Indonesia’s military is seeking government money to form a special forces unit to combat terrorism, but expanding the armed forces’ role in this way could lead to human rights abuses, activists and observers warn.
The military (TNI) is planning to revive a special unit deployed three years ago to fight Islamic militants in the jungles of Central Sulawesi province, but is waiting for the Ministry of Defense to draft a presidential decree needed for its authorization, officials said.
Observers including Muhammad Choirul Anam, a member of the National Human Rights Commission (Komnas HAM), say there needs to be a public debate before the president issues a decree on the military’s role in combating terrorism.
“What is the scale of the involvement? For what kind of threats? And what is the time-frame?” Choirul told BenarNews. “Those are things that should be clarified so that the fight against terrorism is in line with respect for human rights principles.”
The unit, comprising members of elite units from branches of the armed forces, would be given a new name – the Special Operations Command, or Koopsus –and its mission would be to go after terrorists.
Air Chief Marshal Hadi Tjahjanto, who commands the TNI, said it was asking for 1.5 trillion rupiah (U.S. $101.6 million) in government funding to set up the unit.
The money, part of the 2019 budget proposed by the defense ministry, is needed to build infrastructure, procure weapons and other equipment for Koopsus, Hadi said.
“Special forces are different from other forces. They need special equipment,” Hadi told reporters in Jakarta last week.
The ministry is drafting the so-called presidential regulation (Perpres) that would clarify the military’s expanded role in counter-terrorism, an Indonesian defense official who declined to be identified said without going into details.
The re-emergence of the special forces unit came about through Indonesia’s recent move to toughen its anti-terrorist laws, including by formalizing a role for the military in counter-terror operations on home soil.
Until now, the Indonesian national police’s elite wing, Detachment 88 (Densus 88), has been the country’s lead security unit in pursing terrorists.
On May 25, the Indonesian parliament (DPR) voted to pass the amended laws following a spate of deadly terrorist-related incidents earlier in the month. These included a prison riot in Depok, West Java, and a series of suicide bombings at churches and a police headquarters in Surabaya.
Authorities blamed the attacks on Jamaah Ansharut Daulah (JAD), a local network of Indonesian militants affiliated with the extremist group known as Islamic State (IS).
On Thursday, a court in West Jakarta convicted and sentenced Wawan Kurniawan (alias Abu Afif), a 43-year-old JAD leader, to 11 years in prison for conducting exercises to train militants for a plot to attack police stations in Riau province, on Sumatra island, officials said.
He has not been charged but authorities believe that, while an inmate incarcerated at the facility in Depok, he instigated the riot at the Mobile Brigade lock-up that led to the deaths of five policemen and a prisoner on May 9.
‘Decree will regulate it’
When the laws were amended in late May, President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo said there should be no doubt about giving the military a role in fighting terrorists.
“Furthermore, the presidential decree will regulate it,” Jokowi said then.
As he responded to concerns raised by rights activists about potential abuses at the time of the bill’s passage, Law and Human Rights Minister Yasonna Laoly said the military’s counter-terror role would be regulated through the presidential decree.
Starting in early 2015, TNI commandos were involved in efforts to help hunt down IS-linked members of the Eastern Indonesia Mujahideen (MIT) group and its leader Santoso – who was Indonesia’s most-wanted militant until he was killed in a firefight with security forces in July 2016.
Gen. Gatot Nurmantyo – Hadi’s predecessor as the TNI chief - deactivated the special unit after he took over as commander of the armed forces in July 2015, amid criticism about the lack of a legal basis for the military’s involvement in counter-terrorism.
During the run-up to the amendment’s passage, activists expressed fears that a renewed domestic role for the military could bring back the prominent and, at times, repressive internal security role that it played during the 32-year dictatorship of President Suharto.
TNI’s involvement in counter-terrorism falls under the category of “military operations other than war,” details of which are to be spelled out in the presidential decree.
Rights activists are warning against giving the armed forces law enforcement powers.
“Any presidential regulation on the role of the TNI in counter-terrorism should explicitly state that any military involvement should be auxiliary to the police,” said Al Araf, the director of Impartial, a local human rights group.
“Terrorism is a law enforcement issue, not a military matter. In developed countries where terrorist attacks have occurred recently, this remains the case,” he told BenarNews.
Since Jokowi came to power in October 2014, the military has been given a greater role in civilian matters, including involvement in the war on drugs and the deployment of non-commissioned soldiers at the village level, Araf noted.
Soldiers have been deployed to support a government program to create more rice fields as part of a food self-sufficiency drive, a move that harkens back to the Suharto era.
Connie Rahakundini, a military analyst at the University of Indonesia, said the armed forces should instead focus on terrorism threats coming from outside the country.
Coordinated sea and air patrols involving Indonesia, Malaysia and the Philippines to fight Islamic extremists should be expanded to include all the member countries of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, she suggested.
“The TNI should be more outward looking in line with Indonesia’s ambitions in becoming a global maritime fulcrum,” she told BenarNews.
“It is better to concentrate its resources on threats from outside the country, as the region is facing the threat of terrorism and extremism.”
Arie Firdaus in Jakarta contributed to this report.