Saturday, March 31, 2012
Indonesia's army Seeking a modern role
THE INDIAN OCEAN tsunami of 2004 exposed the Indonesian army for what it was: outdated, ill-equipped and demoralised. As numerous foreign forces, led by America and Australia, flooded into Indonesia’s ravaged Aceh province to deliver aid and conduct search-and-rescue missions, the local troops were reduced to spectators. The Indonesian army had been banned from buying American military equipment due to human-rights abuses in its former province of East Timor (now the independent Timor-Leste) and other separatist-minded regions, and as a result it didn’t have enough helicopters or aircraft on call to meet demands for food, water and medicine.
Indonesian soldiers spent the first days after the disaster acting as labourers, unloading supplies off American navy helicopters and delivering them to survivors of the earthquake-triggered tsunami, which killed more than 177,000 people in Aceh alone.
Indonesia’s then-new president, Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, took this humiliation personally. A former general, Mr Yudhoyono made modernising the armed forces a priority of his administration, which is now halfway through its second and final five-year term. The country’s 2012 defence budget of $8 billion, up from $2.6 billion in 2006, is the largest it's been—relative to GDP—for 20 years. Yet according to Ernest Bower, the South-East Asia programme director at the Centre for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, DC, this budget remains rather modest for a country of 240m people. Neighbouring Singapore, with little more than 5m people, is spending $9.7 billion on defence this year.
Among the key facets of Indonesia’s military modernisation programme, which aims by 2024 to create the minimum force required to defend the country's territorial integrity, are hardware and spare parts. It has procured Russian and American warplanes, boats for its navy and parts for its C-130 transport planes. In January, Indonesia signed a $1.1 billion deal for three German-made diesel-electric submarines, and lawmakers and army chiefs are currently debating whether to pay the Netherlands $600m for 100 used Leopard tanks. Mr Yudhoyono has also stressed improvements to the welfare of soldiers, ranging from better firearms to better salaries, health care and living conditions. They are also undergoing human-rights training.
Yet it will take much more than airplanes and new barracks to enable Indonesia’s 980,000-strong armed forces to catch up with their smaller but better equipped neighbours. Analysts say the army is being held back by its own resistance to change. It evolved from a “people’s army” that fought for independence from the Dutch after the second world war to the iron fist of the late autocratic presidents Sukarno and Suharto. The army played a dual role in both politics and national defence, but its enemies, real and perceived, were internal. Andi Widjajanto, a military analyst, notes that of 249 operations conducted by Indonesian forces between 1945 and 2009, 67% were against internal threats including separatist groups and religious and ethnic extremists.
After democracy emerged in Indonesia following Mr Suharto’s forced resignation in 1998, the humiliated army soon lost its dual role, which included reserved seats in parliament, and returned to barracks amid calls for criminal trials for its past human-rights abuses. While analysts have applauded the army’s recent shift in focus to national defence, assistance in natural disasters and modernisation, some like Yohanes Sulaiman, a lecturer at the Indonesian Defence University, say there hasn’t been a true epiphany about reform. “It’s very difficult to change the mentality," he says. "They think the threat is still inside. And by focusing on internal threats, they get more budget money.” He also reckons the army’s procurements, while less graft-ridden than in the past, are not necessarily good ones because there is no grand strategy regarding defence from an external threat. “They aren’t thinking about what they need,” Mr Sulaiman says. “They think, ‘Well, other countries have these shiny tanks. We should have them too.’”
In a commentary published in Strategic Review, an English-language policy journal based in Indonesia, Mr Widjajanto says the armed forces have suffered for decades from a “weak state” mentality that makes it impossible to push through more initiatives to create a modern fighting force. Mr Sulaiman says the country’s top brass fully understand the need to reform, but that this would require painful changes in spending and forced retirements of senior officers. “There would be resistance and it would create political instability,” he comments. And that, as Indonesia moves closer to the most wide-open presidential election in its history in 2014, is the last thing this emerging democracy wants right now. Banyan for The Economist
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