ASEAN Beat | Security | Southeast Asia

Indonesia Needs to Change Its Security-Heavy Approach to COVID-19

The government is fighting a plague, not rebels.

By Tangguh Chairil for
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Indonesia Needs to Change Its Security-Heavy Approach to COVID-19

Police officers stand guard at the Ngurah Rai airport, April 24, 2020, in Bali, Indonesia.

Credit: AP Photo/Firdia Lisnawati

It is a military strategy,” said Indonesian Coordinating Maritime and Investment Minister Luhut Binsar Pandjaitan, when journalists asked him why the government had only then decided to ban mudik, or the tradition of returning from urban centers to hometowns during Eid al-Fitr holidays, amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

As a matter of fact, the approach of the Indonesian government to the COVID-19 pandemic so far has been based on military strategy, more particularly on counterinsurgency operations. This might have been inspired by the cohort of former generals involved in the cabinet as ministers or advisers.

Some parallels between Indonesia’s COVID-19 handling and a counterinsurgency operation include a tendency to downgrade threats, a lack of transparency (and corresponding propaganda efforts), a political battle to win popular support, and a crackdown on anti-government smears.

First, the Indonesian government has tried to downgrade the threats posed by COVID-19. Initially they denied experts’ warning that the coronavirus might already exist undetected in Indonesia. Even now, after the pandemic has spread in the country, the government still tries to minimize it by claiming that the virus will become weaker during the dry season.

The Indonesian government is also making very limited efforts to contain the pandemic’s spread. According to Worldometer, by April 29, only 318 out of every million people had been tested, putting Indonesia near the bottom of Southeast Asian countries on this metric. The government has also refused to implement lockdowns as seen in other countries, arguing that no country has succeeded in such an effort. The bureaucracy also restricts Jakarta from taking fast and simultaneous efforts.

As a matter of fact, it seems relevant to compare this strategy to counterinsurgency operations doctrine. When fighting rebels in Aceh, East Timor, or Papua, the Indonesian government also tried to downgrade the threats by not recognizing enemy fighters as belligerents, to avoid the insurgency becoming subject to international law. Instead, the government branded them as “security disrupter groups” (GPK) during the New Order. Similarly, the government calls Papuan rebels “armed criminal groups” (KKB) nowadays.

Second, instead of upholding transparency of COVID-19 data in Indonesia, the Indonesian government initially deliberately withheld information, claiming that they were trying to prevent people from panicking. COVID-19 data presented by the central government does not match some regional governments’ data. This was reversed on April 13, when President Joko Widodo instructed that all COVID-19 data must be open for access. The initial lack of transparency reflects propaganda efforts to give the illusion that the government is in control.

Propaganda is also a tactic used in counterinsurgency operations to gain credibility and legitimacy with the population while simultaneously undermining the opponents. Many counterinsurgency practices are about “spin control”; trying to influence how the events are reported, both on the ground and at home. Thus the Indonesian government restricted the media when fighting rebels in Aceh, East Timor, or Papua. Even today, the government blacklists foreign journalists from going to Papua.

Third, somehow the COVID-19 response has created friction between the central and some regional governments. Aside from differences in COVID-19 data, central and regional governments have shown discord in terms of lockdown and quarantine measures. While the central government wants to avoid a lockdown, some regional governments worried about the pandemic spread announced local restrictions.

Responding to this, the central government said that local lockdowns had no legal basis, and that only the central government could announce a regional quarantine – the policy option in Law No. 6 Year 2018 on Health Quarantine. Even when COVID-19 cases in Jakarta soared, the central government avoided a regional quarantine and instead announced large-scale social restrictions (PSBB).

After the Jakarta government submitted a proposal to apply the PSBB status in the province, red tape delayed the central government’s approval for a week. The central government initially returned the proposal and asked the Jakarta government to complete several data sets, and only approved PSBB in Jakarta after being pressured by health experts. Not all PSBB proposals have been approved: as of April 21, the central government had approved PSBB in 21 regions, while suspending the proposals of seven other regions. According to the COVID-19 task force spokesperson, PSBB will only be approved if the region has become an epicenter of COVID-19.

Many view this as evidence of a political battle between the central and some regional governments, especially the Jakarta government. Indeed, the central government looks like they view the Jakarta government as a political rival. It is worth noting that Governor of Jakarta Anies Baswedan was supported by opposition political parties in the 2017 Jakarta gubernatorial election. Today, according to recent surveys, he is one of the strongest presidential candidates for the 2024 elections.

As a matter of fact, these frictions between the center (i.e. the national government) and the periphery (local government) can be found within counterinsurgency doctrine literature. Indeed, most of the counterinsurgency strategy resides in how to win the “hearts and minds” of the local population. This reflects the competition for people’s allegiance and legitimacy.

That’s why David Galula, a French counterinsurgency practitioner and scholar, suggested that in counterinsurgency operations, political action to achieve political and social reforms has primacy over military action. Galula also noted that when the central and regional governments do not share the same perception and objectives, counterinsurgency will not succeed.

Lastly, the Indonesian government is using the COVID-19 pandemic as cover to increase its crackdown on anti-government smears. The police will use the Criminal Code (KUHP) Article 207 against offenders – a problematic article widely described as a “rubber provision,” which means that it can be broadly interpreted and tends to weaken human rights protection.

On April 13, the police announced that there were already two people named as suspects in such a case. On April 23, the police arrested a public policy researcher and democracy activist who had been critical of the government, due to a message sent from his WhatsApp number, which he claimed was hacked. He was freed the next day, after undergoing an investigation and being named a witness in the case. These crackdowns hint that the government is not only fighting the pandemic, but also defending the political regime.

Why does the Indonesian government’s COVID-19 response look like a counterinsurgency operation? There is no definitive answer, but it is worth noting that the government is filled with retired generals who have been involved in counterinsurgency operations. Similarly, the government’s COVID-19 task force is filled with military and police figures, both active and retired.

A newspaper has called this task force “military star wars,” citing security scholars who believe that the central government is relying on a security approach to deliver a fast response to an already dire situation, largely because of the delay in the government’s COVID-19 response. In the words of Evan A. Laksmana, a researcher at CSIS Indonesia, the problem has been “securitized.”

Indeed, scholars agree that securitizing health will bring valuable tools and expertise to the problem and increase the political profile of the issue, which leads to the prospect of greater resources devoted to urgent health needs. However, it is not unproblematic; it will bring the health agenda under control of security actors, including the military, whose state security perspective prevails over the health and epidemiological perspective.

The military provides valuable assets to support the government’s response in humanitarian emergencies, especially in terms of logistics, supply, and transport. However, a humanitarian operation must prioritize the human security dimension, not subordinating it to a state security approach.

Especially when retired counterinsurgency practitioners take full control, we will see how the law of the instrument – “if all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail” – manifests. The Indonesian government needs to change their approach to the COVID-19 response.

Tangguh Chairil is a lecturer in security studies at the Department of International Relations at Binus University, Jakarta. The views expressed are his own.