New military chief maintains close ties with Jokowi

Air Chief Marshal Hadi Tjahjanto (left) has been sworn in as Indonesia's new armed forces chief, taking over from General Gatot Nurmantyo, who will reach the official retirement age of 58 in March next year.
Air Chief Marshal Hadi Tjahjanto (left) has been sworn in as Indonesia's new armed forces chief, taking over from General Gatot Nurmantyo, who will reach the official retirement age of 58 in March next year.PHOTO: PUSPEN TNI

A schoolgirl and her classmates were special guests of President Joko Widodo at the launch of the made-in-Indonesia Nurtanio N-219 transport aircraft last month.

During a photo op at the Halim Perdanakusuma air base, she started feeling nauseous.

The President, somehow sensing the little girl's discomfort, gestured to one of his aides to attend to her.

But while the aide was still figuring out what the President was trying to tell him, Air Chief Marshal Hadi Tjahjanto stepped in and took the girl to a rest area.

The incident was retold again and again over the following weeks, and pitched as proof of the close ties between the President and the four-star air marshal.

Last Friday, Air Marshal Hadi was sworn in as Indonesia's new armed forces (TNI) chief, or Panglima, after Parliament approved his promotion almost unanimously and in just five days, when it typically takes at least a month or so.

A pilot by vocation, Air Marshal Hadi was Mr Joko's first choice to replace General Gatot Nurmantyo, who will reach the official retirement age of 58 next March.

Observers say that at 54, Air Marshal Hadi has a longer career runway than the previous chiefs and will be able to lead the TNI in a more thorough rejuvenation over the next four years.

The last two TNI chiefs, Gen Gatot and Gen Moeldoko, were in their posts for fewer than three and two years respectively.

The strong trust and affinity between the President and his new TNI chief is said to have been forged years ago when Air Marshal Hadi was commander of the air base in Solo in Central Java, where Mr Joko was the city's mayor from 2005 to 2012.

Their longstanding relationship would mean Mr Joko can expect uncompromised loyalty from his top military commander, said observers.

The promotion was a highly anticipated move by Mr Joko, who would be looking to strengthen his administration before the next presidential election in 2019.

Some have said the quick confirmation of Air Marshal Hadi and early retirement of Gen Gatot were a response to speculation that the general has higher political ambitions and had manoeuvred himself into a position to run at the next election.

"The President's gesture has shown that he is uncomfortable with Gen Gatot's manoeuvres," defence and security expert Mufti Makarim told The Jakarta Post.

As a close ally of Mr Joko, Air Marshal Hadi can ensure security and political stability in the country, ahead of what will be an extended election season, starting in April next year.

A father of two, he was born in Malang, East Java. His father, Mr Bambang Sudarto, an 82-year-old retired air force sergeant-major, told reporters his son had set his sights on joining the TNI at an early age.

Air Marshal Hadi graduated from the Air Force Academy in 1986, received his pilot wings a year after, and rose steadily up the ranks, including serving as operations director at Indonesia's search and rescue agency Basarnas in 2011. A year before that, he was commander of the Adi Sumarmo air base in Solo.

In 2015, shortly after Mr Joko was elected President, he hand-picked Air Marshal Hadi to be his military secretary at the Istana.

Air Marshal Hadi received his fourth star earlier this year when Mr Joko promoted him again, this time to air force chief.

He is only the second Panglima from the air force, after Air Chief Marshal Djoko Suyanto, who served as defence chief from 2006 to 2007.

It is tradition in Indonesia for the role to be rotated among the three armed services but in 2015, Mr Joko bypassed then air force chief Agus Supriatna and appointed Gen Gatot, who is from the army. Looking back, some observers noted that the move to skip the air force then had paved the way for Air Marshal Hadi to be TNI chief today.

He has taken to his role fast, having already set out the key missions of the armed forces, which include safeguarding Indonesia from terrorism and cyber attacks, as well as beefing up its maritime defences in view of China's activities in the South China Sea.

He also aims to bring the TNI up to its "minimum essential force" status, a plan that involves the enhancement of military hardware, particularly for its navy and air force.

More importantly, he has pledged to ensure that the TNI does not get involved in politics.

"The most important thing is to maintain our neutrality and solidarity," Air Marshal Hadi told Parliament during a recent hearing.

Ms Diandra Megaputri Mengko, a defence analyst at the Indonesian Institute of Sciences, said his stance on maintaining neutrality in politics, especially in an election season, is an obligation for any military commander.

She added that if the TNI aspires to be a modern and professional force, it must also move away from domestic affairs - which has preoccupied the army-centric TNI under Gen Gatot - and focus more on the external threats Indonesia faces.

"Hopefully with Pak Hadi, who is from the air force, the TNI will be more outward-looking."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on December 11, 2017, with the headline 'New military chief maintains close ties with Jokowi'. Subscribe