'Proxy Wars' Threaten Indonesia, Say Generals

Since 2014, a new ideology has been rising in Indonesia that might be called “fear of foreign proxies” and that emphasizes a threat to Indonesia from proxy wars.

According to Indonesian Army chief of staff General Gatot Nurmantyo, the "proxies" include shadowy organizations that defy identification but nonetheless constitute an unspecified but growing threat –small countries, NGOs, mass media or individuals acting as stand-ins for more powerful hidden entities out to attack Indonesia’s interests.

These threats, Gatot implied, could include Indonesians. In fact, his list seemed to include many organizations that might demand accountability from the rapidly consolidating power of the oligarchy. As "fear of foreign proxies" spreads, these organizations or individuals may find it more difficult to criticize corruption, environmental pillaging and trampling of ethnic groups because oligarchies may label them as proxies for foreign interests.

Could this new ideology be manipulated by Indonesia’s elites to consolidate their growing power and block dissent? Could the threat of foreign proxies replace the Suharto-era threat of communism, allowing Indonesia’s oligarchs to brand dissenters as proxies?

In April 2014, Gen. Gatot told university students in Bandung that “proxy wars” present a growing threat to Indonesia and that Indonesian youth have a role to play in defending against them. Since the election of President Joko Widodo, this ideology has been gaining momentum. In September 2014, Gatot warned students in Jogyakarta about the threats. In early October 2014, Hanura parliamentarian Susaningtyas Kertopati joined him.

In mid- October 2014, Gatot was spreading the ideology to eastern Indonesia. He told university students in Ambon that the spread of narcotics into Indonesia was part of an international conspiracy to destroy the country. Then he continued on to Merauke and told Papuans that oil interests had used a proxy war in 1999 to separate Timor-Leste from Indonesia. At the end of October, he was telling university students in Bali that foreign interests might seek to restrict development and education. Similarly in October 2014, other military officials ran a seminar in Lampung titled “the role of youth in facing proxy wars.”

This emerging ideology appears largely to have escaped the attention of the English language media so most links in this article are to Bahasa Indonesia news sites.

By November 2014, warnings about “proxy wars” were spreading fast. The military was warning high school kids about the threat. University students in Depok, South Jakarta, were warned against foreign interests who recruit Indonesia’s younger generation with indoctrination, education facilities and materials, so that they would become agents of foreign countries.

In 2015, the military campaign against “proxies” has continued. The Jakarta Post finally reported on visits by Gatot to Semarang and Medan in March and April, when he said East Timor was lost because of a proxy war involving the Sunrise oil field. He failed to mention a 25-year history of Indonesian military atrocities as a contributing factor.

Why now? Proxy wars are not new. Many conflicts before and during the Cold War were proxy wars, including some would say Indonesia's purges in 1965 and occupation of East Timor in 1975. One thing that may be new is that the national legislature and police force have become the most corrupt institutions in Indonesia and have, since mid-2014, been consolidating their power.

Parliamentarians’ attempts to undermine others who might challenge them began with an unsuccessful attempt in mid-2014 to have provincial governors appointed not by direct election but by local parliaments. In early 2015, parliamentarians and senior police tried to cripple the nation’s Corruption Eradication Commission [KPK] with a string of arrests of KPK officials who challenged the appointment of a plainly corrupt national police chief. There is a growing risk that the military’s proxy war ideology may be harnessed to go after other Indonesian organizations that might challenge them.

Like all other nationalities, Indonesians may need to be wary of being caught up in proxy wars. Xenophobia is not healthy but wariness and the ability to critically analyze foreign interests is certainly healthy. But Indonesians also need to critically analyze the selfish interests of their own elites.

If the KPK is neutralized, NGOs and civil society organizations are two remaining voices trying to hold the oligarchs accountable. What may have started as a well-intentioned campaign by the military may be manipulated by elites to less nationalistic purposes.

Voices of dissent are now vulnerable to being branded as proxies if they speak out in favor of improved government accountability, stricter controls over environmental exploitation, respect for marginalized ethnic groups, workers’ rights and improved government services for the nation’s millions of poor people. If this happens, Indonesia will slip further into the noose of a legislative-police-oligarchy triumvirate whose recent treatment of the KPK suggests their first priority is their own bank accounts.

Warren Doull is a pseudonym. He worked for UNTAET in Timor-Leste in 2001-2002 and has also lived and worked extensively in Indonesia.