Moscow Defense Brief

The Military in Indonesian Politics

Alexei SHILIN


Indonesia is the largest country in Southeast Asia, made up of 17,000 islands of the Malay Archipelago, the largest of which are Sumatra, Java, Kalimantan1 and Sulawesi, and the western part of New Guinea. With 210 million people, Indonesia is the world's fourth most populous country after China, India and the United States.

Most of the Indonesians belong to various ethnic groups of the Malayo-Polynesian language family, the largest of which are the Javanese (45% of the population). Some 87% of the population is Sunni Muslim, making Indonesia the largest Muslim country in the world. But the country also has many Christian, Hindu and Buddhist communities.

The formation of the Republic of Indonesia and creation of a National Army

Indonesia declared its independence on August 17, 1945 during the power vacuum that occurred when the Japanese army - which had controlled the country since 1942 - had already given up authority in compliance with the Emperor's order to surrender, but the Dutch colonial administration - which had ruled this extensive archipelago since the early 17th century - had not yet managed to regain power.

The government of the young republic, headed by President Sukarno, viewed the creation of national armed forces as one of the primary attributes of an independent state. The obvious intention of the Netherlands to restore its rule over the East Indies made this task all the more urgent. The PETA (Pembela Tanahair, or Defenders of the Motherland) forces, which were created by the Japanese occupation army in 1943-1945, made up the backbone of the National Army of Indonesia, officially established on October 5, 1945.

The difficult armed struggle for independence ended only in 1949, when the Dutch were forced to unconditionally recognize the existence of a sovereign Republic of Indonesia. But even after 1949, relations with the former colonial power were not completely resolved: The Netherlands maintained control over the western part of the island of New Guinea. Jakarta's aspiration to spread its authority throughout the whole of the Dutch East Indies made the build-up of its military potential a top priority. By 1961, with open political and military support from the Soviet Union, Indonesians prepared to solve their problem with the Netherlands through use of force. After several months of fierce military warfare, the Dutch realized that they were in a no-win situation, and abandoned their last Pacific colony, which two years later was declared the Indonesian province of Irian Jaya with the blessing of the United Nations.

Such a beginning for the Indonesian state predetermined an important and authoritative role for the armed forces. Another motive for the fortification of defense capabilities was the political course pursued by President Sukarno. Announcing the building of "socialism with an Indonesian face" - following the political example of Beijing rather than Moscow from the beginning of the 1960s - Sukarno regularly made tough anti-Western statements. When an independent Malaysian Federation began to form peacefully in the British colony on the Malay Peninsula, the Indonesian leader officially announced plans to invade this "outpost of global imperialism."

However, despite the fact that a fairly tough vertical line of presidential power had been built in the country, Sukarno did not manage to fully establish control over the armed forces. This was due primarily to political differences within the Indonesian top brass itself. The overwhelming majority of the air force and naval command, which received military training in the USSR, was loyal to the president - and even more loyal to the Communist Party of Indonesia (CPI), the largest party in parliament at the time. But the commanders of the ground forces, who had been trained mainly at American, British and West German military academies and officer colleges, were fairly hostile to the country's orientation to the left and supported strong ties with capitalist forces, which sought to weaken the influence of the communists.2 This situation led Indonesia to an acute political crisis by the middle of the 1960s.

The army's entry into politics

The culmination of the crisis, caused by the army's intrusion into state politics, was the attempted leftist coup of September 30, 1965. Activists from the CPI youth wing, supported by pro-communist officers in the presidential guard, seized and killed five ground forces generals whom the leftists considered to be the main agents of imperialist influence in the country and suspected of "anti-people and anti-constitutional designs." But the headless army managed to offer decisive resistance, led by the commander of the KOSTRAD (Komando Strategis Angkatan Darat) strategic reserve ground forces, Major General Suharto. Within a few days, the main forces of the rebels had been destroyed. The murdered generals were solemnly buried and made into national heroes. The government of Sukarno was soon under the control of the army top brass, which launched a campaign of brutal repression against the leftists. The CPI and its allies were declared illegal, and Marxist-Leninist propaganda and other socialist ideology was banned under threat of imprisonment. During the terror that lasted almost two years, anywhere from 500,000 to 1.5 million people were killed, according to various estimates. The overwhelming majority of them did not have even indirect ties with the communist movement.

