Indonesia still struggling to keep its generals confined to barracks
Indonesia’s democracy still faces the New Order legacy of military ambition within civilian political institutions, even after 19 years of reformation and the retreat from politics of the Indonesian military (known in Indonesian as the Tentara Nasional Indonesia, or TNI). The recent public displays of political aspiration by former general Gatot Nurmantyo provide an illustrative example.
Nurmantyo pursued controversy during his leadership as a TNI commander. He attended a politically motivated mass rally in 2016 and presented a series of lectures at a number of universities and Islamic boarding houses. He also gave speeches at several political party events. These political acts reflect the struggle of Indonesian political institutions to manage the legacy of Suharto-era military-backed authoritarianism.
The TNI is grappling with how to best respond to three key issues: institutional constraints on the political ambitions of its high-ranking officers, the growing concerns of conservative religious identities and military modernisation.
For some analysts, Nurmantyo’s political bravado does not automatically indicate a setback to Indonesian democracy, since it may represent only individual political ambition. As an institution, the TNI has extricated itself from national and local political institutions. The military focusses much of its attention on external threats and focusses comparatively little on internal threats.
But while the TNI has no role in politics, it is involved in activities that are not directly military, such as turning soldiers’ houses into detention centres for corruptors; building and protecting vital infrastructure and engaging in government programs, such as food self-sufficiency.
The result of all this is a complicated picture of the extent to which the TNI can achieve professionalisation, modernisation and regional influence.
Nurmantyo’s ambition to be active in political matters is not unique in recent decades. In their waning days of service, some high-ranking officers run for regional and national elections instead of remaining neutral. This raises the question of how the TNI can control these political aspirations.
Internal military reform began with the abolition of the TNI dual-function in 2000, and was institutionalised under the 2004 TNI Law, but could not generate strong institutional constraints on the political aspirations of senior military officers. The TNI Law requires officers to be neutral and resign from their military positions before running for elections, but it does not specifically address potential abuses of power by officers using their military positions and facilities for their own political gains (particularly to boost their profiles prior to elections).
Since the end of Suharto’s New Order, the TNI has redefined its role in Indonesian democracy and in relation to Islamic identity politics. Islamic political groups and their proponents have grown in power over the past three years, especially in terms of their ability to mobilise supporters. During the early reformation, the military used Muslim groups to underpin its previous dominance. More recently, Indonesia’s consolidated democracy provides an arena for both conservative Islamic groups and the military to express their complementary interests. For conservative Islamic groups, the TNI’s support boosts their bargaining power towards entities that they consider an ‘enemy of Islam’ — including the current administration. Likewise, the military manipulates Islamic voices to underpin its role outside of its defence-related duties.
As a result, civilian oversight of the TNI’s primary functions remains weak. Conservative Islamic groups and the TNI have both received greater public attention due partly to their exploitation of one of Indonesian President Joko Widodo’s political weaknesses: his lack of a stronghold in either the Islamic grassroots or the military.
In line with this weak oversight, Nurmantyo’s reign as TNI commander did little to further the President’s ambitious Global Maritime Fulcrum, and the military’s full response to this plan is still unclear. Nurmantyo displayed limited interest in charting a course for the TNI to help Indonesia become a global maritime fulcrum for Asia.
The Indonesian Navy is transforming its brown-water navy (a navy that can operate only in fluvial and immediate coastal regions) into a green-water navy (a navy that can operate further out in a country’s territorial waters). This is intended to boost Indonesia’s naval projection power at the regional level. Accordingly, the Navy Blueprint 2013 calls for Indonesia to have a 274-ship force structure, 12 submarines and three independent fleets operating across the country by 2024.
This plan is insufficient to cover strategic shipping routes, such as the Strait of Malacca and the Strait of Lombok — both of which are critical for Indonesia to be a ‘global maritime fulcrum’. In addition, the Navy’s capability and credibility to act as a guardian in protecting sea lanes and international navigation channels that pass through Indonesian waters is questionable. Given that the Indonesian Navy has long suffered from a defence budget that is insufficient to upgrade its military vessels, developing a green-water navy capability by 2024 may be too ambitious.
The Navy also struggles to manage shipping and the quality of its seaports — the baseline of the Indonesian maritime fulcrum. To further complicate the story, the Indonesian maritime policy lacks strong coordination among the 13 maritime security agencies. Interagency clashes are not uncommon and the Navy lacks the authority to act as a central command. A strategic plan and a complicated maritime regime were absent during Nurmantyo’s leadership.
Given these many complications, Nurmantyo’s profile as a TNI commander should elicit concern about how the Indonesian government deals with the legacy of the authoritarian regime, particularly with regard to controlling the political aspirations of officers. Managing these ambitions will have a profound effect not only on the democratic system but also on military modernisation.
Hipolitus Yolisandry Ringgi Wangge is a Researcher at the Marthinus Academy in Jakarta.