Updated at 7:23 p.m. ET on 2020-05-15
The Indonesian military’s expanded role in combatting terrorism could lead to human rights abuses and undermine the criminal justice system, rights advocates said Friday, responding to a draft presidential decree on the matter submitted to parliament this week.
The draft was sent to parliament exactly two years after grisly suicide bombings in Surabaya led lawmakers to strengthen the country's anti-terrorism law, formalizing a role for the military in duties that had been reserved for the police for two decades. At the time, Minister of Law and Human Rights Yasonna Laoly said technical details of the military’s role in combating terrorism would be regulated by presidential decree.
Seen by BenarNews, the draft decree stipulates that tasks of the Indonesian Armed Forces (TNI) include terrorism prevention in the form of intelligence gathering and territorial operations, along with offensive measures to thwart attacks.
Giving the military wide-ranging counter-terror duties could erode law enforcement and bring about repressive actions with little accountability, according to the head of a local human rights group.
“It could lead to an overlap of authority and present a problem in upholding human rights,” Al Araf, the director Imparsial, told BenarNews. “The military is not part of the criminal justice system,” he said.
An analyst at the Institute for Security and Strategic Studies (ISESS), Khairul Fahmi, said the decree was needed to clarify the military’s involvement in counter-terrorism.
“It should clearly define the powers of the TNI [in fighting terrorism] and when it can or cannot be involved,” he told BenarNews.
The National Counter-Terrorism Agency (BNPT) should be the umbrella organization that supervises and coordinates efforts to fight terrorism, he said.
“But this decree seems to open more expanded and more powerful [military roles] in fighting terrorism and this is something the public did not expect,” he said. “We should not let this decree undermine the BNPT.”
Yasonna Laoly, the law and human rights minister, submitted the draft decree to members of parliament for consultation.
Officials did not set a time frame for when lawmakers would finish their process. Government officials and a military spokesman could not immediately be reached for comment.
Terrorist acts that warrant the military’s involvement include attacks on serving and former presidents, as well as vice presidents and their families, the draft decree says.
Mohammad Choirul Anam, a member of the National Commission on Human Rights (Komnas HAM), urged officials to review the draft decree to avoid an overlap in authority.
“If a specific regulation is needed, maybe it should only focus on offensive measures. Other matters that are not in the domain of the TNI should not be included,” Choirul told BenarNews.
He said the military’s involvement should be commensurate to the gravity of the terrorist threat, adding it should be temporary and serve as an auxiliary to law enforcement.
Improving police capacity to deal with terrorist acts should be the priority, he said. Previously, the authority to combat terrorists rested with Densus 88, an elite National Police unit.
“When a terrorist network has morphed into an insurgent group, the role of the TNI is needed because of the limited capability of the national police. But, I don’t think the TNI’s role is urgent in handling ordinary acts of terrorism,” Khairul Fahmi of ISESS countered.
Arsul Sani, a member of the House of Representatives (DPR) commission on legal and security affairs, said lawmakers were listening to the public and would raise these issues during meetings with administration officials to discuss the decree.
“The decree is a political decision by the president, but in this case it needs to be consulted with the DPR. The point is the DPR accepts inputs from all parties,” Arsul said.
A blank check?
The document builds on 2018 amendments to the country's anti-terrorism law that formalized the military's role in fighting terrorism but drew a round of protests.
Critics at the time expressed fears that an increased domestic role for the military could restore its longtime prominent and at times repressive role in civilian life. Withdrawing the military from internal security was a key achievement of reforms that followed the 1998 fall of Suharto, the dictator who had ruled the country for 32 years.
The year after Indonesia strengthened its anti-terror law, its military launched an elite unit focused on fighting violent extremism, a move that attracted more criticism from activists, who warned the move could lead to human rights abuses.
The Special Operations Command (Koopsus) consists of 500 personnel drawn from the army, navy and air force, military (TNI) chief Air Marshal Hadi Tjahjanto said during a July 2019 ceremony launching the unit.
“When there are threats from inside and outside the country, the TNI commander can immediately order [Koopsus] to move quickly and with a very high success rate,” Hadi told reporters at the time. “The involvement of the TNI in fighting terrorism is mandated in the law, especially if an action threatens the sovereignty, territorial integrity or safety of the Indonesian nation.”
In an editorial on Friday, the Jakarta Post newspaper urged Jokowi to consult the public before signing the regulation, saying that a parliament dominated by his supporters was expected to rubber-stamp the decree.
“However smooth the political process can be, Jokowi should not turn a deaf ear to mounting criticism from civil society groups and individuals who are concerned about the danger the draft regulation may pose to democracy and the rule of law,” the English-language daily said.
“The draft regulation, as it is, may give the military a blank check to act against enemies of the government, including critics and the opposition,” it said.
Indonesia, the world’s largest Muslim-majority nation, has been hit by a string of terrorist attacks since the early 2000s. The worst of these, the 2002 Bali bombings, killed 202 people, mostly foreigners.
More recently, a January 2016 attack in Jakarta killed eight people, including four militants, in the first terrorist act claimed in a Southeast Asian country by the extremist group known as Islamic State.
In May 2018, two families in Surabaya blew themselves up during attacks at three churches and a police station, killing 24 people, including children as young as 9 who joined their parents in the attacks. Local authorities also blamed the Surabaya bombings on a pro-IS Indonesian group.