JAKARTA/DENPASAR • Indonesia's army will give "semi-military" weapons training to people including unemployed men and "gangsters" on Bali, a spokesman said yesterday, under a programme that has raised concern about the re-emergence of military influence in the country.
President Joko Widodo's administration has become increasingly uneasy about the military-run "Bela Negara" or "Defend the Nation" programme which is aimed at guarding against "foreign influences" such as communism, religious extremism and homosexuality.
Over the last few months, the programme has gained momentum, partly in reaction to support from Mr Joko for an investigation into an anti-communist purge in 1965.
The suggestion of an investigation has angered some retired military men, many of whom say the purge was justified.
The training on the resort island of Bali was apparently the first to include street thugs, and was aimed partly at making them "good citizens", a military spokesman said.
"The introduction to weapons is part of the material so the participants are not bored... and so they can feel what it's like in the military," said Lieutenant-Colonel Hotman Hutahaean, the spokesman for Bali's military command.
"There will be other material... like marching and physical training... so the public can know their rights and obligations, especially gangsters, because they need to be prepared to be good citizens."
He said the training of the "gangsters" would begin in August and he expected about 100 people to enrol altogether. He did not elaborate on what he meant by "gangsters", but said no one with a criminal record would be accepted.
The proposal has raised questions. "They are basically empowering young guys with murky backgrounds who will go around playing army," said defence expert Yohanes Sulaiman. "Arming civilians or even training them this way is not a good idea unless you organise them properly and have laws and regulations to control it."
The defence ministry launched the Bela Negara programme last year to counter what it calls an erosion of nationalistic values. The aim is to mould millions of civil servants, doctors, students and others into a civilian defence corps.
But many Indonesians view it as an attempt by the military, which has ruled for decades, to claw back some of the influence it lost after it was forced out of politics when strongman Suharto was ousted in 1998.
About 1.8 million people nationwide have signed up for the voluntary programme and some classes are under way.
Officials insist weapons training will be limited to teaching how to assemble guns and familiaris- ing participants with weapons through photographs.