Indonesia’s Military Woes

Promised reforms to Indonesia’s military aren’t going anywhere. Meanwhile, it’s running amok in Papua.

The process of reforming the Indonesian armed forces, the Tentara Nasional Indonesia (TNI), remains stalled in the halfway house where the administration of President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono has made the regrettable decision to leave it. And as long as it stays there, the TNI will continue to behave in ways that do Jakarta no credit.

Human Rights Watch alleged this week that the TNI, and in particular its Kopassus special forces unit, has been conducting illegal surveillance operations in the Indonesian province of Papua. This followed the emergence in 2010 of videos showing TNI troops torturing Papuan villagers, footage that the Indonesian government later accepted was genuine. Already, as the drip of revelations about Kopassus’s nasty role in Papua’s problems continues, the US government is coming under pressure to suspend its 2010 decision to conduct joint military training exercises with the Indonesian commandos, just as the Australian government is having to answer some awkward questions about its commitment to help train the controversial unit.

The conduct of the TNI is highly sensitive at a time when thousands of Papuans have been joining protests calling for independence, all against the backdrop of a long-running insurgency being waged by the Free Papua Organisation (OPM) against the government. Whether the answer to Papuan unrest lies in genuine autonomy within the Republic of Indonesia or in full secession, the extra-constitutional involvement of the Indonesian military will only serve to inflame the province’s separatist inclinations. This presumably runs counter to Jakarta’s interests and would result, you might think, in Yudhoyono reining the TNI in.

But he isn’t going to. Despite pledging to reform the security sector when first running for the presidency in 2004, Yudhoyono’s overhaul of the military system has left many observers feeling increasingly dismayed. Of course, the TNI of 2011 is a far cry from the Suharto-controlled outfit of the dwifungsi period. Its role in national politics is now greatly diminished. Yet the army’s role in public life – thanks largely to the enduring structure of territorial commands and to the TNI’s business interests, which Yudhoyono promised, and then failed, to dilute – remains deep-rooted. Some of Yudhoyono’s military appointments have also raised eyebrows: his decision to make Sjafrie Sjamsuddin,a serving general with a dodgy past in East Timor, the deputy defence minister was widely considered unhealthy, as was the recent appointment of his own brother-in-law as the new army chief.

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Despite his huge electoral mandate, Yudhoyono has lacked the political will to complete phase two of Indonesia’s military reforms and turn the TNI into a truly professional, constitutional force. As a result, the TNI, its activities curtailed in much of Indonesia, continues to run amok in Papua, where there’s money to be made through illegal logging, for example, and where army commanders can go on pretending the New Paradigm reforms of the late 1990s never really happened. It’s probably for these self-interested reasons, and not for reasons of security, that the TNI has in recent years doubled its presence in Papua from three battalions to six, an increase that has mirrored the flood of economic migrants who have flooded the province from around Indonesia and exacerbated the Papuans’ feelings of resentment.

Yudhoyono once had the makings of a great Indonesian president. Today, he risks becoming a disappointing one. But he still has time to prove the doubters wrong. Just as he has begun fighting back against accusations that he has failed to tackle corruption, he should fight back against the charge that he has broken his promises on military reform – by seeing those promises through.