News analysis

Jokowi seen empowering Indonesian military

During the Jan 14 terror attack in Jakarta, troops from the Indonesian military, Tentara Nasional Indonesia (TNI), watched from the sidelines as the police successfully resolved the crisis.

During the New Order era of President Suharto from 1965 to 1998, the military - then known as Angkatan Bersenjata Republik Indonesia (Abri) - would have led from the front, experts say. That was a time when the military was a key player not just in national defence and internal security but also in socio-political affairs, they add.

Reforms implemented after the fall of Suharto in 1998 saw Abri relinquishing its role as a major force in national development under the dwifungsi, or "dual function", mandate, which granted the military its power over civil and political affairs.

 

Gone too were the seats reserved for Abri representatives in Parliament as the country, which suffered decades of authoritarian rule, aspired to a more liberal democracy.

Abri was renamed the TNI and, on paper, restricted to an external defence role, while the police force, once part of Abri, has been carved out to oversee law and order at home. This includes taking the lead in counter-terrorism as Indonesia grapples with the rising threat from domestic militants, including thousands who are loyal to the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS).

IMPLICIT BARGAIN

Jokowi seems to have struck an implicit bargain with the TNI. In exchange for unconditional loyalty and support for his broader political agenda, the President will push for improvements in military personnel welfare, modernisation of TNI equipment, maintenance of the TNI's separation from the Defence Ministry and retention of an ex-officio Cabinet post for the TNI commander.

JAKARTA-BASED INSTITUTE FOR POLICY ANALYSIS OF CONFLICT

Political observers say the TNI has been muzzled by presidents elected after Suharto, most careful not to evoke memories of the military's repressive regime during the Indonesian strongman's era.

However, the military seems to have found a second wind under President Joko Widodo, as well as new friends in certain quarters of Parliament, they add.

"Jokowi seems to have struck an implicit bargain with the TNI," said the Jakarta-based Institute for Policy Analysis of Conflict (Ipac), using Mr Joko's nickname.

"In exchange for unconditional loyalty and support for his broader political agenda, the President will push for improvements in military personnel welfare, modernisation of TNI equipment, maintenance of the TNI's separation from the Defence Ministry and retention of an ex-officio Cabinet post for the TNI commander."

Just days after the release of the Ipac report last month, some lawmakers called for the TNI to play a wider role beyond national defence.

TNI troops have already undertaken non-military missions since Mr Joko became President in 2014. The army, for instance, had thousands of boots on the ground fighting forest fires during the haze crisis last year. Most remain in fire-prone areas to prevent a repeat of the environmental disaster.

Mr Joko has also sent soldiers to support government projects. These include helping to stabilise staple food prices in rural areas, facilitating land acquisitions, tackling graft at ports and building infrastructure across the country.

Just last week, army engineers completed the initial phase of a 1.5 trillion rupiah project comprising a 4,325km trans-Papua highway in the easternmost region.

Mr Joko is also open to expanding the internal security role of the military, which is already heavily involved in the anti-terror offensive in Poso, Central Sulawesi, where the TNI and police are mounting a joint operation against the East Indonesia Mujahidin extremist group.

Despite its growing list of deployments, the TNI may yet push for a larger role in internal security. This, as "its warm relationship with President Jokowi deepens and its credibility with the public soars", said Ipac.

According to the report, the factors driving the TNI's push for power include a conviction that Indonesia is facing dangers only the TNI can address; distrust of civilian politicians; resentment of the police; and a sense of opportunity in the current political situation.

However, it remains to be seen if the TNI led by General Gatot Nurmantyo, an army general appointed by Mr Joko, harbours any ambition for the military to play a greater political role in Indonesia.

Still, some observers say that allowing the TNI to expand its influence beyond its role in national defence has placed the military in its strongest position since the New Order. They also fear it may reverse the democratisation process in one of the world's largest democracies.

"Almost 18 years after Indonesian democracy was re-established, Indonesia still needs to institute safeguards that will ensure that there are clearly understood limits to the military expansion now under way," say Ipac researchers.

Others, such as Institute for Policy Research and Advocacy researcher Wahyudi Djafar, say the move may also distract the TNI from its own internal reforms to modernise.

"The idea of involving the TNI in stabilising food prices could be in violation of law... (and) also compromise efforts to make the TNI a professional force," he adds.

What is worth keeping a closer eye on is the seemingly deliberate move by the current administration to synergise the TNI and the police in roles beyond security.

Perhaps there may be a hint in Mr Joko's calling on the military and police to be "guardians of diversity within the framework of the Unitary Republic of Indonesia".

Associate Professor Terence Lee from the National University of Singapore does not foresee the TNI reclaiming its position of old as a dominant force in politics.

"Firstly, there is legislation that prevents that from happening and doing so would mean overturning those laws," says Prof Lee, referring to Indonesia's State Defence Act of 2002 and TNI Law enacted in 2004.

The second is that dwifungsi is no longer part of the military's doctrine, says the author of Defect Or Defend, which examines military responses to popular protests in authoritarian regimes in Asia. "Dwifungsi is no longer taught in any of its training or educational institutions and there is no organisational ethos that justifies it."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on April 04, 2016, with the headline 'Jokowi seen empowering Indonesian military'. Print Edition | Subscribe