Major General Suharto very quickly rose to the summit of state power. In March 1966, Sukarno "voluntarily" handed over everyday governing powers, and, in February 1967, the formal status of head of state, which was confirmed a year later by Indonesia's highest legislative body, the People's Consultative Assembly (Majelis Permusyawaratan Rakyat or MPR). After this, the new Indonesian leader was re-elected to the presidency six times without alternative candidates, the last time in March 1998.

The military's entry into politics was not limited to the appointment of an army general to the presidency. A so-called "dual function" - military and sociopolitical - was legislatively enshrined for the armed forces. The army essentially became the leading and directing force of Indonesian society. In practice, this mainly came down to the military's domination of all government structures. In all seven cabinets of the 32 years of Suharto's regime, generals held at least a third of the posts, usually in key ministries and departments. The military - both in service and after retirement - held most gubernatorial posts. At the lower ranks in the regions - in districts and administrative areas - they held an even larger proportion of top positions, and the office of village elder was almost always held by a retired sergeant-major or non-commissioned officer.

Indonesian legislation made special allowances for the military in the representative bodies of government. Military servicemen could not be elected, but the parliament and MPR, regardless of the results of general elections, always included a faction from the armed forces, the members of which were approved by the president. From 1971 to 1992, it was allocated 100 mandates, and from 1992 to 1999 it had 75.3 A military presence in regional councils of people's representatives was ensured in the same way.

Moreover, the military had a loyal ally in the Golkar bloc, the country's main political organization, which was created with the army's direct participation and patronage. Representing a conglomerate of so-called "functional groups" - dozens of professional, youth, women's and other public organizations - it inevitably received a majority of votes from the electorate and served as the governing party for thirty years. The other two political parties that existed alongside Golkar - the Islamic Party of Unity and Development (Partai Persatuan Pembangunan) and the Christian-Nationalist Democratic Party of Indonesia (Partai Demokrasi Indonesia) - played the role of ornamental opposition and fully supported the "dual function" of the armed forces in their program documents.

By the end of the 1960s, after removing all opponents from the political scene, the army set about securing internal political stability. Continuing its brutal tactics, the military rooted out the smallest signs of anti-government sentiment, religious extremism and ethnic separatism. It consistently brought to life the ideas of secular government and freedom of religion enshrined in the Indonesian constitution, which was extremely important for a country with a multiethnic and multi-confessional population. Political stability was also the main condition for restoring Indonesia's economy. After the drawn-out crisis of the early 1960s, induced to a large extent by experiments with socialist economic methods, Indonesia fell to the ranks of the world's poorest nations. Suharto's government then steered the course towards the accelerated creation of a market economy based on the western model, which required cooperation with leading capitalist countries, especially in the area of investment.

The easing of social tensions, political stabilization and the central government's guaranteed control over the situation throughout the whole country made Indonesia an attractive place for foreign investment by the beginning of the 1980s. The rational use of this investment, combined with the mobilization of all of the available resources of the national economy had a very positive outcome - the following two decades became a period of intense economic growth. Here, too, the role of the military was not limited to the administrative sphere. The army acted as an economic player, creating and acquiring dozens of industrial enterprises, commercial institutions and banks. By the middle of the 1990s, having developed modern industries and attained impressively high economic growth rates, Indonesia became one of the so-called "new industrial countries."

Busy with administrative and economic affairs, the Indonesian army occasionally got the chance to try itself in its original function. These opportunities were usually provided by the country's hotspots, of which there were initially two: the special administrative district of Aceh at the northern tip of the island of Sumatra and the already mentioned province of Irian Jaya. The inhabitants of Aceh are considered zealous Muslims, while the overwhelming majority of their fellow Muslims in other parts of Indonesia are notable for their great tolerance and are not always terribly concerned about observing the tenets of orthodox Islam. The Free Aceh Movement, the leaders of which called for the creation of an independent Islamic sultanate in northern Sumatra on visits to various European countries, has been waging an armed struggle against the authorities since the early 1970s. In Irian Jaya, many of the local Papua ethnic groups were not very enthusiastic about the replacement of Dutch colonizers by "Javanese" ones, and also turned to armed resistance.

