Is Indonesia’s Military Chief Making a New Political Power Play?for The Diplomat
Indonesian military (TNI) commander General Gatot Nurmantyo has positioned himself as the new bête noire of Indonesian politics. He’s not the black creature of the French expression, but double green – the Army, the ultimate defender of the republic, and Islam. Nurmantyo, it seems, is making a play for political power through an appeal to both nationalism and Islam, a potent combination.
Long a controversial figure, he is set to retire in six months’ time. Over the past few weeks, he has been outspoken on a number of sensationalist issues. Previous attempts to stake a political position were pulled back by President Joko Widodo. But this time Nurmantyo appears to have thrown off the shackles, while formally still declaring his submission to his supreme commander.
In the post-fact world popularized by the United States’ 45th president, Donald Trump, the Indonesian elite is embarking on another play of an old theme, perhaps to remind the world that post-fact discourses are an age-old art form in their country.
Much heat has been generated by Nurmantyo’s order of September 18 that all military personnel should watch The Betrayal of G30S/PKI, the classic propaganda movie that has framed Indonesians’ concept of their recent past since it was first screened to the nation in 1984.
The title of the G30S movie refers to the September 30 movement, when a coup attempt blamed on the Indonesian Communist Party (PKI) in 1965 sparked one of the worst bloodbaths of the 20th century.
Nurmantyo further raised the heat over the issue by publicly lambasting Defense Minister Ryamizard Ryacudu, who contested the order, stating that he doesn’t take orders from the minister but only the president.
Then, on September 22, Nurmantyo told a meeting of retired senior officers that non-military institutions were about to import 5,000 firearms, insisting that only the military and police were allowed to use weapons.
The general threatened to attack any institution if it owns weapons capable of destroying tanks, planes, and ships because “only the military has the right to possess such weapons.”
To informed observers, the suggestion that some unnamed force was about to obtain armaments capable of taking out “tanks, planes and ships” is a very obvious echo of a 1965 plan hatched by PKI sympathizer and Air Force commander Omar Dhani to ship in 100,000 weapons to arm a “fifth force” that would essentially have been an armed PKI militia.
Dhani’s action was seen at the time as an attempt to lever the PKI into effective power by sidelining the military. Jakarta in 1965 was filled with rumors that a clash was coming between the PKI and the military, rumors that proved correct when rebel officers led a short-lived takeover of the capital after abducting and killing six generals. Whether the PKI was actually behind the coup attempt is a factor that has been conveniently ignored.
Is history repeating itself? Nurmantyo appears keen to convince the nation that a new attempt to overthrow established authority is in the making. The general, who gave an indication of where he stands in the political mix last December when he appeared at a major Muslim demonstration wearing a white prayer cap, has now won immediate support from those same Muslim hardliners, to whom the PKI is anathema.
Self-exiled leader of the Islamic Defenders Front (FPI) Rizieq Shihab, in a speech recorded to commemorate Islamic New Year on September 21, accused the authorities and law enforcers of allowing the PKI to regain its foothold in the country.
According to Shihab, the resurgence of the PKI is part of concerted attacks against Muslims by the government. “The PKI continues to launch dangerous movements across the country, as their sympathizers are allowed to hold various activities by law enforcement personnel,” he said, according to a report in the Jawa Pos.
Shihab added that this further confirmed that Indonesia has been overpowered by foreign countries, particularly China. “Our country is sold to foreign powers and China,” he said, calling on his supporters to continue waging war against the enemies of Islam. He stressed that there could be no reconciliation with any party that attacked adherents of the religion.
The website Portal Islam has declared Nurmantyo “the best general for the Muslim faithful and the people of Indonesia.”
It is no coincidence that the TNI commander is due for retirement next March. In speaking out now and stirring up a major issue – albeit without any apparent foundation – he appears to be setting himself up for a new career in political life. His use of the anniversary of the attempted coup and with Armed Forces Day celebrated on October 5 provide plenty of scope for grandstanding in the public eye, giving him the chance to dominate the national discourse and raise fears of a new ‘communist’ takeover.
A Shortage of Evidence
The lack of any evidence to support Nurmantyo’s argument that the nation is under threat from leftist sources has done little to minimize the impact. The PKI issue was never difficult to drag out of the treasure chest of potent and ever-lasting bones of contention, the “latent danger” often scrawled on walls.
A forlorn meeting on September 16 of activists, some of them the descendants of persons banned from all public life, who had often spent decades in jail, provided the excuse for the country’s latest set of conspiracy theorists to start a hue and cry.
The police averted any direct confrontation on that occasion, but an event the following evening, staged as a music and art performance at the Indonesian Legal Aid Foundation (YLBH) saw an assault by purported hardline thugs who tried to force their way into the building. They claimed that communist supporters were attending the meeting.
