News analysis

Military gets a boost in Indonesia's 'new normal'


As Indonesia eases restrictive measures and shifts to a "new normal", soldiers and police officers will become a familiar sight at public places such as malls, traditional markets and tourist sites.

Some 340,000 of them will fan out across 25 cities, including the capital Jakarta, to ensure that people wear masks and maintain a safe distance from one another.

President Joko Widodo has said the armed forces were being mobilised to raise awareness of the new health guidelines and remind the public to comply with them.

In recent years, Mr Joko, better known as Jokowi, has been engaging the military more closely in his battles against corruption, terrorism, drug trafficking and even the annual transboundary haze.

Already, leading the government's coronavirus task force is army general Doni Monardo, who also heads the Disaster Management Agency.

Now that the army has again been summoned to assist in managing the coronavirus pandemic, concerns are inevitably being raised and parallels drawn with the authoritarianism of former strongman Suharto, who relied on troops to maintain national security during his 32-year rule.

"We do not need military personnel to remind the public to wash their hands properly or to practise strict social distancing," Amnesty International Indonesia executive director Usman Hamid was quoted as saying by The Jakarta Post.

"Involving military personnel to enforce health protocols will, in fact, undermine their primary role to maintain security; we need to remember that this is a health emergency and not a civilian one," he added.

However, analysts told The Straits Times that it was necessary to rope in the military to make up for the government's lacklustre handling of the health crisis earlier.

Military and defence analyst Connie Rahakundini Bakrie said "it's a non-debatable issue if the country deems it necessary for the military to help normalise a situation of danger, emergency or disaster", pointing to the military's readiness in the areas of logistics and communications that could come in handy in a situation like this.

Dr Yohanes Sulaiman, a political and security analyst from Jenderal Achmad Yani University, said Indonesia's civil bureaucracy remains weak, despite 22 years of reform since the fall of the Suharto regime in 1998, and the public continues to hold the military in high regard.

"Although doctors have the professional expertise, the public trusts the military more," Dr Yohanes told The Straits Times.

"The military is seen as more prepared and effective in preventing the virus from spreading. Engaging the military also gives a sense that the government is looking at the crisis seriously."

Dr Susaningtyas Kertopati, a military expert from Indonesia Defence University, said that in the fight against Covid-19, maintaining public order is key.

"As we know, there are many people who do not understand the health protocols established by the Ministry of Health, and those who understand are lazy and undisciplined in abiding by them."

She sees the military playing a crucial role. She also wants it sufficiently equipped, not just with conventional combat capabilities, but also to be able to counter biological warfare in the future.

The police, she added, must not only be able to enforce the laws, but also supervise government regulations on the ground.

"Both are expected to be able to work together to disseminate information on health protocols to the public," said Dr Susaningtyas.

"Going forward, we must be more vigilant of the threats posed by 'nubika' (Indonesian acronym for nuclear, biology and chemical)."

Perhaps to ensure the military does not overstep its limits in dealing with the pandemic, Dr Yohanes suggested that the government define the boundaries the military should not cross.

But he noted: "So far, there are no signs that the military is being aggressive to assert its power."

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on June 19, 2020, with the headline Military gets a boost in Indonesia's 'new normal'. Subscribe