Indonesians Fear Increased Military Role in Politics

JAKARTA – While the Indonesian military,or TNI, for the first time will not hold any seats in the new House of Representatives, Indonesian legislators, however, with only hours remaining in their mandate approved a controversial new law cementing the TNI’s political power.

A bill aimed at redefining the role of the Indonesian military was approved last Thursday by the pro-TNI House of Representatives in the dying hours of its five-year mandate that ends on Oct. 30.

The final draft, although presenting a watered-down version of some of the most controversial articles, rephrased but preserved the Indonesian military’s territorial role – what most consider as being the heart and soul of the TNI’s political influence in the country.

It also failed to bring the TNI under the control of the civilian-run Defense Ministry and left it under the sole command of the president, who can call upon the military’s intervention in case of unspecified emergency without House approval. The legislative body’s approval is needed only after two days of the military intervention.

Furthermore, the bill granted the TNI wider and unspecified powers to fight terrorism and the authority to deploy troops before seeking permission from any institution. It also allowed military officers to take up civilian positions, although it limited them to jobs that require military skills. Military officers in such positions will be answerable to the TNI commander rather than the government – in essence a parallel administration.

Nonetheless, the new legislation did have wording that essentially seeks to curtail the TNI’s business empire and put it under the scrutiny of the government.

The bill, aimed at defining the role of the military after the downfall of former dictator Gen. Suharto in 1998, was seen as a compromise between the demands of rights groups who want the military under total civilian control and those generals keen to keep their privileges.

During his 32-year-reign, Suharto used the military to quell any government opposition and granted serving officers key government and legislative posts.

"The passage of the TNI bill is a step backward that totally undermines civilian control of the military and allows the TNI to reassert its political role," said John M. Miller, media coordinator of the U.S.-based East Timor Action Network.

Solahuddin Wahid, former deputy chairman of Indonesian National Commission on Human Rights (Komnas HAM) agreed in principle that the TNI’s presence in society was too pervasive, but said that there was no current real alternative to it.

"The circumstances are not as good as we had hoped after the reformasi [reformation after Suharto], and society is not ready to take over all the roles covered by the TNI," he told IPS.

But he added that although the TNI should step back, it might take 10 years before the country is ready to relinquish the military’s territorial role.

The bill enshrined the TNI’s territorial role in the constitution and justified the deployment of "auxiliary" troops on the basis of defending the country against internal and external threats.

The territorial role, which allows for the presence of troops across the archipelago right down to the district and village levels, was the device used by Suharto to maintain complete control of the country.

Nowadays, it is the main tool used by the TNI to collude and interfere with local bureaucrats, businesspeople and politicians.

However, according to well-known reformist Lt. Gen. (ret.) Agus Widjojo, the new law provided a defense against possible TNI abuses.

"In the past, the TNI had the authority to intervene and mobilize civilian resources, but that is not the case anymore," he said, adding that now it is a matter of supervising things to make sure it does not happen anymore.

Yet the defense provided by the law did not convince Aguswandi, the head of research and advocacy of the Indonesian Human Rights Campaign (TAPOL).

Aguswandi said in an interview he believed that there could not be any real reform of the Indonesian military as long as it maintained its territorial role.

He stressed that such a huge presence was particularly detrimental as Indonesia was going through a decentralization process, and the centers of power were moving away from Jakarta to the regions.

"The TNI has adapted well to the new political situation. It doesn’t really need to have seats in the parliament, or in the cabinet, or in the central power in Jakarta, because the actual power is now mainly in the hands of regencies, districts and provinces," he said.

What was universally seen as a progressive move was the condition in the bill that instructed the Indonesian military to open the financial books on its vast business empire and subject it to the scrutiny of the government by 2009.

The TNI only receives 30 percent of its budget from the government and the balance is financed by various legal and illegal activities, including alleged extortion, illegal mining and logging, prostitution, gambling and the illegal trafficking of women, animals and drugs.

Most of these illegal activities are perpetrated in conflict areas such as Aceh, Papua and the Maluku Islands where the Indonesian military has built up a massive presence. Some believe the TNI purposefully maintains a state of instability to reap financial and political benefits.

The bill will come into effect in a month regardless of whether the outgoing president, Megawati Sukarnoputri, or the new president, Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, signs it.

That said, Yudhoyono has stated an intention to look at the bill and change it, if he sees it to be against the constitution or the military’s principles.

"Since it is my administration that will implement it, I think I have to study or even review the bill," The Jakarta Post quoted him on Friday.

Yudhoyono, a former four-star general himself, has won the presidential election in a landslide and is due to take the reins of the country on Oct. 20.

The victory of Yudhoyono is just one sign of the enduring influence of the TNI, which remains the country’s most powerful institution with deep influences branching into the country’s social and political life.

Four out of the ten presidential and vice-presidential candidates who started out in the first round were former generals and, significantly in the various post-Suharto governments, officials with military backgrounds have held the all-important civilian positions of chief minister of security and interior minister.