President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo on Thursday urged the Indonesian military to keep away from politics and remain loyal to the government, amid growing controversy over recent comments made by his top general.
Jokowi’s remarks followed an uproar over a recent statement by Gen. Gatot Nurmantyo, the commander of Indonesia’s armed forces (TNI), that a non-military organization was trying to import thousands of firearms, along with comments from the general about a communist threat to Indonesia.
“We cannot afford to be reckless, we must unite,” Jokowi said in a speech celebrating the 72nd anniversary of TNI, in Cilegon city, in the western province of Banten, as Gatot sat near him on the stage. “The TNI with other institutions in the government and with all other components in the nation have to be in synergy, solid, united and work together.”
The military, Jokowi said, “should always ensure its political neutrality in the current democratic era.
“To be loyal to the state is to be faithful to the legitimate government,” he added.
In September, Gatot told retired military officers that a plan had been in place to import 5,000 firearms illegally “on behalf” of Jokowi.
The statement later was clarified by the president’s top security minister, Coordinating Political, Security and Legal Affairs Minister Wiranto, who said the national intelligence service had ordered only 500 nonmilitary-type firearms from PT Pindad, the state-owned firearms manufacturer, for “training purposes.”
Wiranto, a retired army general, used to head TNI.
Political analysts had described Gatot’s statements as a sign of his eagerness to prepare for a potential presidential or vice presidential candidacy in 2019.
"Politics is the art of possibility," said Indria Samego, a political analyst from the Indonesian Institute of Sciences. "We can see that from some of [Gatot's] statements, especially during the Jakarta gubernatorial elections."
Gatot is expected to retire in March 2018, but his military background and his powerful allies in the Muslim community make him a viable candidate, observers said.
The four-star general also attended an event in September hosted by an Islamic political party, where he warned that communists had become a renewed threat for Indonesia.
He also ordered soldiers to watch a Suharto-era propaganda film depicting the assassination of six army generals during an attempted military coup in September 1965. That month, the Indonesian government gave free rein to soldiers and civilian militias to kill anyone they considered to be a member of the Indonesian Communist Party (PKI), which has since been banned in the country.
More than 500,000 alleged communists were killed during the transition between Sukarno, Indonesia’s first president, and Suharto, its second. The Indonesian military took powerful roles in politics for three decades until the end of Suharto’s authoritarian rule in 1998.
Gatot took step back
Recently, Gatot tried to tone down criticisms over his statements by saying that, as the TNI commander, he could not detach himself from politics.
He echoed this during his speech in front of the president and about 6,000 soldiers attending Thursday’s event.
“I affirm that the TNI politics is state politics,” he said. “The TNI will always obey their commander-in-chief, which is the president of Indonesia who is legally elected according to the Constitution.
“Again, don’t doubt the TNI loyalty,” he said.
Indonesian soldiers perform during a ceremony marking the 72nd Indonesian Armed Force Anniversary in Cilegon, Banten, Oct. 5, 2017. [Presidential Press Bureau]
Activists and analysts praised Jokowi’s address and saw it as a good reminder for the military to shun politics.
“In my opinion, what Gatot has done is not state politics, but personal politics in the interest of increasing his popularity,” Ray Rangkuti, executive director of the a Jakarta-based think-tank, Lingkar Madani, told BenarNews.
Rangkuti said Gatot’s recent statements strayed far from his military duties.
“He attended a political party event, for example,” Rangkuti said. “So what President Jokowi said at the TNI anniversary was correct, for TNI to be banned from politics.”