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Indonesia's soldiers: Back where they don't belong

Johnmenadue.com - November 18, 2023

Duncan Graham – In Indonesia old soldiers never die; they just infiltrate civic affairs, then grab jobs from the worthy and talented young, slowing the economy.

After two decades of being confined to barracks, the Indonesian army is marching back into civil and political life in a country that claims to be a democracy.

This is bad news for smart grads, society and neighbour states. It comes just ahead of next February's presidential election so the winner will be stuck in the dry concrete of a law they didn't make and sure to shrink their authority.

During the dictatorship (1966-1998) of General Soeharto the military was 'participating' in every effort and activity of the people in the field of ideology, politics and economics and the socio-cultural field.'

The dwi fungsi (two functions) doctrine had the army bossing the cops. There were 38 seats in the national parliament reserved for senior officers and sinecures in the public service.

Soldiers behaved like born-to-rules, demanding free food in restaurants and barging to the front in queues. Some arrogance remains: This story is being keyboarded in a garrison town where siren-shrieking convoys on routine missions jump lights and force other traffic off the roads.

The superiority began to dissolve early this century when the fourth president Abdurrahman 'Gus Dur' Wahid separated police and defence. He also tried to make the force professional. The Australian Federal Police have been 'involved' in the reform, but now all could unravel.

Senior military officers have long wanted dwi fungsi back and this year President Joko 'Jokowi' Widodo agreed. Regional military commands (Kodam) will be set up in all 37 provinces, 'to strengthen the national defence system.' This gives the Tentara Nasional Indonesia (TNI – national armed forces) the chance to spot carpers and subversives.

There's also a pragmatic reason: The army has waiting rooms of gold braid nearing the 58-year retirement age. With life expectancy above 72 and rising, relevance-deprivation syndrome threatens.

Even though banned from public affairs the relationship continued, though subtly. However innocuous the ribbon-cutting there's usually a glad-handing man (occasionally a woman) in uniform, an armchair ready on the stage.

Comrade isn't there to guard the invitees, but to show he's one of us – and to get a feed. They're good at making speeches and swapping name cards.

That's not all. Last month came a surprise new law letting TNI retirees take civilian jobs and seats on State-owned company boards. A commentary published by Melbourne University worried about the speed and opacity:

'The sudden inclusion of the contentious clause, without a draft being made publicly available on the website of the national legislature undermines the role of the (Parliament) of scrutinising laws to hold government accountable.'

The world's third largest democracy already exists in 'a state of disorder' according to a bleak analysis by the Australian-educated Indonesian academic Dr Abdil Mughis Mudhoffir.

He reckons government by the people 'has never been deeply held onto by the country's politicians. The growth of illiberal policies is more a norm than a symptom of a decaying liberal order.'

These changes will shove the Republic further down The Economist's Democracy Index where it's been slipping for the past nine years under Jokowi who'd rather focus on civil engineering than civil liberties.

Dr Abdil has argued that from the get-go the President 'accommodated military figures associated with past human rights violations in his cabinet.

'This is not simply because Jokowi was surrounded by anti-democratic elites that forced him to abandon his promises of advancing human rights.

'Rather, Jokowi partnered with corrupt politicians, military figures, bureaucrats and businesses, who then used their influence to repurpose democratic institutions for the interests of their survival.'

The Civil Society Coalition fears a 'politicisation' of the TNI ahead of the election, alleging 'an aroma of nepotism' over senior appointments given to the President's friends.

Electoral democracy is a wriggling beast but this definition is a useful catch-all: 'A political system in which political leaders are elected under comprehensive voting rights in free and fair elections, and freedoms of association and expression are guaranteed.'

Linked is the separation of powers – the administration, the police to enforce internal law and order, and the military to protect the nation from external hostiles.

Indonesia doesn't face too many because of its size and refusal to join the US or China blocks in their contest for power in the region. It has about 400,000 active personnel.

What sort of person wants to join an army?

Recruiters parade patriotism, a desire to serve and to protect the motherland – or fatherland if you're a misogynist – from real or imagined threats. Essential personal qualities include a family tradition, unquestioning acceptance of discipline, and reluctance to think as an individual. The weak seek a brotherhood.

The more pragmatic and less sentimental joiners list security, pension, pay, travel, learning a trade and getting an education.

Less noble motives are bedroom warriors' under-sheet fantasies on the power of lethal weapons to solve problems when words fail.

Are these the right people to run jobs in civil society and fill seats on company boards? The Indonesian government thinks so, and will be marshalling retirees from the armed services into civilian affairs including agriculture through the 'food barn' programme.

Soldiers who drove desks, counted beans and signed orders to buy munitions may have skills that can be transferred. But those capable only of thrusting bayonets into bodies will have problems sticking paperclips onto files.

Indonesia's education system is slowly improving. The best tech colleges and universities are turning out bright young pros keen to get working. But they'll struggle if Dad's Army gets their first.

That's not just dispiriting for ambitious candidates with needed qualities. If state-owned businesses can't pick staff on merit they'll fail to be competitive.

Should the next president try to scrap the jobs-for-the-boys policy he'll face the might of the military that's recovered its power – delivered by a civilian president.

[Duncan Graham has been a journalist for more than 40 years in print, radio and TV. He is the author of People Next Door (UWA Press) and winner of the Walkley Award and Human Rights awards. He is now writing for the English language media in Indonesia from within Indonesia.]

Source: https://johnmenadue.com/back-where-they-dont-belong