At a training session in South Jakarta in mid-November, a military officer taught martial arts to 300 students from a public school.
The activity was part of a defense program recently added to Indonesia’s national curriculum. The program, which is mandatory for schools in several provinces, marks the latest move by the Indonesian military (TNI) to make its presence felt in society, as well as gain more control over combatting drug trafficking and terrorism – areas traditionally handled by the police.
Human rights advocates and other observers, however, worry that the military is now trying to expand its authority at a time when past abuses allegedly committed by TNI members remain unresolved.
“Numerous human rights violations cases during the reformation period have not been resolved yet,” Haris Azhar, director of the Commission for the Disappeared and Victims of Violence (KontraS), told BenarNews.
He was referring to the so-called reformation era that followed the end of the Suharto regime (1967-98), during which the military controlled many aspects of Indonesian society.
“What if similar cases happen in the near future? What is the resolution, while the old cases have not yet been resolved,” Haris added.
Such concerns expressed by Haris and other observers have deepened with a draft of a presidential decree that has been circulating in recent weeks, and which proposes to expand the military’s powers by placing the TNI directly under the president’s authority and not under the Ministry of Defense, where the military’s authority still rests.
“The document being discussed by the defense ministry and TNI headquarters clearly intends to restore the TNI's role in maintaining public order and security, which is now the job of the police,” Tempo, an Indonesian news publication, said in an editorial published last month.
“If this proposal moves forward, it will be a betrayal of the reform movement,” Tempo opined.
Greater military role?
Fears that the military might be trying to restore its past prominent role – which, at times, was repressive under Suharto – first crept in back in March and April, when the TNI set up a special command to help police fight terrorists, and military forces staged counter-terrorism drills in Poso.
Poso, the capital of Central Sulawesi province, is a hotbed of terrorist activity where the country’s most wanted militant, Santoso, heads the Eastern Indonesia Mujahideen (MIT) group.
The drills were unusual because the authority for combating terrorists formally rests with the National Police through its anti-terrorism unit, Densus 88.
A few weeks later, the Institute for Policy Analysis of Conflict (IPAC), a Jakarta-based think-tank, published a report that examined the very question of the Indonesian military’s expanding role.
According to IPAC, the military is trying to increase its authority to combat terrorists by persuading the country’s new president, Joko “Jokowi” Widodo, to authorize an expansion of its powers.
“The TNI has managed to position itself as the president’s reliable ally at a time when he is under political pressure from all sides,” IPAC Director Sidney Jones said when the institute released its report on May 25. “It is more important than ever that the Indonesian parliament exercise its oversight role and ensure that the military restricts itself to defence, narrowly defined.”
“There would be less concern about the expansion of the TNI’s role if there had been any progress in the last decade toward improving military accountability, but there has been almost none,” Jones added.
In October, the Jakarta Post quoted Gen. Moeldoko, the former head of Indonesia’s armed forces, as saying that an expansion of the military’s authority had been discussed during his command of TNI. But military spokesman Tatang Sulaiman denied that the former TNI chief, who retired a few months ago, had talked about widening the military’s powers.
“What authority expansion?” Tatang said. “[I]t is our obligation to guard the country’s strategic assets and help police,” Tatang said.
He also rejected allegations that the military was trying to undermine the police’s authority in combating terrorism and drugs.
“Our military have 14 major obligations, which includes law enforcement. If we saw people throwing a drug party in front of us while the police was absent at the moment, do you think our personnel would just neglect it?” Tatang said.
Human rights advocates worry, nonetheless, that President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo – who took office in October 2014 after campaigning on a pledge of making improvements to Indonesia’s young democracy – might give in to the military’s demand for a wider role by agreeing to implement the controversial decree.
“Who knows if the deal is silently signed? It’s dangerous. We need to keep our eyes on it,” said Haris of KontraS.