Generals Gaining Ground: Civil-Military Relations and Democracy in Indonesia
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Generals Gaining Ground: Civil-Military Relations and Democracy in Indonesia


APLN member Natalie Sambhi argues that while Indonesia has made a remarkable transformation from authoritarianism to electoral democracy, several of the underlying currents from New Order civil-military relations have rolled back some of its liberal character. Read the original article here.

Executive Summary

Originally touted as a reformer when elected, Indonesian President Joko Widodo has presided over a period of democratic regression and increasing illiberalism. During his tenure it appears that the military is gaining greater ground in the civil-military balance, marked by the appointment of several New Order figures in politics, increased reliance on the army’s territorial system, and a greater ability for retired officers to shape public discourse and policy. The public’s perceptions of the military as a trusted and legitimate actor in politics gives them further leverage in the face of waning support for liberal democratic principles. This situation of the military’s de facto “dual function” has been intensified by the onset of COVID-19, necessitating the deployment of military forces to enforce health protocols. This trend will be difficult to reverse. Therefore, strengthening institutions, particularly a strong civilian bureaucracy, free and active press, independent courts, and fair elections, will be critical in rolling back some of the illiberalism in Indonesia’s democracy.

Indonesia’s democracy: from reformasi to regression

There is now scholarly consensus that Indonesia’s democracy has not just stagnated but is regressing. While Indonesia’s democracy might have appeared durable, over the past five years, the nascent signs of regression under the Joko Widodo (widely known as Jokowi) administration have gathered greater shape. In September last year, student groups organized massive protests in major capital cities against the government’s proposed revisions to the criminal code which would have criminalized extramarital sex, most forms of abortion, and insulting the president, while introducing changes that would have weakened the Corruption Eradication Commission (KPK). According to Freedom House’s 2020 Freedom in the World democracy index, Indonesia is considered “Partly Free,” with a Global Freedom Score of 61 (out of a possible 100). This rating has dropped over the four years under Jokowi from 65 in 2017 to 64 in 2018 and to 62 in 2019. The country’s current score for civil liberties is 31 (out of 60), another backslide from 34 in 2018 and 32 in 2019. It is clearer that Jokowi is not ideologically wedded to democracy and is willing to circumvent certain freedoms in order to pursue his developmentalist agenda.

While the civil-military divide is rarely clear cut, it is even more blurred in Indonesia…

Amidst this backdrop of democratic backsliding, it appears there is a trend that the military is gaining greater ground in the civil-military balance, with a shift away from civilian authority. While the civil-military divide is rarely clear cut, it is even more blurred in Indonesia with several former uniformed officers in civilian posts and even current uniformed officers taking up some roles. The prominence of the military does little to entrench ideas publicly about the subordination of military to democratic civilian authority. Rather, it promotes the ideas of military competence, even if retired officers no longer wear a uniform.

Indonesian civil-military relations are overwhelmingly characterized by continuity of prominent figures from former President Suharto’s 1967-1998 New Order regime who remain in or appointed by Jokowi to influential positions, such as ministers and advisors. During the New Order, the Indonesian military had a pervasive presence in state affairs, including mandated seats in politics, management of state-owned enterprises, control of information and media, and a militarized approach to internal security. This was legitimated under a doctrine known as “dual function” (dwi fungsi), which ended once Suharto stepped down in May 1998 and the military exited politics. After the New Order, the transition to democracy was popularly known in Indonesia as reformasi (“reformation”), during which public trust in institutions such as the parliament and courts was painstakingly rebuilt and corruption rooted out, while the military and police underwent limited structural and cultural reforms.

While the military’s influence is not new, Jokowi’s lack of familiarity not just with security affairs but his lack of background from the political and military elite has necessitated the active courting of relationships with power brokers in the armed forces. Many of the New Order’s figures remain wealthy and politically connected, albeit in a democratic setting. The most prominent example of this has been the ever-expanding role of former Lieutenant General Luhut Binsar Panjaitan, a former business partner of the president, who is now coordinating minister for maritime affairs and investment, his second portfolio in Jokowi’s Cabinets. Perhaps the most intriguing was the appointment of Jokowi’s electoral rival Prabowo Subianto as defense minister. Under Prabowo, former officers from the Army special forces (Kopassus) who were implicated in kidnappings between 1997 and 1998 have also been promoted to the Defense Ministry. This continued participation of the military in politics and business has led to a form of de facto “dual function.”

