News analysis

Politics behind reversal of key TNI appointments?

On the surface, the latest move by new Indonesian Armed Forces (TNI) chief Hadi Tjahjanto to revoke appointments his predecessor made before leaving is a marked shift in how defence chiefs acted when they took over one of the country's most-respected institutions.

But his predecessor Gatot Nurmantyo's actions bear scrutiny too - on the same day it was announced President Joko Widodo would name the sole candidate for the post of TNI chief, General Gatot announced the appointments of 85 senior officers to key positions, effectively installing his proteges.

As security and intelligence analyst Mufti Makarim notes, the public needs answers on these two recent incidents.

Yet, going by comments from Air Chief Marshal Hadi, when pressed by reporters yesterday - that the reversals were based on professionalism and merit - no clear answer may come from the TNI's leadership.

Said Mr Mufti, who is with the Jakarta-based Lokataru Law and Human Rights think-tank: "What has happened to the TNI? We are familiar with their motto that says: 'All elements must stay united no matter who the commander is.' But why were there two major reshuffles taking place days apart?" He added: "Promotions could take place because certain officers reach a higher rank and are then entitled to fill in higher positions. It cannot be based on like and dislike, or personal interest."

Among the public, politics was pinned down as a key factor.

Air Chief Marshal Hadi had to cancel the appointments to maintain control, especially as he is not from the army. For Gen Gatot, who makes no secret of his political ambitions, had been building his base.

Topping the list of revoked appointments is Major-General Sudirman's as commander of the Army's Strategic Reserve Forces, giving him direct authority to deploy 40,000 green berets, the military's single largest force, anytime and anywhere.

Also rescinded is the appointment of Major-General Ilyas Alamsyah as chief of TNI's intelligence unit, which has the country's widest network of officers across the archipelago's villages and towns.

The new TNI chief, who is close to the President, would have been mindful that although active TNI personnel do not have the vote, their families do, and that military backing is key to ensure regional and national elections next year and in 2019 take place smoothly.

Air Chief Marshal Hadi's act of revoking these appointments may help President Joko strengthen his chances ahead of the 2019 election. But whether they will chip away at Gen Gatot's popularity should he contest is another question.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on December 21, 2017, with the headline 'Politics behind reversal of key TNI appointments?'. Print Edition | Subscribe