In­done­sian army inches back into civil­ian sphere, risk­ing democ­racy


Nearly two decades af­ter the fall of dic­ta­tor Suharto forced In­done­sia’s mil­i­tary out of pol­i­tics, the army is inch­ing back into civil­ian roles, risk­ing a set­back for democ­racy in this South­east Asian na­tion and per­haps even for the tur­bu­lent re­gion.

The vast In­done­sian ar­chi­pel­ago is one of the world’s most­pop­u­lous democ­ra­cies and also among the youngest. Many In­done­sians wel­comed the army’s re­treat from pol­i­tics af­ter Suharto’s of­ten bru­tal 32- year rule was ended by mass protests in 1998. But years later, an­a­lysts and for­mer gen­er­als say the mil­i­tary’s na­tional de­fense role is still not fully ac­cepted among of­fi­cers or the rank-and-file.

Now, the army is creep­ing into ar­eas be­yond de­fense as in­ex­pe­ri­enced Pres­i­dent Joko “Jokowi” Wi­dodo re­lies on it to strengthen his hand against the pow­er­ful and un­ruly po­lice and po­lit­i­cal par­ties al­lied to for­mer Pres­i­dent Me­gawati Sukarnop­u­tri.

Me­gawati, the daugh­ter of In­done­sia’s first pres­i­dent, Sukarno, po­si­tioned her­self as the power be­hind Jokowi’s pres­i­dency by let­ting her party back him dur­ing last year’s elec­tion.

The army has signed agree­ments with gov­ern­ment min­istries and state com­pa­nies that in­volve it in ar­eas such as pro­vid­ing se­cu­rity for air­ports, bus sta­tions and rail­ways and help­ing farm­ers in­crease their crops. Some of­fi­cials have called for army in­volve­ment in In­done­sia’s an­ticor­rup­tion agency to counter at­tempts by po­lice and their po­lit­i­cal al­lies to neuter an in­sti­tu­tion that is ef­fec­tive and feared.

Jokowi re­cently nom­i­nated an army gen­eral to head all mil­i­tary forces, break­ing with the sched­ule of a re­form-minded con­ven­tion of ro­tat­ing the post be­tween the navy, air force and army.

‘The move is cal­cu­lated’

“I think it is ob­vi­ous that the move is cal­cu­lated to bring the army on side given that the pres­i­dent is hav­ing so much trou­ble from friends and foes alike,” said Vedi Hadiz, an In­done­sia ex­pert at Mur­doch Univer­sity in Perth, Aus­tralia. “It is only the army that can scare the po­lice.”

In­done­sia is by far the most pop­u­lous na­tion and big­gest econ­omy in South­east Asia. The re­silience of its democ­racy has ex­tra sig­nif­i­cance at a time when main­land China’s au­thor­i­tar­ian lead­ers are test­ing U.S. pri­macy in the re­gion and Amer­i­can re­la­tions with Thai­land, a key re­gional ally, have chilled.

The re­gion of some 600 mil­lion peo­ple is ac­cus­tomed to rule by au­to­crats and In­done­sia is not alone in strug­gling to nur­ture faith in the messy pro­cesses of democ­racy while also meet­ing ex­pec­ta­tions for im­proved liv­ing stan­dards.

Last year, gen­er­als over­threw civil­ian rule in peren­ni­ally un­sta­ble Thai­land and have no firm timetable for elec­tions. The mil­i­tary re­mains deeply em­bed­ded in Myan­mar’s nascent democ­racy, while Malaysia’s op­po­si­tion al­liance has col­lapsed, dim­ming chances of a change in gov­ern­ment af­ter decades of rule by one party.

The risk of greater army in­volve­ment is that it “might cause fail­ure in the progress of the tran­si­tion to democ­racy for In­done­sia,” said Agus Wid­jojo, a re­tired In­done­sian army gen­eral who helped lead re­forms of the mil­i­tary. “If this is a re­lapse and a counter-re­ac­tion, es­pe­cially if it starts from the mil­i­tary, it can cause a rip­ple ef­fect.”

Wid­jojo sees weak­nesses on both sides: Jokowi, who lacks con­fi­dence with­out the army at his side, and in the mil­i­tary where many still “cling to the ex­ten­sive role” of the past.

Jokowi, who is mil­i­tary supreme com­man­der, caused a stir ear­lier this month when he was pho­tographed at the pres­i­den­tial palace wear­ing army fa­tigues rather than a neu­tral mil­i­tary uni­form that would show him as an im­par­tial leader of the armed forces’ three branches. He says his nom­i­na­tion of army Gen. Ga­tot Nur­man­tyo as mil­i­tary com- man­der was based on the “latest geopo­lit­i­cal and geostrate­gic sit­u­a­tion.”

Gray Ar­eas Re­mained

De­spite a rep­u­ta­tion for bru­tal­ity, the im­age of In­done­sia’s armed forces, known as the TNI, has im­proved since Suharto’s de­par­ture, when it re­lin­quished con­trol of in­ter­nal se­cu­rity, though gray ar­eas re­mained.

Ac­cord­ing to the In­sti­tute for Pol­icy Anal­y­sis of Con­flict in Jakarta, the mil­i­tary ben­e­fits from fa­vor­able com­par­isons with the poor im­age of the po­lice, which has wors­ened this year as it at­tacked the anti­graft agency. That has al­lowed the army to por­tray it­self as hon­est, civic minded and loyal to the pres­i­dent. Sep­a­rated from the mil­i­tary af­ter the Suharto era, the po­lice grew into a pow­er­ful in­sti­tu­tion and also one of the most loathed as low wages en­cour­aged cor­rup­tion and lack of pro­fes­sion­al­ism wors­ened com­mu­nal con­flicts.

The army is “def­i­nitely mov­ing into civil­ian spheres no ques­tion,” said Sid­ney Jones, the in­sti­tute’s di­rec­tor. But the in­sti­tute does not be­lieve the TNI is in­tent on re­turn­ing to the cen­ter of the po­lit­i­cal stage. In­stead it aims to claim in­ter­nal se­cu­rity roles such as counter-ter­ror­ism from the po­lice and se­cure more op­por­tu­ni­ties to bring in cash out­side of the na­tional bud­get.

The money-mak­ing op­por­tu­ni­ties ex­tend to the lo­cal level where the mil­i­tary and po­lice com­pete for lu­cra­tive al­liances with crim­i­nal gangs in the drug trade and other illegal ac­tiv­i­ties, said Hadiz. Jokowi’s ap­point­ment of Nur­man­tyo to head the mil­i­tary sug­gests the pres­i­dent’s tacit back­ing of the army in that ri­valry, he said.

As the army tests how far it can ex­tend its au­thor­ity, par­tic­u­larly if it gets in­volved with anti-cor­rup­tion polic­ing, it will face op­po­si­tion from ac­tivists and politi­cians who pros­pered in a democ­racy where the mil­i­tary were com­par­a­tive out­siders, said Hadiz.

“How­ever, these same politi­cians seem to in­stinc­tively reach out to the mil­i­tary when they are in trou­ble,” he said.

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