The real test of the army's strength, however, did not come until December of 1975, when Indonesian forces were sent to capture the eastern part of the island of Timor, which had been abandoned by the Portuguese colonial administration shortly before that. The pretext for the invasion was an appeal to Jakarta for "help" from members of the local political elite, who sought integration with Indonesia, though the majority had already begun building an independent state. The combined military operation to take over this territory, code-named Seroya (Lotus), was carefully planned over several months. It was preceded by the capture of several border areas with the help of the special forces. Nonetheless, it was by no means an example of military prowess. The Indonesian command underestimated the strength of its opponents - the Revolutionary Front for an Independent East Timor, or FRETILIN (Frente Revolucionaria de Timor-Leste Independente) - and the losses of the invasion forces considerably exceeded initial projections. At the tactical level, particularly serious mistakes were made in the execution of the airborne and amphibious landings.4

By August 1976, when East Timor was officially declared a province of Indonesia in violation of a UN resolution, a 30,000-strong Indonesian force fully controlled only the largest population centers and coastal areas, while fairly large groups of FRETILIN fighters continued to operate in the rest of the territory. Although their number and fighting capabilities declined considerably over the subsequent twenty years, East Timor remained the hottest hotspot in Indonesia.

Despite fairly stubborn resistance from separatists, in the end, the military managed to secure control over the three "problem" provinces, where the situation became relatively stable by the mid-1990s. The divisions stationed there developed very effective methods of putting down local resistance - methods often resulting in high casualty figures among the civilian population.

Elite divisions of the Indonesian armed forces gained an international reputation not only because of these special operations,5 but also thanks to their active participation in UN peacekeeping missions. The contingent of "blue helmets" stationed in Cambodia in the early 1990s, for example, was made up mostly of Indonesians.

But on the threshold of the 21st century, sociopolitical rather than military problems again took center stage for the Indonesian armed forces. Many years of dynamic development led to qualitative progress not only in the country's economy, but also in its social life. The civilian elite, now larger and more influential, wanted to expand its access to government administration. The conservatism of the military leadership caused growing discontent in liberal social circles. The Indonesian mass media, which had previously demonstrated maximal political conformism, began to initiate more and more discussions about the role, place and perspectives of the armed forces in the society, about their ability to sustain a democracy and the necessity of the latter.

Moreover, many of the military leaders themselves acknowledged the need a more flexible strategy for implementing the army's "dual function" and for correlating it with the general social development. At the same time the value of maintaining this dual function was not questioned, especially as both civilian and military government officials agreed that, since the beginning of the 1990s, potential outside threats for Jakarta had become less real than the threat of internal instability. The main task for the armed forces - both in the administration and in the general staff - was preventing ethnic, religious and social conflicts, the potential for which was disproportionately tied to social and economic development, and to the still-active centrifugal forces. Its success was linked with a number of sociopolitical as well as military-strategic conditions. The latter entailed not only the improvement of professional qualifications and logistics of the army, but also measures to restructure it. In June 1997, a program was announced to unify the organizational and command systems of all branches of the armed forces - a restructuring along the model of the ground forces, navy, air force and police (since the 1960s the police were a part of the armed forces, responsible to the army chief of staff and overseen by the ministry of defense and security).6

The hopes for some degree of democratization and liberalization of the military authorities were tied, to a certain extent to the recent change of generations in the top brass. In his first official statements after becoming the army chief of staff in early 1998, General Wiranto outlined plans to not only accelerate the development and implementation of various modernization programs, but also to take a more flexible approach to tackling sociopolitical problems.7

Clearly, this attitude in the Indonesian leadership was dictated less by the desire to create a more liberal image for the armed forces, than by the wish to make them more loyal and controllable - an especially pertinent question in light of the increasingly pertinent question of Suharto's succession. But the innovations that were carried out were largely of cosmetic nature, and primarily limited to personnel changes and insignificant organizational reforms that left the basis of the army's role in Indonesia's government system untouched. The events of the next few months fully demonstrated the woeful inadequacy of these steps compared to the real sociopolitical issues.

