Indonesian Military: Regaining Suharto-Era Powers?

Commentary by Zachary Abuza
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190820_ID_military_1000.jpg Soldiers patrol near the constitutional court in Jakarta on June 14, 2019, as it hears a claim that Indonesia's 2019 election was rigged -- allegations that spawned deadly rioting in May.

In the run-up to Indonesia's presidential election in April 2019, there was ample concern about the growing influence of hardline Islamists; but in many ways – and counter-intuitively – the more immediate threat to the country’s democracy stems from its military.

The fear of the outsized role that Islamists would play stemmed from the so-called 212 movement in December 2017, when a coalition of Islamist groups and self-styled vigilantes demonstrated against the popular ethnic Chinese, Christian governor of Jakarta, Basuki Tjahaja Purnama, who was accused of blasphemy.

Ahok, as Purnama is better known, was not only defeated in a closely contested election, but was convicted of blasphemy and jailed. His friend, President Joko Widodo, up for re-election, pandered to the Islamists by not getting involved or pardoning Ahok.

President Widodo continued his pandering with the selection of Ma'ruf Amin, a conservative cleric and the head of the Indonesian Ulema Council (MUI), as his vice presidential candidate. Jokowi, as the president is commonly called, won 55 percent of the vote, but not the Islamist vote. Indeed, over 90 percent of non-Muslims voted for him.

In the end, the Islamists turned out to be the big losers in the election. This is not a real surprise as Indonesian Islamists tend to be highly factionalized.

The challenger, Prabowo Subianto called on his Islamist followers to take to the streets in a “people’s power” revolt over unsubstantiated claims of electoral fraud, but with only mixed results.

There were demonstrations, in which at least eight people were tragically killed and more than 200 wounded.

State institutions such as the election commission and the Supreme Court pre-empted some demonstrations and violence by strategically releasing their findings ahead of schedule.

Prabowo's Islamist allies were not the unified force of the 212 movement, which had a common enemy, an immediacy, and shared goals. His hardcore followers were divided about democracy and the efficacy of extra-legal actions, and fearful that Prabowo would abandon them, which of course he eventually did.

But largely, the Islamists were deterred by the security forces. When Prabowo threatened to mobilize his supporters to take to the streets, the Indonesian military (TNI) and police staged a massive display of force in Merdeka Square, a clear message to stand down and that violent demonstrations would not be tolerated.

That the TNI had to step in and actively defend democracy is not insignificant.

The threat posed by Islamists in Indonesia remains real, but it is a medium to long-term threat to the country's democracy. But in many ways the more immediate threat to Indonesian democracy is the TNI's attempts to claw back authorities and powers that it ceded in 1999. And we see this in different ways.

Clawing back

Prabowo's inner circle was filled with retired senior military leaders who were bent on bringing down President Widodo, and appear to have spearheaded the post-election street violence. Prabowo’s Great Indonesia Movement Party (Gerindra) is stacked with New Order-era generals who are vociferous in their opposition to Jokowi, and who see a continued role for military involvement in governance, even through extralegal means.

A group of former officers tied to Prabowo plotted to kill four top security officials in Jokowi's government, including Coordinating Minister for Politics and Security Affairs Wiranto, Coordinating Minister for Maritime Affairs Luhut Panjaitan, National Intelligence Agency director Budi Gunawan and presidential intelligence advisor Gories Mere.

But the TNI's claw back actually began from within Jokowi's administration. Defense Minister Ryamizard Ryacudu – himself a New Order-era general – implemented a strategic framework, Bela Negara, which identified drugs, LGBT, communism and separatism as the primary threats to the Republic. As part of the Bela Negara program, the TNI began to reinsert itself in local government administration.

Moreover, the 2018 Surabaya bombings by the pro-Islamic State JAD led to a controversial update to the 2003 counter-terrorism law being fast-tracked. The bill had been stuck in parliament for over a year, largely because of the provisions that gave the TNI a formal role in counter-terrorism.

While there is some logic to this, especially when it comes to groups like the pro-Islamic State Eastern Indonesia Mujahideen (MIT), which operates out of remote jungle camps in Central Sulawesi, many fear that a formal CT role would bleed over to other aspects of internal security.

Then, on 31 July 2019, the TNI formally launched their 500-man joint CT unit, KOOPSUS. Under a presidential directive, KOOPSUS will have to coordinate with the National Police and the National Counterterrorism Agency.  But what if they don't?

Prioritizing internal threats

The Indonesian military continues to play an outsize role in society both due to its size and perceived mission. It is the 12th largest military in the world by manpower. Yet Indonesia continues to prioritize its army, due to concerns about threats to national integrity, rather than foreign aggression in the maritime domain.

From 2009-2013, in constant dollar terms, Indonesia's defense expenditure doubled from $4 to $8 billion. Since then, it has seen small growth spurts followed by contractions. In current dollars the 2018 budget was $7.44 billion, down from $8.2 billion in 2017.

Since the end of the New Order in 1998, Indonesian defense spending has stayed within a tight band between 0.5 and 1 percent of GDP. In 2018, it was 0.7 percent, the lowest in ASEAN, whose average was 1.9 percent. Indonesia's defense spending in 2018 was 4.3 percent of total government spending, significantly beneath the ASEAN average of 8.6 percent. Indonesian officials have floated the idea of tripling their defense budget to $20 billion – a number that seems highly unrealistic in the near future.

But the army's budgetary priority in the face of growing assertiveness from China off of Natuna, or through the three critical straits that Indonesia controls or in the Sulu Sea, is telling. The military leadership continues to prioritize internal security, and that has real implications for democracy.

The ongoing violence in Papua is fixable.  The Indonesians were able to negotiate settlements in East Timor and Aceh. They have taken that option off the table in Papua, resulting in larger scale popular protests, not merely secessionist violence. And yet the TNI's response has been hardline, demanding that all secessionist elements be "crushed." The lack of accountability, a free press in Papua, and a culture of human rights abuses suggests that the violence will continue.

In his Independence Day speech Jokowi warned of growing radicalism as a threat to Pancasila: "We must face openness with awareness; awareness of ideologies that threaten our national ideology; awareness of everything that may threaten our sovereignty."

And he will continue to rely on the security forces to defend Pancasila and democracy, which puts the military in a very strong position to make further demands and increase their political influence in Jokowi's second term.

While Jokowi seeks to strengthen Pancasila in his second term, he aims to separate it from the authoritarian legacy of the New Order. Meanwhile the TNI, which bills itself as the guarantor of Pancasila, has increasingly begun to claw back powers and authorities it lost after the New Order. Can Jokowi have one without the other?

Zachary Abuza is a professor at the National War College in Washington and the author of “Forging Peace in Southeast Asia: Insurgencies, Peace Processes, and Reconciliation.” The views expressed here are his own and do not reflect the position of the U.S. Department of Defense, the National War College or BenarNews


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