Arie Firdaus, Jakarta – A proposal to establish a regional command for the army in each of Indonesia's 38 provinces has sparked an outcry from human rights and security experts, who fear it could herald the return of the military's dominance over civilian affairs that ended with the fall of autocratic President Suharto in 1998.
The plan comes amid efforts by the military to revise a 2004 law that regulates its role and function, seeking to expand its involvement in government agencies and other non-military domains.
Indonesian Army Chief of Staff Gen. Dudung Abdurachman said in May the military wanted to establish 23 new regional commands, known as Kodam, to improve the army's readiness and responsiveness in case of emergencies or threats. The plan has the backing of Defense Minister Prabowo Subianto and Armed Forces Chief Adm. Yudo Margono, he said.
But the twin proposals have come under fire by human rights groups, who are wary of the military's history of violent suppression across the archipelago.
The Setara Institute, a human rights watchdog, said the plan would blur the line between military and civilian roles and reverse progress made by the reform movement that ousted Suharto.
During Suharto's 32-year rule, the military had a prominent role in politics and society, with officers appointed to civilian posts at various levels of government, enabling the "New Order" regime to take an iron-firsted approach against dissent.
"The idea of adding regional commands and revising the TNI law reeks of expanding the military's role in the civilian sphere," said Ikhsan Yosarie, a researcher at Setara, referring to the Indonesian National Armed Forces by their acronym.
"Reform should push the TNI to focus on defense capabilities, not regress to the New Order era."
The initiative to revise Law No. 34 of 2004 was intended to accommodate a larger role for the military in state affairs and enhance its professionalism, Army spokesman Brig. Gen. Hamim Tohari said.
The proposal seeks to amend 15 articles in the law, including allowing active-duty officers to hold more civilian posts, diluting the authority of the president over the armed forces and increasing the types of missions the military can carry out.
If passed, the law would expand military operations beyond defensive roles to supporting local governments, helping the police maintain security and public order, and assisting with disaster management, counterterrorism, border control and maritime security.
"Threats and challenges are becoming more complex. The army must adapt to these dynamics," Tohari told BenarNews.
But Al Araf, a security expert and director of think tank the Centra Initiative, said these changes were unnecessary and dangerous for democracy. He argued that using soldiers as a security tool like police officers was wrong because they were trained for war.
"Putting military functions as a state security tool is wrong and dangerous for democracy because the military can be used to deal with people if they are considered state security threats," he said.
An illiberal turn?
Some analysts have said that President Joko Widodo, who is popularly known as Jokowi, has overseen a period of democratic regression and increasing illiberalism since he took office in 2014.
One sign is the influence of former military officers from Suharto's era in his administration, they said.
Natalie Sambhi, an expert on Indonesian security affairs at the Brookings Institution in Washington D.C., wrote in a 2021 report that Jokowi has appointed several retired generals to key positions in his cabinet, relied on the army's territorial system for development projects and allowed former officers to shape public discourse and policy.
"While the military's influence is not new, Jokowi's lack of familiarity not just with security affairs but his lack of background from the political and military elite has necessitated the active courting of relationships with power brokers in the armed forces," she wrote.
Jokowi's lack of ideological commitment to democracy or liberalism has made him comfortable with delegating security matters to trusted military figures who have shown little respect for human rights and civil liberties, she added.
The report said that Jokowi's response to the COVID-19 pandemic had intensified "the military's de facto 'dual function'" of playing both security and political roles.
Suharto used his control over the military to suppress dissent and secure his re-election every five years. Though governments afterwards have reduced the military's role in politics and society, it still wields considerable influence and prestige.
The plan to create new garrisons follows the establishment of four new provinces in the restive Papua region last year.
The government said the move would boost development and public services in the region, which has long lagged behind other parts of Indonesia.
But some Papuans and human rights activists have expressed concerns that the new provinces would dilute the political representation and cultural identity of indigenous Papuans.
They also fear that the increased military presence would lead to more violence and human rights violations in a region that has witnessed decades of conflict between separatist rebels and security forces.
Tubagus Hasanuddin, a member of the House of Representatives' defense commission, said there was no need to add new regional commands or expand their tasks.
Hasanuddin, who is from Jokowi's ruling Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle (PDIP), said that using threats as a pretext for such moves was "illogical."
"It has no urgency," he said. "What is needed is improving and modernizing weaponry."
The plan has also been criticized by former President Megawati Sukarnoputri, who chairs the PDIP.