Yudhoyono hails neutrality of Indonesian armed forces in election

Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono (left) walks next to incoming vice president Jusuf Kalla (right) after an inauguration of parliament members in Jakarta on Oct 1, 2014. President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono on Tuesday hailed the neutra
Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono (left) walks next to incoming vice president Jusuf Kalla (right) after an inauguration of parliament members in Jakarta on Oct 1, 2014. President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono on Tuesday hailed the neutrality of the Indonesian Armed Forces (TNI) in the country's fiercely contested presidential elections this year as proof of its successful reform, even as he urged them to step up their skills, professionalism and preparedness. -- PHOTO: AFP

President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono on Tuesday hailed the neutrality of the Indonesian Armed Forces (TNI) in the country's fiercely contested presidential elections this year as proof of its successful reform, even as he urged them to step up their skills, professionalism and preparedness.

"TNI, working with the Police, have secured a peaceful, democratic election," he told 20,000 soldiers and 3,000 guests at the annual armed forces day parade at the eastern armada headquarters.

"Be the army of the people...Help safeguard and take part in the ongoing transformation of our nation," he added.

His comments come as he hands over to president-elect Joko Widodo, who has always been a civilian, on Oct 20 amid uncertainty that Mr Joko will be hobbled by parties that backed defeated candidate Prabowo Subianto. 

Mr Joko, who was also at the parade, told reporters he would continue to upgrade the TNI's hardware.

"If our economy is strong, with growth above seven per cent, the TNI budget can double to triple, and that includes improving the welfare of our soldiers," he said.

The TNI is a pillar that unites the nation, he added.

Although Mr Prabowo, a former three-star special forces general, was discharged from the military in 1998 for disciplinary and human rights violations, he has remained a popular figure for many in the rank-and-file.

Soldiers and policemen cannot vote as part of reforms enacted after the downfall of Suharto in 1998 to ensure that they stay out of politics, but the July presidential election process was marred by fears that elements in the military were taking sides and coercing residents to back Mr Prabowo.

Dr Yudhoyono also came out strongly then to warn soldiers to stay neutral ahead of the election.

On Tuesday, he thanked the close to 500,000 soldiers for their contribution to reform, and reminded them that it was because of the stable domestic situation and economic growth that Indonesia could help modernise the TNI and contribute to world peace.

The TNI has been an active contributor to United Nations peacekeeping operations, and earlier this year, Dr Yudhoyono opened an International Peace and Security Centre in West Java aimed at better training officers for such missions.

On Tuesday, he noted that the world was still rife with conflict and tensions, citing Ukraine, the humanitarian tragedy in the Middle East and the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) militant group.

The military also had to be prepared for non-traditional threats like natural disasters, piracy, terrorism and transnational crime, he said.

"In the last five years, we have increased the quantity and quality of our hardware so that every corner of the archipelago can be covered," he added.

After he spoke, the TNI put on a demonstration of its capabilities at sea, air and land that included a rescue operation to save hostages and recapture a hijacked cargo vessel and an amphibious assault to recapture territory from an enemy landing.

It also rolled out its recent purchases, including F-16, Sukhoi and T-50 fighter jets, Leopard main battle tanks and homemade Anoa tanks, and three new frigates.

In the sailpast was the KRI Usman Harun, named after two marines convicted and executed for the 1965 bombing of MacDonald House in Singapore that killed three and injured some 30 others during Konfrontasi.

The ship's name was announced alongside that of two other vessels in the same class sailing together with it, KRI Bung Tomo and KRI John Lie, and did not attract unusual applause.

Reports on the naming in February strained bilateral ties, with Singapore leaders saying it would reopen old wounds and asking Indonesia to reconsider the name. They also barred the ship from visiting and said the Singapore Armed Forces would not take part in joint exercises with it.

But Indonesian officials said they meant no ill intent, and the naming was in line with navy tradition of naming vessels after heroes, which Indonesia had declared both marines when they were executed in 1968.