These are some questions which I would like us to ponder in order to better understand this fascinating country. Indonesia is a close neighbour of ours and close also in many other ways. But it is also very different in some of the post-colonial choices it has made. As the world’s fourth largest country and third largest democracy with huge human and natural resources, a dialogue with Indonesia is crucial for India’s own prosperity, security and well-being.

The author, a former diplomat, was posted as India’s ambassador to Indonesia in the recent past. In fact her last posting as ambassador was in Jakarta.

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