Concerns Over the Return of the Military in Indonesia
Could proposed legislation bring about the return of the New Order?
There is growing concern in Indonesia that the military, which was forced out of politics in 1998 after 32 years under the strongman Suharto, wants to return to a bigger role through a revised law that would enable the army to write its own budget and occupy more civilian positions. If the draft proposal is approved by the commander in chief and the government, it would immediately be submitted to the House of Representatives.
Pro-democracy and human rights activists fear that expanding military authority could return Indonesia, now the world's third largest democracy, to the way it was under Suharto, when the army, then an engine of corruption, was used as a tool of repression and to silence criticism. It has since been professionalized and modernized.
By contrast in the 25 years since Suharto's ouster, Indonesia has become perhaps Southeast Asia's most promising democracy although the field isn’t particularly crowded. In a region where military dominance is concerning, including Myanmar, where the Tatmadaw have been fighting a bloody two-year campaign to suppress civilian rule, and Thailand, which just this week has been wrestling with pushing the military out of power, western powers including the United States don't want to see Indonesia backslide toward its Suharto-era excesses.
Defense chief Prabowo Subianto, the one-time special forces chief and Suharto's son-in-law who was accused of a variety of human rights abuses, is in a top position to run for the presidency to succeed Joko Widodo in 2025. However, he opposes the proposed law, .insisting that “the existing law has gone well” and is effective in preventing corruption
The law that the Indonesian Armed Forces, known as the TNI, want to revise, states that the forces play a role as a tool of the state in the field of defense based on state policies and political decisions. Indonesia in 2021 had around 1.08 million military personnel, both active and reserve, according to data from Global FirePower.
The current law limits the military in holding many civilian positions in certain ministries or agencies. The proposed revision would allow for the expansion and addition of military operations other than war (OMSP) from 14 now to 19 types. The addition of this authority includes the role of tackling cyber threats, supporting the government in overcoming narcotics abuse and carrying out other tasks assigned by the president to support national development.
A coalition of civil society organizations for the security sector urged the government not to continue with the revised agenda, fearing that the revisions would set back military reform and undermine army professionalism. Critics say potential allocation of civilian posts for active duty soldiers has the potential to restore the dual role of the military which was removed after 1998 reforms following Suharto’s ouster.
"Some of the additions to the role of the army are not related to military competence, such as dealing with narcotics and supporting national development," wrote the Coalition in its statement. "The expansion and increase in the scope of military operations will encourage the wider involvement of the TNI in the civil and national security spheres."
The nation is still traumatized by the role of the military during the New Order, during which it was accused of perpetrating numerous human rights abuses, including the 1965 anti-communist purges which took hundreds of thousands of lives, 1998 race riots, military operations in Papua, and many others. Now, amid widespread disapproval of the performance of the national police, exemplified by a huge sex and murder scandal last year, as well as police incompetence that led to the deaths of more than 100 spectators during a stampede at a football match, the discourse on revising the TNI Law has emerged. The proponents generally want to restore the function and authority of the army under flexible rules very likely to be abused by those who want to return to the New Order era.
During Suharto’s 32-year reign, the army took part not only in defense, but also to maintain political stability and security under a dual function known as dwi fungsi. Military leaders occupied positions such as district heads, governorships, and ministries, which activists say Suharto used to create an authoritarian regime to perpetuate himself in power and control society. The impact was the spread of human rights violations, the proliferation of corrupt practices, and the loss of civil liberties and democracy.
Dwifungsi was eliminated after the reform movement broke out in 1998, returning the army to the barracks to strengthen professionalism and carry out its main task, protecting the sovereignty and territory of the state. TNI soldiers can only occupy civilian positions after resigning or retiring, except for limited positions specified in the TNI Law.
But the military's influence has grown stronger under the leadership of President Joko Widodo, known as Jokowi, who is in his second five-year term of office. Six ministers have been appointed from elements of the TNI and the national police, with the military also involved in handling disasters including the Covid-19 outbreak and natural misfortunes. In 2022, several active-duty soldiers were appointed by the interior ministry to occupy regional positions. Critics say that the Jokowi government has often used the military to ensure the implementation of central government policies to remote villages. One government official said Jokowi trusts the military more than the police and sees them as a potential counterbalancing force.
Jokowi has been reluctant to comment on the proposed revision of the Law. However, TNI spokesperson Admiral Julius Widjojono said many active soldiers have expertise that fits the needs of ministries or agencies. "TNI soldiers have been trained from the start to be responsive and have good organizational discipline. We'll see in the past handling of Covid-19, the role of active TNI soldiers is very significant," said Widjojono.
The civil society coalition also highlighted the abolition of the president's authority as the highest authority in the deployment and use of military force. That is dangerous, the group said, because the deployment and use of military force will be increasingly out of civil control. Anton Aliabbas, an observer from the Center for Intermestic and Diplomatic Engagement (CIDE), said the removal of this line of command could open up space for military insubordination, not to mention the provisions for implementing military operations, both war and non-war, which require state policies and political decisions to be annulled.
Other controversial points also include proposed changes to the TNI's budget mechanism and its unlimited use for the defense sector. If this revision materializes, the mechanism for budget submission, management, and accountability would fully become the authority of the TNI, and would no longer be approved by the Ministry of Defense. However, Widjojono said the proposed change is aimed at bureaucratic efficiency.
TNI Commander Admiral Yudo Margono said the revisions target points in the law that are no longer relevant and that the TNI will return to its New Order era misuses is exaggerated. He said that the draft revision of the TNI Law was still being discussed within his organization and the journey to arrive at the discussion at the House of Representatives was still long.