"Demilitarization" of the political system

The devastating financial crisis of 1997-1998 not only destroyed many of the Indonesian economic achievements, but also sparked social tensions and opposition in the country. Suharto's ouster in May 1998 became the beginning of the difficult process of restructuring Indonesia's political system, the most important element of which was a rethinking of the armed forces' role in society. It seemed that the election of a purely civilian politician - former vice president B.J. Habibie - to the top government post; the formation of dozens of new opposition parties, many of which took a fierce anti-army stance; and the tough, usually justified criticism of the military's totalitarian methods and systematic human rights violations coming from virtually all corners of society, had made it impossible for the armed forces to play a further role in big politics.

And, in fact, the primary component of the far-reaching democratic reforms launched by the Habibie government was the gradual dismantling of the "dual function" of the army. In the beginning of 1999, the army chief officially approved a document called "New Paradigms for the Armed Forces," which called for the "full-scale reorganization of the army in correspondence to changing realities." The declared leitmotif of this reorganization was the army's gradual retreat from its sociopolitical function and concentration on the tasks of defense and security. The reduction of the military's parliamentary faction from 75 to 38 seats, stipulated in Indonesia's revised political legislation, was presented as a key step in this direction.8 Another landmark of "depoliticizing" the army was the elimination of the system of sociopolitical councils in military units and the reorganization of the general staff's sociopolitical department into a "territorial" department. Two other administrative reforms soon followed: the formal removal of the police force from under the control of the armed forces and a ban on the appointment of military officers to posts in the government administration.

The demilitarization of the police took place gradually, over two years, during which time it remained a branch of the defense and security ministry. Over the two years, its size was increased.9 This was aimed at transferring law enforcement responsibilities to the police, thus reducing the army's involvement in domestic political affairs and allowing it to focus on ensuring the country's defense capabilities.

The military used the same reasoning to explain their "departure" from the administration. At the beginning of 1999, more than 6,000 military servicemen held government posts. Within six months, about 2,000 generals and other officers announced plans to leave the military in favor of keeping their civilian posts (including two ministers, several dozen officials at the level of deputy minister and directors of major state enterprises). Only 510 chose to remain in the military, and left their posts at civilian institutions.10 Most of the others, having received various deferments for making a decision, preferred the civil service in the end.

The orders on the "demilitarization" the police and the ban on appointing military officials to civilian posts were accompanied by an important "cosmetic operation" - the return of the Indonesian armed forces' old, Sukarno-era name. The Armed Forces of the Republic of Indonesia (Angkatan Bersenjata Republik Indonesia, ABRI) again became the National Army of Indonesia (Tentara Nasional Indonesia, TNI).

But despite all of these reforms, one cannot say that the army retreated into the shadows. First of all, its role as guarantor of national security and law and order did not change in view of the ongoing social tensions and the escalation of ethnic, religious and other conflicts - already in the first months after Suharto's departure, as the vertical and horizontal structures of authority weakened, separatist aspirations began to grow both in traditional hotspots, such as East Timor, Aceh and Irian Jaya, as well as in new regions, such as the Molucca islands, Western Kalimantan and Sulawesi. Secondly, in the run up to the multi-party democratic elections of 1999, it became clear that Indonesia's main political groups were approximately equal in strength, which made an alliance with the military desirable for each of them. The military commanders, recognizing that they were needed, kept an equal distance from all points of the political spectrum and refrained from declaring their party preferences. Thanks in large part to their balanced position, the MPR session that was called following the elections in October 1999 was able to ensure an optimal division of government power for that time, based on a balance of the leading political forces. Abdurahman Wahid, an authoritative, moderate Muslim clergyman, was elected president with backing from Islamic parties, and Megawati Sukarnoputri, the daughter of the country's first president and a leading proponent of a secular state, who was very popular with the less religious segment of the population, became vice president.

However, while the coexistence of different political forces in the upper echelons of power, saved Indonesian society from splintering in 1999, in the long run, it caused problems in the making of important government decisions. Another factor that contributed to the escalation of potential conflicts within Indonesia's governing elite was Wahid's autocratic and secretive style of leadership.

