Skepticism of military reform

During the initial years of the "reform" euphoria, the streets were abuzz with spirited talk about removing the military from politics.

Approaching the elections this year, much of this hype evaporated -- some suggested this was because most voters had begun to yearn for security and stability, following six years of stagnant reformasi and the lingering socioeconomic crisis.

When it came to choosing a president, however, the choices were few and limited, and boiled down to candidates groomed under the New Order or of the post-New Order elite. Warnings of the background of presidential candidate Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono faded as his popularity grew throughout the campaign period, then was drowned out entirely by the overwhelming support of his constituents in the country's first direct presidential election.

The former chief security minister was a retired general anyway, and the public felt that at least the Indonesian Military (TNI) had shown some goodwill in ending its formal role in national and local politics to concentrate on defense -- or so it appeared on the surface.

The TNI's journey to this point in its institutional evolution has not been straight nor smooth, progressing in fits and starts and at times, doubling back.

Shortly after strongman Soeharto was ousted from power in 1998, then TNI chief Gen. Wiranto announced a "new paradigm" -- the military would eventually withdraw from politics.

In 2000, a formal and drastic step to end the military's traditional role in politics was taken when the functions and jurisdiction of the police and the military were separated. Public order and safety became the sole domain of the police and the military was strictly in charge of national defense.

The new House of Representatives thus saw the end of members appointed from the military and police faction, their justification as lawmakers having outlived their historic role "to guard the unitary republic and Pancasila state ideology".

However, as the nation's most powerful force with about 500,000 personnel spread in every subdistrict and village, the effort to restrict the military's role to defense evidently requires more than three civilian presidents and six years of polemic.

Despite the laws changing the military's political role, a "white paper" issued by the defense ministry last year explained that the TNI's role was primarily to watch over the nation against its main threat -- "armed separatist movements... given that the police are not yet ready". The paper thus virtually contradicted the National Police Law, which declares internal security the responsibility of the police.

In particular, the presence of separatists -- or "rebels" in TNI lingo -- in Aceh and Papua have long justified "military operations" on domestic soil, as well as fueled the self-fulfilling prophecy that the military must forever "guard" the unitary republic at all sociopolitical levels.

Even after the new law on the military was passed this October, stressing the principle of "civilian supremacy," TNI Commander Gen. Endriartono Sutarto continued to quip, as in the past, that the military was wary of being abused by civilian politicians.

"Mutual need" might be a better description. Sensing that the civilian politicians needed the military, yet were nervous of a possible backlash, the TNI has been able to retain much of its power: However radical the Indonesian Military Law seemed, it was silent on the controversial issue of the TNI's territorial authority -- the basis of the TNI's outreach beyond its defense role.

This issue was at the core of a heated debate involving politicians, lawmakers, academics and activists over the TNI bill, which was revised several times before it was finally accepted by the House for deliberation. The key argument against maintaining the TNI's territoriality was that it hindered democratic development.

Another key issue was the legal jurisdiction of the military court and tribunals in trying soldiers accused of crimes, and whether soldiers could be indicted by civilian courts also. Meanwhile, the ad hoc rights tribunal was wrapping up the East Timor abuse cases to national and international criticism that it was all a sham.

Still, it was election year, and from the outset, the glut of major, minor and budding political parties had been courting retired and active generals, expecting the officers' influence down to the village level through local military commands would tip the scales when it came to the final vote-count.

Endriartono claimed that at least two presidential candidates and a high-ranking politician -- then president Megawati Soekarnoputri of the Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle (PDI-P), Amien Rais of the National Mandate Party (PAN) and Akbar Tandjung of the Golkar Party -- had come and asked him to be their running mate in the presidential race.

He also claimed to have brushed aside their requests in a bid to maintain neutrality among the TNI ranks. The military leadership also barred soldiers from using their constitutional right to vote, but the silence of the local commands made such shows of "neutrality" just that -- a pretense.

Civilian and military intellectuals remind us again and again of civilian incompetence that always brings the military back to the political fore. That may be so, but prolonged communal conflicts resulting in the deaths of thousands of people in recent years have also raised questions as to the military's capabilities, if not unwillingness, to overcome unrest and internal rivalry.

How much President Susilo will try to nudge his former military colleagues and the TNI leadership to acquiesce to a role under a government of "civilian supremacy" remains to be seen.

A TNI man at heart, he had already resisted suggestions during his campaign that the military chief should answer to the defense minister. Further, at the front line of his campaign team were retired generals who had served under Soeharto -- and who have now been awarded Cabinet positions.

Susilo is clearly treading carefully when it comes to the military. His first test will be the ongoing change-of-guard issue, which arose when Endriartono tendered his resignation to Megawati in the last days of her term. She not only accepted it, but also installed army chief of staff Gen. Ryamizard Ryacudu as his successor.

When Susilo took office in October, he recalled Endriartono, saying that the new administration needed time to prepare plans to revitalize the TNI leadership. The House, dominated by legislators from Megawati's PDI-P and Golkar, raised a fuss at this, pointing to an article in the defense law that necessitated House approval for the appointment of the TNI chief.

The revitalization of the TNI is still on hold -- as though Susilo is seeking a balance between taking an assertive stance in the face of the formidable military and in seeking allies within the TNI on handling prickly issues, such as separatism.

As the new administration moves well into its 100-day program, perhaps we will see whether Susilo will choose to toe the line with regards the TNI or will pick up the thread of military reform and proceed full force.

Published by The Jakarta Post