Asia Defense

What Does Indonesia’s New Military Chief Pick Mean?

Jokowi’s pick is not the kind of change many were expecting.

What Does Indonesia’s New Military Chief Pick Mean?
Credit: Flickr/sbamueller

Late last week, Indonesian president Joko “Jokowi” Widodo proposed that Army chief of staff General Gatot Nurmantyo succeed General Moeldoko as Indonesia’s next military chief.

In so doing, Jokowi has confirmed earlier speculation that he was going to break with tradition in making his nomination for the post. As I pointed out in an earlier piece, since 1999, the Indonesian military chief position has rotated between the Army, Navy and Air Force in a move to reverse the traditionally dominant role of the army (See: “Who Will Be Indonesia’s Next Military Chief?”). If Jokowi had elected to continue on with established practice, he would have replaced Moeldoko, who was from the army, with Air Force chief of staff Marshall Agus Supriatna instead of Nurmantyo who is also an army man.

Assuming Nurmantyo is confirmed by the Indonesian legislature, Indonesia’s top military post would have been held by two army men in succession thanks to Jokowi. Some are already calling this a huge setback for military reform in Indonesia. Nominating another military chief from the army, they argue, is a move that would reassert the army’s overwhelming dominance amongst the Indonesian services, thereby undermining ongoing efforts to better rebalance the responsibilities between them. And to the extent that personnel are in indicator of priority, also seems out of step with Jokowi’s own ‘global maritime fulcrum’ agenda which envisions a greater role for the navy and air force (See: “The Trouble with Indonesia’s Foreign Policy Priorities under Jokowi”).

Then there is the question of Nurmantyo himself. While few doubt his experience, his outlook has been described by some as nationalist and anti-democratic. In October 2013, he questioned the wisdom of democracy in Indonesia at a Pancasila Youth (PP) rally, leading to concerns about the Indonesian military’s (TNI’s) interference in politics. In March this year, he suggested that Timor-Leste’s succession from Indonesia was part of a proxy war for Australia to secure oil. For those who worry about the return of the army into politics and the rise of a more assertive, nationalist Indonesia, Nurmantyo is a threat to the country’s future.

Yet it is far too early to tell how this will impact the future direction of Indonesian military reform. It is unclear, for instance, how much of Nurmantyo’s rhetoric – if any – will translate into significant actions during his tenure. Furthermore, as powerful as Nurmantyo will be as military chief, he is but one individual in a complex and contested reform process which has many moving parts and actors. Sounding the death knell of Jokowi’s ‘global maritime fulcrum’ because of the nomination of an army chief would be premature, especially since the need to boost Indonesia’s naval and aerial capabilities is increasingly being viewed as a geostrategic necessity rather than just a presidential priority.

Nonetheless, there is little doubt that Jokowi has ruffled feathers by departing from tradition with his nomination. Some have demanded that he at least explain why he chose to abandon the rotation system beyond restating the fact that it is the president’s prerogative to do so. His coordinating minister for Political, Legal and Human Rights, Tedjo Edhy Purdjianto, has assured the public that there will not be any controversy or friction within the TNI. For those who know anything about Indonesia’s military, those words are hardly reassuring.