Current civil-military relations are also marked by intergenerational connections to the New Order. For instance, the former head of the state intelligence agency (BIN), retired general A.M. Hendropriyono, is the father-in-law of the current army chief, Andika Perkasa, who could potentially be promoted to chief of the armed forces. Meanwhile, Luhut’s son-in-law Major General Maruli Simanjuntak was appointed head of the Presidential Security Force in 2018. The effect of this is the entrenchment of influence of key figures and a continuation of narrow interests and values in the upper echelons of the military hierarchy.

Another feature is the ongoing presence of the army’s territorial command system, which Jokowi has leveraged as a source of labor. In this system, the military structure mirrors civilian governance structures from the provincial to the village level. In the past, this has functioned as a means of gathering intelligence against potential insurrections. Between 2014 and 2017, the Jakarta-based Centre for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS Indonesia) found that the military and Defense Ministry signed 133 deals with ministries and other groups for not just basic military training in some cases but recruiting soldiers as teachers and rural development projects. The dismantling of the territorial command system was debated after reformasi but successive presidents have had little appetite for this reform. Jokowi’s increased reliance on this system further encourages army dominance by virtue of the number of personnel required and related wages as well as maintaining close rapport between this service and the people.

What’s driving current civil-military relations?

The most important factor in Indonesia’s recent pattern of civil-military relations is the president. When elected to power in 2014, Jokowi’s humble, non-elite, non-military background gave him an outsider status. Some of his anti-corruption policies espoused and can-do track record during his local government days raised expectations, both within the country and outside, that he would bring a reformist wave at the national level. Such was not meant to be. While not a strongman himself, he shares increasingly illiberal inclinations with strongman populists and thus, according to Edward Aspinall, appears to be “a leader who seems made for this moment.” One such inclination is to increasingly rely on the military, making Indonesia “remarkably in tune with our current zeitgeist.” Keen to attend to infrastructural development affairs, he has been comfortable delegating security matters to trusted military and police figures. In both of his terms, he has appointed a former army general as defense minister. This pattern of reliance on both retired and active military figures has intensified during his tenure. Made Supriatma recently argued that Jokowi also relies on the police as both a security and political force, who have appeared to have actively assisted in silencing the president’s critics.

Jokowi’s ties with the military are also indispensable as political capital, giving him access to an influential group and popular organization. He has prudently courted various factions of the army. These might be pragmatic choices to consolidate his power and encourage political stability, allowing him to focus on his agenda. However, as my Brookings colleague Tom Pepinsky astutely observes, Jokowi’s “good instincts based on first-hand experience with city politics could never be replicated across a country this large with governance problems this complex.” His lack of ideological commitment to democracy or liberalism means his choices are “not always the best choices for Indonesian democracy.”

A second contributing factor is the Indonesian military, particularly its culture and territorial presence. Since reformasi, formal legislative changes have moved the military out from politics and into a more traditional security role. During the administration of Jokowi’s predecessor Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono , a focus on external activities such as peacekeeping also helped to further this shift in identity. However, the military, particularly older officers, have tenaciously held onto the mindset that they are the “guardians of the nation.” The military’s territorial structure, which was never reformed after 1998, and community service program, where soldiers undertake activities like teaching in classrooms, entrench the military’s identity as “people’s army” in the eyes of both the public and itself. These factors bring military personnel into constant contact with daily affairs at the village-level, across the archipelago. This social engagement redresses logistical shortfalls for poorer communities in remote areas but can also encourage rent-seeking behaviors.

