Does war on terror benefits only the military, or the nation?

Published by The Jakarta Post, January 05, 2006

Despite the precious little progress the Indonesian Military (TNI) has achieved in the area of internal reform, it has does have something to be proud this year: the lifting of the arms embargo by the United States.

The U.S. decision last November was linked to George W. Bush's global war on terror. It came after President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono met Bush and ordered the TNI to actively assist National Police in fighting terrorism.

It was clear however that the lifting of the 14-year embargo on arms sales to Indonesia had nothing to do with the TNI's achievement in boosting its track record in human rights issues.

Aside from that, some analysts believe the decision might have been a U.S. move to prevent Indonesia from seeking military supplies from other countries, especially Russia.

The arms ban was imposed in 1991 after TNI soldiers shot dead hundreds of mourners in Timor Leste (formerly East Timor). It was extended due to human rights violations linked to the military-backed militia rampage also in East Timor after the 1999 autonomy plebiscite.

The involvement of soldiers in the national campaign against terror has raised strong criticism from human rights activists and others, who said the government should have instead further empowered the police to handle such matters.

A retired police general says that "certain forces" within the military institution have close ties with radical Muslim groups, including the Islam Defender's Front (FPI) and Laskar Jihad.

"This fact is part of the reason why the government involved the military in the domestic war to crack down on terrorist cells," he added.

Another reason was power. The government had been warned to be cautious in attempting to strip power from the military, otherwise it could create social disturbances in retaliation.

"We should not keep cornering the military because they will not stop playing terror games until they can seize back power," said the police general.

President Susilo issued orders for the military to join the national terror war in response to the second Bali attack on Oct. 1, 2005, which killed 23 people including the three suicide bombers. The resort island had also been bombed on Oct. 22, 2002, in which 202 people, mostly Western tourists, were killed. Terror also rocked Jakarta when bombers attacked the Australian Embassy in 2004 and the J.W. Marriott Hotel in 2003.

The President didn't give clear guidance on how the military should deal with terror threats, but TNI chief Gen. Endriartono Sutarto quickly responded to it by saying he would reactivate the much-criticized military territorial role to collect information from the community and to set up an early warning system aimed at preventing more terrorist attacks.

According to Endriartono, the territorial role would give military intelligence officers the ability to "infiltrate" communities where terrorist groups had developed their networks.

Should that be the argument, why has the military been singularly unable to stop violence in conflict-torn areas where it had established territorial commands? In fact, the military has often been accused of actually being behind or involved in communal clashes.

It is still fresh in many minds that the scrapping of the military's territorial function was one of the strongest demands raised by the pro-democracy movement in 1998, which was marked by the ousting of former authoritarian president Soeharto.

Analysts and human rights campaigners say the revival of the territorial role shows that the military has not been at all serious in undertaking its internal reform programs.

During the Soeharto era, the military abused its socio-political function to intimidate and subdue government critics, even kidnapping and murdering them.

Officially, this role was scrapped after Soeharto's fall, but in fact the military remains politically very influential as evidenced by the victory of many of its former officers in certain local direct elections.

Civilian and military intellectuals have repeatedly warned that civilian incompetence could give the military an excuse to come back to the political fore.

There seemed to be a little good news when the military allowed its generals to be tried in a human rights tribunal for their roles in the 1999 carnage in East Timor after it voted for independence from Indonesia.

The same court had also tried senior military officers on charges of serious human rights violations in connection with the 1984 shooting incident in Tanjung Priok, North Jakarta.

But the good news quickly evaporated when none of those tried were convicted of any wrongdoing.

Also, all military officers were exonerated by a human rights court in Makassar, South Sulawesi, from all charges resulting from the Abepura shooting incident in Papua province.

Other progress seemed to be made by the TNI when it allowed civilians to design national defense policy, allowed its seats in the House of Representatives to be scrapped, and for some of its businesses to be taken over by the government.

However, with regard to these issues the military has been put to the test as to whether it is really serious about bowing to civilian control, of abandoning politics and of handing over all its businesses.