Old Shadows in New Australia-Indonesia Military Spat

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Old Shadows in New Australia-Indonesia Military Spat

A recent controversy reveals the distortions that come with viewing new events in light of old shadows about Indonesia’s past.

Old Shadows in New Australia-Indonesia Military Spat
Credit: Australia Department of Defence

The collapse of Indonesia’s late dictator Suharto and his New Order regime was unquestionably a defining event in the country’s development. Apart from ending three decades of one-man rule and ushering in democracy in Southeast Asia’s largest country, it also had tremendous ripple effects for the country’s politics, economy, and security, many of which are still being felt today.

But at times, some have fallen into the unfortunate habit of sloppily attributing any incident to post-New Order questions regarding the country’s future. While this does serve as a convenient descriptive frame, it also risks distorting things. Lingering grievances among some about Indonesia’s past, be it on Timor-Leste or West Papua, can be magnified into decades-old disagreements between Jakarta and other countries about their versions of history. Elections or protests can be exaggerated to become existential crises for the future of Indonesian democracy. And the words and actions of a few prominent military figures can be seen as epic battles in civil-military relations.

Put more succinctly, new events can come to be viewed in the light of old shadows. And as a result of what one might term the “old shadow problem,” developments can be elevated to a series of litmus tests for the country, which it is then perceived to pass or fail even if they are unfair or should not have been framed that way at all in the first place.

The “old shadow problem” was a troubling feature in the recent suspension of military ties between Indonesia and Australia, which I wrote about earlier this week (See: “Indonesia-Australia Military Relations Hit Another Snag”). That is to say, some were far too quick to hype up the role of either decades-old historical animosities between the two countries or some kind of resurgence by Indonesia’s military relative to its civilian leadership, when these factors in fact ended up to be exaggerated. To examine the “old shadow problem” at work, we need to explore what these perceptions were and how things actually played out.

Let’s look at the old shadow of history first. Official Indonesian and Australian accounts have both confirmed that the suspension was rooted in concerns raised by a TNI official about some teaching materials at an Army language training facility in Perth last year. Those concerns were related to offensive material about West Papua, an Indonesian province that has sought independence from Jakarta, and hence a sensitive issue for Indonesia in general and its military in particular.

In media accounts, these concerns were added to those of Indonesia’s military chief, Gatot Nurmantyo, who has a deeply-held suspicion of Australia and has publicly expressed concern about Canberra’s perceptions of Indonesia (particularly Papua and Timor-Leste), its hunger for Jakarta’s natural resources, and its recruitment and indoctrination of Indonesia’s top military talent (See: “What Does Indonesia’s New Military Chief Pick Mean?”).

But going from the concerns expressed by a TNI official and Nurmantyo, who is no stranger to conspiracy theories, to a litmus test for where Indonesia is as a country is in facing up to its history, is not entirely fair. These concerns are not new, they are not shared by everyone to the same degree, and it is unclear to what extent they actually drive the decisions that directly affect the Australia-Indonesia military relationship. The more pertinent question is to what degree these concerns are evident among those who are in charge of managing the bilateral military ties on the Indonesian side, and the extent to which they are able to exert their influence in determining the trajectory of the relationship relative to those who may not share their views to the same extent or at all.

Even if one were to apply this litmus test to this case, it is fair to say that it failed. That is to say, what we discovered, as expected, was that this was less some decades-old dispute between two countries over history, and more about lingering grievances held by some in Indonesia’s military.

Furthermore, in spite of the heightened concerns of a few, Indonesian policymakers were determined to ensure that these concerns, as legitimate as they may be, did not get in the way of the Australia-Indonesia military relationship. The most consequential comments came from Indonesia’s Defense Minister Ryamizard Ryacudu, who warned rather bluntly against letting “insignificant rats disrupt the relationship between countries.” Indonesia’s President, Joko “Jokowi” Widodo, also downplayed the incident, which Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull acknowledged in response.

Others worried about what this said about civil-military relations, the other old shadow that has loomed over Indonesia in the post-New Order era. As it became clear that the seriousness of the controversy had been exaggerated, some contended that certain personalities within the Indonesian military, particularly Nurmantyo, may have made the decision without the knowledge of Jokowi and his administration. If so, that would confirm lingering concerns among some that Jokowi, a president without military experience unlike his predecessor Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, still does not have sufficient control of the Indonesian military.

Again, setting up that litmus test itself is rather unfair. The rise of an outspoken and ambitious military chief who has raised concerns about civil-military relations in the post-New Order era is hardly a phenomenon that is unique to the Jokowi administration. Indeed, Nurmantyo’s predecessor, Moeldoko, had caused a similar kind of anxiety toward the end of Yudhoyono’s presidency. And truth be told, this sensationalized nervousness tends to arise with respect to Indonesia whenever an ambitious military man with controversial views and a checkered past begins showing signs of exercising power beyond his position or running for office.

More broadly, such a litmus test conflates the views of specific military figures and the tendencies of a particular administration with trends in civil-military relations when the dynamics of the latter are in fact driven more by broader trends. Nurmantyo’s rise as military chief does mean he has a more powerful position within which he can express his views, but he still operates within a post-Suharto context where the military’s powers are much more circumscribed. Jokowi does not enjoy the military experience that Yudhoyono had, but he nonetheless grasps the importance of the military as an institution and has worked to cultivate it in his own way. That partly explains why he has appointed retired military men to serve as his advisers, despite all the sensationalism that had emerged regarding some sort of military resurgence under his watch.

Even if this litmus test were to be applied, it failed in this case as well. What we found out was that this was less a rash decision that had been taken by a military official gone rogue, but more of a measured one that was through existing channels. The original issue with the training materials had already been addressed between Australian and Indonesian officials privately, and an investigation was already ongoing. Moreover, Indonesia’s Coordinating Political, Legal, and Security Affairs Minister Wiranto confirmed what some, including myself, had suspected: that the temporary suspension in bilateral military ties was restricted to the language training program in Australia rather than overall cooperation. So, far from some revival of the Indonesian military, what we witnessed was a fairly routine decision taken by the Indonesian and Australian leaderships.

Does this episode mean that we ought to stop worrying about the future of democracy and civil-military relations in Indonesia and dispense with our post-New Order concerns? Of course not. There are cases where these anxieties are warranted. However, incidents like these should also make us wary of being too quick to tie new, specific developments to old, general concerns about Indonesia. Sometimes, being afraid – or at the very least aware – of one’s shadows may not necessarily be a bad thing, especially if they are ones being cast on others.