Indonesia’s Military Resurgence

In recent months, Indonesia’s embattled President Joko Widowo has overseen a remarkable resurgence of military power over Indonesian society.

Beginning in 1999, the military had been eased out of the dual role of dwifungsi – safeguarding the country against both external and internal threat – but the military now to some extent is resuming it. It has agreements in place to distribute fertilizer to farmers, guard prisons, and assist the national anti-narcotics agency. Talks are underway to also give it a role assisting the Corruption Eradication Commission and the ministries of transportation and fisheries.

"I want the military to be involved more in humanitarian missions in the future,” the Defense Minister Ryamizard Ryacudu said earlier this month. The military even seems to be turning against civil society, conducting a nationwide campaign to tell Indonesia’s youth that Indonesian NGOs and civil society organisations could be vehicles for foreign interests.

Jokowi is allowing this resurgence because he knows he is not in a position to confront powerful institutions. He is a civilian president with no money and almost no experience or networks in national politics. He is a president who doesn’t even control his own political party, the Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle, known by its Indonesian initials, PDI-P. His main source of support, the Indonesian public, is only heard in elections, scheduled for every five years.

As he took up his precarious position as Indonesia’s new chief executive last October, Jokowi seems to have assessed that the biggest threats to his presidency were the very institutions that are supposed to safeguard security and democracy: the military, the police and political parties like the PDI-P. He immediately started making concessions to them, hoping these concessions would win him sufficient stability to push through reforms in other areas: tackling the oil mafia, the illegal logging industry, and foreign threats while improving the social security net. These concessions are Jokowi’s gamble.

Last December, Jokowi announced an 18 percent increase in the annual police budget. In April this year, after balking at making Budi Gunawan the leader of the National Police, Jokowi acceded to the wishes of PDI-P leader Megawati Sukarnoputri to allow Gunawan, her close personal friend and ally,to be appointed as deputy police chief. This move seemed aimed at pleasing Megawati and senior police rather than pleasing the public, as Gunawan had previously been under investigation for corruption. Earlier this month, Jokowi even stood by while the corrupt national police asserted their right to ‘help’ select new commissioners for the Corruption Eradication Commission. These concessions have allowed his relationship with PDIP and senior police to remain on manageable terms.

In November 2014, Jokowi approved military plans to build two new army commands: one in Papua and the other in Sulawesi. His concessions to the military are an attempt to befriend an institution that has played a role in the early departures of two previous civilian presidents: Habibie in 1999 and Wahid in 2001.

These concessions are also an attempt to empower the military as a counterbalance to the increasingly arrogant police force. However one think tank has warned that the more the military extend their influence in civilian life, “The greater their political clout and the harder it will be to extract them, especially given that they are effectively immune from prosecution under civil law."

Jokowi’s relationship to the military and police mirrors Megawati’s. During her four years as president from 2001 to 2004, she also made huge concessions to the military to help stabilize her presidency. And when Megawati established the Corruption Eradication Commission in 2003, she kept the police happy by appointing a crony former police officer, Taufiequrahman Ruki, as one of its leaders. To placate the police, Jokowi has brought Ruki back as a leader of the Corruption Eradication Commission in 2015.

While safeguarding himself against political maneuvers by the military, police force and PDIP, Jokowi has begun to take on other groups. In November 2014, he took on the illegal logging industry, maintaining a six-month moratorium on the issuance of all forest-exploitation permits that began under the previous government. In May, he renewed the moratorium. Also in May, he took steps against Indonesia’s powerful oil mafia via a newly-established anti-energy mafia committee that has succeeded in disbanding three corrupt government institutions: Pertamina Energy Trading Limited (PETRAL) and two of its subsidiaries.

For reasons either of domestic politics or real conviction, Jokowi has identified new foreign adversaries. He has ordered the burning of encroaching fishing vessels and executed foreign drug smugglers. A decision to ban transactions and invoicing in US dollars is scheduled to come into effect on July 1, expected to cause chaos in the business community. Jokowi has also taken on opposition parties, who said his health cards and smart cards to expand social welfare were insufficiently explained and unclearly financed.

So here’s the gamble. By allowing the resurgence of the police force and military as major players in Indonesian politics, and making concessions to powerful parliamentary groups like PDIP, can Jokowi buy enough peace to pass through reforms in other areas? Environmental groups have expressed doubts about Jokowi’s ability to protect forests. Earlier this year, they noted that while rates of illegal logging have declined steadily in recent years, the legalized conversion of forests to plantations for palm oil has gone through the roof. Environmental activists aren’t feeling very safe either, since one was murdered in March 2015 in Jambi province and another in May 2015.

The oil mafia does not seem too concerned at this stage about Jokowi’s anti-energy mafia committee. Jokowi’s anti-energy mafia committee can only be considered effective once the oil mafia, through its proxies in the national parliament and in other institutions, begins to fight back. Jokowi’s assertiveness against foreign threats has won domestic support but damaged international relations.

The most positive reform has been the introduction of health cards and smart cards to improve access to health and social welfare services for the poor. Distribution has accelerated in recent months after the Indonesian parliament passed Jokowi’s budget in January 2015.

Jokowi, with no background in the military and no national political experience, may see acquiescing to powerful institutions as his best chance to survive. He is currently on track for a legacy of improved social services for the very poor, and that’s long overdue in Indonesia. But will Jokowi’s era of Megawati-inspired "stability" only be achieved through steps backwards in law enforcement, environmental protection, international relations and democracy?

Warren Doull (a pseudonym) has lived and worked extensively in Indonesia and Timor Leste, including for the United Nations Transitional Administration in East Timor in 2002.