Indonesia’s military and police locked in presidential tug-of-war

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Indonesian military chief General Gatot Nurmantyo (left) and National Police chief General Tito Karnavian. Image: Yudhi Mahatma/Antara

ANALYSIS: By Johannes Nugroho (Part 1)

Since its inception in 2014, President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo’s administration has witnessed growing rivalry between the Indonesian Military (TNI) and the National Police for political clout and access to the president.

For his part, Jokowi has shown himself to be more pragmatic than idealistic in his approach to the armed forces, willing to work with either according to his own political needs.

While the vying for political influence by the military and the police is nothing new in Indonesia, it may have significant ramifications for the development of democracy in the country.

Since the foundation of the republic, the armed forces both the military and the police have always had access to both political and economic power in varying degrees.

In the 1950s, President Sukarno relied heavily on the military to suppress rebellions in the provinces. Consequently, as quid pro quo, when the country decided to seize major foreign companies in 1958, army generals suddenly became corporate commissaries and quite a few sat at the boards of the newly nationalised companies.

Under his successor, Suharto, ABRI (the merger of the army, navy, air force and the police) became the government’s backbone for much of his 30-year rule under the dwifungsi (dual function) doctrine, allowing the military unprecedented political and economic access.

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Regional leaders such as regents, mayors and governors were often retired military officers. Since Suharto was a former army general, his old corps became predominant among the forces.

Civilian political supremacy
After the fall of Suharto in 1998, the precept of civilian political supremacy over the military became paramount. Hence, President Abdurrahman Wahid in 2000 formally abolished dwifungsi and detached the police from the military. ABRI was no more.

It was now TNI and the National Police. The aim of the abolition was to “return the troops to the barracks” and confine them there, in effect restoring their original function as professional soldiers subservient to civilian rule.

Almost 20 years on, the stereotype among Indonesians that ex-military men make better leaders because they are “tough” is still prevalent. During his first presidential campaign at least, President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, or SBY, gained considerable support owing to his background as a former army general.

The election of Jokowi as president in 2014 may have given the impression that the constituent no longer craved for a leader with military background of which Jokowi’s rival Prabowo Subianto was one but it is worth pointing out that Jokowi’s small victory margin was not reassuring.

More recently, the eldest son of SBY, Agus Harimurti, resigned his commission from the army to enter the Jakarta gubernatorial election as a candidate. He initially performed well in the polls, suggesting that the voters may have seen his military background as desirable.

Apart from rivalry between the forces within TNI, ever since the detachment of the police from the military, TNI has cast a covetous eye upon its one-time brother corps. As the only armed force to have legal and formal jurisdiction over civilian matters, police personnel consequently have better economic access.

To add insult to injury, the police force is also entitled to its own independent budget, which is comparatively bigger than each of the three forces gets. For example, in 2013 the police received Rp 47 trillion (US$3.53 billion) in government funding while TNI had to split its 96.4 trillion among the army, navy and air force.

Changing the rules
However, having an eminently civilian president like Jokowi has perhaps changed the rules of the game when it comes to competition between the forces within TNI and concurrently TNI vis a vis the police.

A president with no loyalty to any of the forces like Suharto or SBY was literally up for grabs. It is no wonder the three forces and the police have been doing their best to make the president beholden to them.

Yet Jokowi’s response proves to be mercurial. At the onset of his presidency, he often spoke grandiosely of the need to return to the archipelago’s roots as a seafaring power, even quoting the navy’s motto “Jalesveva Jayamahe” (“At sea, we triumph”) in his inaugural speech and outlining his vision for Indonesia as the global maritime fulcrum.

It was initially thought that the president would prioritise the modernisation of Indonesia’s ageing naval equipment and weaponry to help realise his maritime vision.

In view of the rising tension in the South China Sea between China and other claimant states particularly after it was revealed that China claims a portion of the Natuna Sea upgrading the navy’s capabilities would have made sense.

But early on the expectation was shattered when he selected Ryamizard Ryacudu, a former army general, to become defence minister, a post even under SBY that was always held by civilians.

Then when the time came for him to choose the replacement for the outgoing TNI commander General Moeldoko in 2015, he selected General Gatot Nurmantyo.

Controversial choice
The president’s choice was controversial in two ways: first, although it was his prerogative to choose whomever he thought fit, the convention established under President Abdurrahman Wahid and supported by a 2004 law mandated that the post be filled in by Air Marshall Agus Supriatna from the Air Force since the Army had had its turn in Moeldoko.

Second, Gatot was known to have preached about a conspiracy theory dubbed “proxy war” by which he argued that various foreign powers were waging war against Indonesia through indirect agents and issues.

Interestingly, Ryamizard has also publicly endorsed the theory and between the two of them, they have named narcotics, communism, LGBT movement, liberalism and foreign-funded NGOs as examples.

It is possible that Jokowi had been impressed by Nurmantyo’s fiery patriotism when he was the Army chief-of-staff but the latter’s tenure so far as TNI commander has been marred by embarrassing incidents, chief of which was the unilateral suspension of military cooperation with Australia over allegedly insulting material to the state ideology Pancasila spotted by TNI personnel at an Australian military base.

Even though Jokowi half-heartedly defended Nurmantyo’s decision later, his initial disclaimer of knowledge suggested that he had never been consulted by the general over the decision.

Nevertheless, the military cooperation suspension proved to be popular with the Indonesian public, many of whom thought the general had acted out of nationalism. While to punish the general severely for what was a popular stunt might have been impolitic of Jokowi, the fact that the TNI commander dared bypass the president, in theory commander-in-chief of the Army, because he thought he had a “winner” case illustrates how relatively circumstantial proper code of conduct is in the governance of Indonesia.

Johannes Nugroho is a Jakarta writer, political analyst and history aficionado and a columnist at the Jakarta Globe. This article was first published in the Globe. Part 2 in this series will be published tomorrow.

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