A non-event was thus posited as evidence of a major underground movement to overthrow the state and sideline the Muslim majority. Meanwhile Nurmantyo’s claim that weapons are being imported for shadowy institutions with a hidden agenda also appears to be baseless.
“There are certain parties who seek top positions through immoral ways and I promise I will make them whine, not only cry, even when generals are involved,” he told the meeting of military retirees. “It is dangerous when TNI (members) play politics; it will deny us our rights and it is the start of all the fighting, of the demise of this country. We will do anything (to prevent that) and we are looking for your blessings.”
His comments on the weapons were quickly dismissed by Coordinating Minister for Politics, Security and Legal Affairs Wiranto, who told a press conference on September 25 that 500 weapons were involved, not 5,000, and that they were for the use of the State Intelligence Agency (BIN). Ryacudu also told reporters that there was no substance to Nurmantyo’s claims, brandishing a letter from the Defense Minister authorizing the purchases.
Redder Than The Reds
President Joko Widodo is now the latest target of an old game of ‘who is strongest against the reds.’ Conveniently for the contestants in the battle over who will lead Indonesia in 2019, the president is under pressure to address inequality, but doing anything about it could easily be misconstrued as socialist in tone.
Widodo has actively courted Chinese money to fund his drive to modernize the economy. When seeking election, rumors circulated that the Javanese former furniture businessman was actually Chinese.
The issues being stirred up are potent. Nurmantyo’s insinuation that something close to an insurrection could be being planned will appall the stoutly nationalist. Allegations that the PKI is making a return and threatening Islam in Indonesia speaks to many of the Muslim faithful, particularly the hard-liners who showed their power in ousting former Jakarta governor Basuki Tjahaja Purnama (popularly known as Ahok) and put him in jail earlier this year.
At the Center for Southeast Asian Studies-Indonesia, director Yosef Djakababa explains why the PKI issue has been wheeled out. “The PKI has been a convenient scapegoat since the New Order era when the government criminalized so many people with accusation (of involvement with) the PKI. The tendency continues today, in which anyone can be discredited by accusing him or her of being involved in the PKI. It is an effective way for mass mobilization behind a political move. Moreover, there is no agreement by the government about the actual history and how it should be presented. Mass mobilization becomes easier by labeling communism as anti-religion, so that hard-liners (Muslims) will beat up those who are accused of communist.”
While Widodo tries hard to get around the country and press the flesh, his response to all of the rhetoric has been restrained. He has suggested that it might be a good idea to make a new version of the events of 1965 rather than allow the much-contested position portrayal of Arifin C. Noer’s movie to dominate the discourse. There has been much debate in the public sphere about what such a movie should portray, but it can be guaranteed that the PKI, once the third largest communist party in the world, would continue to be the villain.
The film, and the associated decades-long program of brainwashing of an entire nation, created a convenient bogey man to be trotted out at any time elite groups want to test the strength of an opponent. The anti-communist rhetoric is the perennial antidote to any group that challenges the status quo.
Nurmantyo’s allies have reinforced his message. Retired Lt. Gen. Kiki Syahnakri, head of the Association of Retired Army Personnel (PPAD), in an op-ed in Kompas daily on September 26, stated that “… what is claimed as a move to promote human rights and to straighten out history (the debate over some form of reconciliation for victims of the 1965 purges) is actually an attempt of one party/group to cleanse/restore its reputation, monopolize truth and at the same time lay the blame on other parties.”
Maj. Gen. Kivlan Zein, who continues to face charges of sedition himself, has been prominent in the campaign against the so-called PKI masses. In the past he has claimed that the PKI is no longer a latent threat, but a real and present one with a large membership and its own headquarters.
Opposing this push is the normal collection of activists constantly present on the frontline of Indonesian civil society. Hendardi, head of the Setara Institute for Democracy and Peace, claimed that “the TNI commander is demonstrating a poor example to soldiers, who up until now have been disciplined to develop good relations with the police…”
“He is involving those soldiers in a serious conflict of interests that can only benefit the TNI commander himself, who throughout the month of September has been trying to grab public attention with hateful and destructive comments… He is maneuvering to find new enemies, not in the interest of the nation but for his own short-term political advantage.” Hendardi’s advice to Widodo is to be cautious, since Nurmantyo is clearly seeking to raise his political profile.
Rachland Nashidik, a former director of NGO Imparsial and now a leading figure in Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono’s Democratic Party, states that Nurmantyo has overstepped his authority. In a statement, he said the general should not have shared intelligence on the proposed weapons purchase with retired officers, since such information is supposed to be purely for the president to hear. Instead the information was aired at a meeting at which members of the media were present and immediately spread the information into the public sphere.