Many in the military, both active and retired officers, continue to believe they are more capable than civilians in both military and civilian roles. According to these officers, technocrats such as former president B.J. Habibie, who was seen as responsible for the “loss” of East Timor, are not to be trusted. While this mindset is not as pervasive among younger officers, the consistent presence of older officers in influential, non-military positions signals to both the military and the Indonesian public that this state of affairs is “normal.” In some ways it resembles the New Order’s culture of military omnipresence, albeit in a contemporary democratic context.

As a result of the military’s omnipresence, particularly in Cabinet roles, retired officers have a platform to disseminate their beliefs and values more vocally under Jokowi. While not all of these values undermine state or democratic institutions, however, muting public debate on the army-led communist purges of 1965–1966 curtails freedom of speech and circumvents attempts at accountability. According to the military, Indonesia must remain vigilant against “latent” threats of communism, justifying a continued internal security role. Indeed, military and police-led confiscation of books in 2018 and public statements by military leaders about the persistence of a communist threat in contemporary Indonesia demonstrate that the military are still able to control public discourse. Jokowi willingly reinforces the military’s narrative when politically convenient. During the military’s 73rd birthday celebrations in 2018, the president played to his audience at the Armed Forces Headquarters, warning of the threat posed by the legacies of 1965. Despite promising during his 2014 campaign and again in 2019 to address unresolved human rights issues including the 1965 killings, his administration has produced few results.

The third important driver of these civil-military trends is societal perceptions. One of the signs of deconsolidation can be a loss of belief in democratic values and instead, an increase in preference for “authoritarian alternatives.” New research conducted in Indonesia has shown that democracy enjoys support as an abstract concept but Indonesians are not necessarily wedded to liberal values. According to the Asian Barometer Survey (ABS) 2016, 70% of respondents said democracy is always preferable, with only 16% answering authoritarianism as preferable. However, additional questions reveal a more nuanced picture. Of those surveyed, 8% said “democracy more important than economic development,” showing that, under certain conditions of hardship, almost all Indonesians might be willing to forgo democratic rights in return for the promise of economic prosperity. These societal perceptions are important, particularly as the COVID-19 continues to put further pressure on the economy and health system.

Looking more specifically at the military’s role in governance, the ABS 2016 found that 38% of Indonesians surveyed “strongly agree” or “agree” that “the Army should come in to govern the country,” second only behind 54% in Thailand. The figure is down from 43% in 2011 but still represents a significant portion of those surveyed. Despite a history of military rule, various national surveys conducted across Indonesia over the past five years have shown consistently high levels of public trust in the military, over other institutions including the president and the popular Corruption Eradication Commission (KPK). The military scored an approval rating of 70.7% in a recent study that polled community satisfaction with government bodies during the first 100 days of Jokowi’s second term.

In addition to these domestic factors, there are international drivers shaping civil-military relations. As China’s increasingly brazen incursions into Indonesia’s exclusive economic zone (EEZ) have become even more high-profile in the Indonesian media than in previous years, there are greater public calls for protecting sovereignty. While Indonesia’s military modernization plan is still underway, further maritime upgrades are sorely needed for the air force and navy. Yet modernizing the military is a double-edged sword: it means assigning that responsibility, budget and, potentially, political credit to Jokowi’s former rival, Prabowo. Jokowi will also need to strike a careful balance between the services, given the land forces’ historical dominance in the military. Appointing a chief of military from the army, especially Lieutenant General Andika Perkasa (the son-in-law of a key advisor), could be one such way of placating that service.

Indonesia’s experience also appears to align with global trends in democratic regression, manifested in the election of less liberal figures who increasingly turn to the military and police for internal matters. In Brazil, a 2017 poll showed 43% support temporary revival for military control, before the 2018 election of ultra-conservative former army captain Jair Bolsonaro. In addition to other portfolios, Bolsanaro appointed former army generals to the posts of defense minister and institutional security minister. In the Philippines, where the defense minister is also a retired army general (albeit seen as capable and moderate), latest polls show 80% approval rating for the hot-headed president Rodrigo Duterte, who has used the police aggressively in a “war on drugs,” which has killed over 8,500 people according to the Philippine authorities and closer to 27,000 people according to human rights groups. There is a demonstration effect of increasing the presence of such figures in government and the use of armed forces in non-security roles elsewhere globally, resulting in the weakening of norms regarding civilian control, as well as fewer calls for the protection of liberal democratic rights.