Wahid's attempts to strengthen his personal power at the expense of the interests of the broad governing coalition was especially noticeable in his actions towards the army. Skillfully taking advantage of the heavy western pressure on the Indonesian military leadership for its past human rights infractions, as well as of the serious differences within the military leadership itself, Wahid secured the ouster of army chief of staff Wiranto, whom he viewed - not without reason - as his main rival in the fight for control of the security agencies. At the same time, he was not planning to seriously weaken the position of the army as a whole. Wahid needed the political support of the military because of his rapidly cooling relations with the majority of the civilian establishment. In turn, the growing opposition, guided by the same reasoning, also did all it could to pull the army over to its side.

Thus the army, as during the presidency of Habibie, became a desirable ally for both sides of the political conflict. Enjoying such favor, the military was able to soften the conditions and time limits of its departure from politics. The MPR of 2000 chose to preserve a joint military and police faction in parliament until 2009. The army's economic interests remained untouchable. However, the severity of the internal political strife did not allow the military to maintain such a convenient "equal distance" for long. After even most of the president's former allies went over to the opposition, a real confrontation between the executive and legislative branches of power emerged, and the military found itself having to make a choice between the two sides.

By the end of 2000 it became obvious that Wahid's active meddling in the organizational and personnel affairs of the security forces, as well as his attempts to regulate the situation in the hotspots without due input from the military, did little to boost the president's popularity among the men in uniform. At the same time, understanding that they needed a rapprochement with the leading political forces in the country, the military began intensively building direct ties with them - both through work in parliament and on a bilateral level. The first contacts showed that a dialog that by-passed the president was promising. During an October 2000 meeting between representatives of the military and Megawati, the vice president expressed sympathy for the demands made by the military and agreed that political appointees should not be promoted to top commanding positions.11

When, in May 2001, the parliament decided to call a session of the MPR to consider the issue of keeping Wahid in power, he immediately turned to the military, demanding that they curb the growing crisis with all available means and proposing the imposition of a state of emergency as the most advisable course of action. But this proposal was categorically dismissed by the army leadership. Trying to restore his influence, Wahid reshuffled the government's military bloc and the leadership of the security agencies, dismissing the minister in charge of coordinating political and security affairs, S.B. Yudhoyono, and police force chief Lieutenant-General Bimantoro. When the latter simply ignored the order for his dismissal, it became clear that the security agencies were essentially slipping out of the president's control.

Nonetheless, on June 22, on the eve of the MPR session, seeing the uncompromising mood of this opponents, the president wagered on a military solution to the conflict: he issued a decree imposing a state of emergency and ordered the armed forces and police to prevent the MPR from convening. But the heads of the security agencies, most of who did not even show up to the emergency meeting at the presidential palace, refused to comply with the orders, and the MPR met the next morning without any problems.

The session resulted in Wahid's dismissal and the appointment of vice president Megawati as the country's new head of state. Immediately after the inauguration ceremony, the army chief of staff officially declared the army's unconditional loyalty to the new president.12 The clear definition of the military's position had a very favorable impact on the situation in the country: radical supporters of the deposed Wahid in the religious and public organizations he controlled, who had initially threatened to take up arms to reinstate their patron, prudently confined themselves to a series of peaceful demonstrations. Within just a few days, one could confidently say that the severe crisis that had paralyzed Indonesian political life for many months was settled.

Outlook for cooperation between military and civilian authorities

Such an outcome to the conflict in the Indonesian ruling elite confirmed that, despite the legislative dismantling of the "dual function," the army's loss of many levers of power, and the considerable weakening of internal consolidation, the military retained direct and generally decisive influence on political processes and - though to a lesser degree - on displays of social instability. The current Indonesian leadership fully recognizes this fact, especially since, even before becoming president, Megawati Sukarnoputri was known for her high degree of mutual understanding with the commanders and for her balanced and cautious approach to reforms affecting the military's political and financial interests. After becoming head of state, she in no way disavowed plans to eventually dismantle the "dual function," but chose a course of very gradual implementation, accompanied by active measures to improve the economic situation of the armed forces and rehabilitate their reputation both in the eyes of the world community and inside Indonesia. Military funding was increased by 40% in 2001, and even those politicians who were most critical of the army in 1998-1999 are now demonstrating a benevolent attitude towards the armed forces. Even the most radical opponents of the "dual function" recognize that, at this stage, the participation of the military in all levels of domestic politics is vital for the stability in the government and in the country as a whole.