More important, he argued, was that Nurmantyo’s threat to attack any group that tried to gain military force was in conflict with his authority. Such policy decisions could only be taken by government officials chosen by a democratic election. His responsibility under the law on TNI is to follow orders, not to create policies, he said.
“For the sustainability of democracy, we should all be able to understand that an order for 5,000 weapons by the intelligence agency – assuming that is correct – is little different from a TNI commander who plays politics and overshoots his authority.”
Dr. Najib Azca, head of the Center for Security and Peace Studies at Gadjah Mada University, writing in the new Indonesian edition of the Conversation, sees a clear link between recent events and the coming presidential election. The attack on the YLBH event was a follow-up to the “Defend Islam Action” that colored so much of the country’s political landscape at the end of last year. “Within Islamic political circles, the issue of communism has strong appeal,” he noted.
Islamic political actors are stirring up fears of a new threat to Islam, a potent message guaranteed to win support from the Muslim faithful. “It is an effective marketing strategy because it is able to touch the nerve of political mobilization. The effect is remarkable: people are prepared to sacrifice, as members of a collective movement, to defend and support Islam.”
Nurmantyo, he says, is portraying himself as “green-green” – a military man who is at the same time a defender of Islam. “Political Islam on the whole is extremely disappointed with the government. A construction has emerged in which the Widodo government and the National Police are persecuting religious teachers and Islamic groups. There is an accusation that the government is anti-Islam and supports a revival of communism.” Widodo and National Police chief Gen. Tito Karnavian are under pressure to demonstrate that they are not “pro-PKI,” he states.
Proxy War Theorist
Nurmantyo has been the subject of controversy ever since 2014, when he began a series of speeches at universities warning students that shadowy forces were attempting to erode Indonesia’s independence in order to grab its natural resources.
In 2015 he released a booklet in which he accused foreign powers of trying to infiltrate almost all segments of Indonesian society, ranging from the education system and media to Islamic organizations, corporations and political parties. He also views narcotics and a permissive culture as foreign ploys to weaken the nation.
In December that year he told a national defense seminar in Makassar, South Sulawesi, that “foreign powers will try to control the national media, disrupt the country’s social fabric, instigate internal disputes between the TNI and the National Police and also instigate disputes among the political parties and increase the smuggling of narcotics.”
Conflicts currently occurring in the Middle East could shift towards countries near the equator, he said. “Currently, 70 percent of the conflicts in the world are instigated because of the demand for energy. But in the future, the struggle for energy would shift towards instigated wars to gain access to food, energy and water.”
Many observers believe that Nurmantyo’s main interest is not defending the nation from shadowy forces poised to attack it by non-military means, but improving his own political position. Now firmly allied with right-wing Islamic forces, he represents a mounting problem for the president.
On September 27, he attended a discussion of the G30S issue held by the opposition Prosperous Justice Party (PKS) and was reported to have praised the party for its consistency and told senior party officials he was ‘proud’ to be at the event.
Nurmantyo could be hoping he will appeal to opposition parties as a suitable challenger to Widodo at the 2019 presidential elections. To achieve that, he would need the support of Greater Indonesia Movement (Gerindra) founder Prabowo Subianto, long expected to mount his own challenge to Widodo in an attempt to reverse his 2014 defeat.
An alternative theory is that he is bucking to be chosen as Widodo’s running mate in the 2019 election. That, the theorists hold, would undermine Subianto’s support base among nationalist and Muslim groups.
Widodo does not need to take Nurmantyo’s ambitions too seriously. Results released on September 29 of a poll conducted by respected Saiful Mujani Research and Consulting showed that 86.8% of its 1,220 respondents did not believe that the PKI has made a return. Only 5% of respondents believed that the PKI was a current threat.
Arya Fernandes, a researcher at Jakarta-based think-tank the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), says the floating of the PKI issue lacks potency. “From the electoral point of view, throughout the reform period (since the end of the Suharto era) the use of the communism issue has empirically given no significant impact on the number of voters.
“Nurmantyo has detected an opportunity to run in the presidential election if Subianto decides to back off as they have similar voters’ characteristics. Subianto has suffered stagnation of votes to 20%-30%.”
In January this year, rumors were flying that Widodo planned to replace his senior commander, after Nurmantyo was seen to have unnecessarily stirred up a dispute with Australia about some insulting material at a military training exercise in Perth. But Widodo chose not to act, presumably feeling that it was better to leave the general where he could keep a close eye on him rather than have him scheming from a desk at Armed Forces headquarters while he waited out his retirement.
That retirement is now coming closer and Widodo will soon have to make a decision on when to sack Nurmantyo. For many in Widodo’s government, not least Wiranto and Ryacudu, it appears that relegation to the back benches for Nurmantyo could not come soon enough.
Keith Loveard, Shinta Eka Puspasari, and Nalendra Yusa Faidil are analysts at the Jakarta-based Concord Consulting.