Indonesia's military head known for nationalistic stance

General behind move to suspend military ties with Australia is wary of foreign powers

General Gatot Nurmantyo, who hails from a military family, made headlines previously for warning that Indonesia could be the site of proxy wars aimed at controlling its natural resources.
General Gatot Nurmantyo, who hails from a military family, made headlines previously for warning that Indonesia could be the site of proxy wars aimed at controlling its natural resources.PHOTO: REUTERS

The man at the centre of Indonesia's surprise move to suspend a part of bilateral military ties with Australia is known to be an outspoken nationalist.

General Gatot Nurmantyo, 56, chief of Indonesia's military, reportedly issued the order to suspend ties on Dec 29, after an incident involving Australian training materials deemed insulting to Indonesia. Australia has since apologised and Indonesia has moved to quell tensions, saying the incident will not affect bilateral ties.

The general's strong sense of duty and deep nationalism might be what spurred him to put his foot down, said analysts.

"He will not allow foreign powers to mess with his homeland," political analyst Hikmahanto Juwana told The Straits Times.

Born in Tegal, Central Java, in 1960, Gen Gatot is a Javanese Muslim from a military family.


He will not allow foreign powers to mess with his homeland.

DR HIKMAHANTO JUWANA, a political analyst, on Gen Gatot's deep nationalism.

His father, Suwantyo, was an independence fighter and retired lieutenant-colonel in the infantry, while three uncles served in the army, navy and air force.

The oldest of three children, the general is named after Gen Gatot Subroto, an Indonesian national hero whose name graces a major street in Jakarta's financial district.

After graduating from the Armed Forces Academy in 1982, he served in a number of strategic positions, including commander of the Army Strategic Reserves Command and governor of the military academy.

The father of three revealed in an interview with Kompas TV last August that he had originally wanted to become an architect.

He abandoned his plan when he realised the university fees would drain his family's finances.

"My mother had said, 'Your siblings wouldn't be able to continue school because all the fees would be chalked up by you'," Gen Gatot said.

"I thought, 'I'm really selfish'. So I went to enrol in the military academy instead."

He showed a similar sense of duty towards his mother when he became Indonesia's army chief of staff three years ago and asked to train with the Army Special Forces Command, or Kopassus, so that he could earn the signature red beret and fulfil his late mother's wish.

He could have skipped the training and still be awarded the honour, but insisted on following normal procedure.

So, at the age of 54, he undertook the gruelling course - performing field drills with assault rifles in the wee hours and swimming in chilly waters in full combat gear, alongside men half his age.

After acing all the tests, he immediately flew to Solo in Central Java to visit his mother's grave, said the four-star general in an interview with Indonesian private broadcaster NET News last August.

He said that he sat cross-legged before her gravestone, in his army uniform and red beret, saying: "Your son carried out your order."

A year later, in July 2015, Gen Gatot reached his biggest career milestone when he was appointed by President Joko Widodo as chief of the Indonesian military, Tentara Nasional Indonesia (TNI).

The move raised some eyebrows as the top post has, in the post-Suharto era, been rotated between the various services, with the air force due a turn.

But presidential spokesman Teten Masduki said Mr Joko believed that the decorated general could "strengthen the military to deal with geopolitical and regional geo-strategic changes".

Even before the latest military controversy, the general had made headlines for warning that Indonesia could be made used of by foreign powers.

Gen Gatot once warned that Indonesia could be the site of "proxy wars" between major powers aimed at controlling its natural resources, as reported in The Jakarta Post in December 2015.

Of the latest incident, he said: "Every soldier is educated on doctrine. His doctrine is to really love his ideology and the ideology of his nation."

He was alluding to how training materials that a TNI officer found at a Perth camp last month had allegedly "disparaged" the Indonesian military and the national ideology, Pancasila.

The materials mentioned the need for Indonesian province West Papua to become independent and spelt Pancasila as Pancagila. "Gila" means "crazy" in Bahasa Indonesia.

While Gen Gatot's nationalistic stance may strike a chord with many ordinary Indonesians, analysts sounded a note of warning.

Defence expert Yohanes Sulaiman told The Straits Times that to the general, "any country has the potential to become an enemy". But he warned that a balance must be drawn between healthy suspicion and paranoia.

Intelligence expert Susaningtyas Nefo Handayani Kertopati said that political diplomacy must be encouraged in the face of "strong economic challenges and incomplete consolidation of democracy".

"The issue of Pancasila is non-bargainable," she added, "but we should tread carefully when it comes to foreign policy."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on January 09, 2017, with the headline 'Indonesia's military head known for nationalistic stance'. Subscribe