Yet it is hard to imagine that the civilian political elite would, under any circumstances be willing to voluntarily hand over even some of the positions won from the military with such efforts after the collapse of the Suharto regime. The army's return to the summit of government power is also unacceptable to the broadest segments of Indonesian society and to the majority of the international community, which is no less important, given Jakarta's heavy dependence on foreign economic relations. In turn, the military themselves cannot fail to recognize this.

It therefore seems that the key to effective government administration in Indonesia at this time would be to find an optimal model of cooperation between civilian authorities and the military leadership. Preserving the armed forces' loyalty to the government is undoubtedly the key to the latter's survival and to its ability to maintain control over the situation in the country. Therefore, over the next few years, the military's fairly active participation in government decision-making - both in the political and economic spheres - will remain inevitable, and even desirable. But this participation will only be acceptable to the majority of Indonesia's political elite and to the public, if it is carried out with the undisputed superiority of civilian control and within the framework of the existing democratic mechanisms and institutions, the establishment of which was so difficult and dramatic.

Based on the fact that the leadership of Indonesia's armed forces has already repeatedly demonstrated its sober view of the new political realities and shown a fair degree of restraint and good will, it seems quite realistic that the country's army could fully adapt to the norms of a democratic state, and to the gradual dismantling of the remaining elements of the "dual function" in particular. Considering the extremely favorable conditions and drawn out timetable offered for this adjustment, as well as the high degree of mutual understanding and ideological closeness between the army's top brass and the current Indonesian president, one can expect that the further development of Indonesia's political system along democratic lines will not seriously clash with the interests of the military.

However, it is also obvious that the political loyalty of the armed forces will depend on the degree of stability and security in the country. If there is progress in this area, or if the situation at least remains more or less unchanged, the army will continue to fully observe the rules of the game established by the democratic reforms. But if a crisis develops - whether because of the escalation of ethnic and religious conflicts and separatist trends, or economic shocks, or severe conflicts between various groups of the political elite - the military could easily turn to actions that break these rules. The concrete form of these actions and the degree of the threat they could pose for young Indonesian democracy will probably be determined by the conditions that prompted them as well as by various subjective factors.

1 The Malaysian states of Sarawak and Sabah and the state of Brunei-Darussalam are located in the northern part of Kalimantan.

2 For more details see Drugov A.Yu., Indonesia: politicheskaya kultura i politichesky rezhim, M., 1997, p. 98-100; Crouch H., The Army and Politics in Indonesia, Ithaca and London, 1978, ?. 82-90.

3 Mardjono H., Politik Indonesia (1996 - 2003), Jakarta, 1996, p. 19.

4 For further details see: Crouch H., The Army and Politics in Indonesia, Ithaca and London, 1978,

pp. 69-132.

5 In 1996, Jane's Defence Weekly ranked the Indonesian Special Forces Command (KOPASSUS) third in the world by level of combat training, after Britain's SAS and Israel's Mossad. See Jane's Defence Weekly. L., 26.09.1996.

6 Angkatan Bersenjata (from 1998 - Harian Umum ABRI, then - Harian Angkatan Bersenjata), Jakarta, 10.12.1997.

7 Ibid., 24.01.1998.

8 Undang-Undang Politik. Buah Reformasi Setengah Hati. Ed. Sonata T. Jakarta, 1999, p. 21.

9 By the end of 2001, when this process was officially completed, the personnel of the police forces was increased, but by much less than the initially planned 30%. See Angkatan Bersenjata, Jakarta, 12.02.2002.

10 Angkatan Bersenjata, Jakarta, 2.06.1999.

11 Suara Pembaruan, Jakarta, 27.10.2002.

12 Ibid., 25.06.2001.


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