The Indonesia military (TNI) is setting up a special command to assist police in fighting terrorism, but activists fear that a renewed domestic role for the military could restore its prominent and, at times, repressive role in civilian life from the past.
“The increasing number of arrests of suspected terrorists in Indonesia show that terrorism is still a real threat,” Indonesian military chief Gen. Moeldoko told BenarNews.
“Therefore, military involvement in combatting terrorism is going to help police and secure the country.”
The TNI’s special anti-terrorism command will incorporate the army, navy and air force, according to Navy Chief of Staff Adm. Ade Supandi.
“The team will operate if needed or if the country is in a state of emergency,” Ade told BenarNews.
Plans for the command are still being discussed, and the military will work with the police to ensure there is no overlap with Densus 88, its elite anti-terror squad, Moeldoko said.
“Our duties are different but our goal is the same, that is, preventing and overcoming terrorist acts and the spread of radicalism,” he said.
Remote militant camps
Indonesia is facing threats from various extremist groups, including the Eastern Indonesia Mujahideen (MIT) and the Islamic State (IS) group.
According to Indonesia’s National Counterterrorism Agency (BNPT), more than 540 Indonesians have joined IS ranks in the Middle East, but more than 50 Indonesians have been arrested at home before they could leave the country.
Sulawesi island in particular is the home base for the MIT and its elusive leader, Santoso, Indonesia’s most wanted terrorist. Militant activity on the island is not restricted to Poso, a mountainous area of Central Sulawesi province, officials say.
Militants have set up camps in South Sulawesi and West Sulawesi, Anton Setiadji, chief of police for the two provinces, revealed this week.
“The region covers Walenrang, in Luwu Regency, and the Siwa mountains, both in South Sulawesi, as well as Mambi, Mamasa Regency, in West Sulawesi. The camps are no longer there,” Anton told reporters in Makassar on April 22.
“These areas were used as a haven for terrorists, including Santoso and Daeng Koro,” he added.
Earlier this week, Densus 88 arrested two alleged members of Santoso’s network, both suspected of being involved in fatal attacks on police.
Safrudin, 24, who was arrested in Mbeliling, Flores, on April 18, has been linked to an attack on a police station in Bima, West Nusa Tenggara, in 2014, according to police.
Ambo Ece, 36, was arrested in South Sulawesi’s Wajo regency on April 21. He stands accused in the killings of two police officers in Tamanjeka, Poso, in 2012.
Both suspects have been transferred to Jakarta for investigation.
Limiting the role of the military
Densus 88 is controversial in Indonesia for what many say is its excessive use of force.
Now, activists say that involving the military in counterterrorism operations may return Indonesia to an era in which it was deeply involved in civilian affairs.
“Indonesia has a poor record in which the military became the official machinery of state violence. The roots of military dominance can be traced to the New Order era when the military was not only in charge of defense, but also social and political issues,” Arie Sudjito, a sociologist at Gadjah Mada University in Yogyakarta, said, referring to the Suharto regime.
Sutoro Eko Yunanto, former director of the Institute for Research and Empowerment (IRE) in Yogyakarta, stressed the importance of limiting the military’s power.
“From the year 2004 until now, Indonesia has succeeded in consolidating democracy, which shows the power of civilian governments over the military. This is a democratic concept in which the military is under the control of the civilian government, and not vice-versa,” he told BenarNews.
“A return of military rule could weaken our democracy,” he said.
Haris Azhar, coordinator of the Commision for the Disappeared and Victims of Violence (Kontras), expressed similar concern.
"Terrorism is not war, it is a criminal act, and therefore it should be the responsibility of the police,” he told BenarNews.
Many Indonesians are still traumatized by military violence, he said.
“We worry that the involvement of the military will be an obstacle to the prevention of terrorism,” he added.
However, BNPT chief Saud Usman Nasution welcomed the idea of cooperation between his agency and the military.
“In dealing with terrorism in Indonesia, we have a soft approach and hard approach. The role of the military is part of the hard approach, for law enforcement,” Saud told BenarNews.
“We have the same duty and obligation, to protect the people and the nation,” he added.
M. Taufan S.P. Bustan contributed to this report.