COVID-19 tipping the balance

Like many countries, the Jokowi administration has deployed the military, alongside the police, to promote public health and enforce social distancing policies amidst the COVID-19 pandemic. As of mid-December 2020, Indonesia has had roughly 640,000 confirmed cases and 20,000 deaths. However, these might not reflect the true extent of the virus in the archipelago as many Indonesians fear the social stigma from a positive test result. Military figures have also been prominent at the national level, including the controversial health minister, retired army general Terawan Agus Putranto, known for attributing Indonesia’s low infection rates at the beginning of the pandemic to God, and the head of the National Agency for Disaster Prevention (Badan Nasional Penanggulangan Bencana, BNPB), Lieutenant General Doni Monardo, an active duty officer who is also chief of Indonesia’s Coronavirus Disease Response Acceleration Task Force.

It is not unusual for the military to be involved in humanitarian relief efforts and it is too early to tell the exact impact on civil-military relations. A study published in May by CSIS Indonesia found that while the government’s response to the pandemic involved many military assets, it was only “partly militarized” in the degree to which military officers are in positions of influence with regard to both policy decision-making and implementation. However, the armed forces’ role has intensified in recent months, particularly with a presidential instruction issued in August ordering that the military support local authorities, alongside the police, in monitoring public health protocols. The president also installed Army chief General Andika Perkasa and National Police deputy chief Commander General Gatot Eddy Pramono as deputy heads of the COVID-19 handling and national economic recovery committee.

The pandemic’s wider impacts, on the economy, the health system, and social cohesion, provide further potential for an intensified military role.

However, the pandemic’s wider impacts, on the economy, the health system, and social cohesion, provide further potential for an intensified military role. Before the pandemic, the country enjoyed GDP growth rates of 5% per annum. Now, the economy is suffering not just capital flight but struggling to finance COVID-19 response policies and to soften the blow of one of the most severe economic crises since the Great Depression. Poor and low-income families are under even greater strain. Aside from the high death rate among patients, the alarming number of deaths among health workers weakens Indonesia’s already overburdened and under-financed health system.

COVID-19 has also intensified anti-China sentiment domestically and regionally, which has heightened resentment towards Indonesians of Chinese heritage who have often been targets of racist attacks in the past. The more recent and high-profile attacks on Indonesia’s Chinese community came in the wake of massive protests in Jakarta in late 2016 against the city’s ethnically Chinese and Christian governor Basuki Tjahaja Purnama (known as Ahok) who was accused of blaspheming against the Quran. The protests and Ahok’s subsequent conviction in May 2017 are seen by some observers as further signs of social polarization and the “weaponisation” of blasphemy laws, further fracturing religious pluralism.

Anxieties about job security in the pandemic era have heightened dissatisfaction with the government. In early October, tens of thousands of workers and students protested in major capital cities against the administration’s attempts to pass “omnibus” law reforms, which lawmakers argue will make investment through deregulation. Protestors say the reforms strip away workers’ rights and environmental protection. These kinds of potential civil unrest provides further justification for the military to be involved, albeit alongside the police, given its historic internal security role. Despite announcing cuts to the defense budget due to fiscal pressures due to COVID-19 earlier in 2020, in August the finance minister announced a 16.2% increase in the 2021 budget, over the original 2020 defense budget of IDR 117.9 trillion (about $8.4 million), to help meet modernization targets. In short, the current conditions of COVID-exacerbated economic inequality and social polarization, coupled with a well-resourced military, could further shift norms around the military’s domestic role.

The road ahead: policy implications and recommendations

While the military has continued to play an important role in post-reformasi Indonesia, under the Jokowi administration, the domestic functions and political prominence of the armed forces have flourished. Jokowi’s successor will either come from a military background or need to follow his precedent of appeasing an important group of power brokers. Given the deep-held public trust in the military and its culture, particularly among older officers, this trend of accommodation will be hard to arrest. Thus, not only will Indonesia need financial support due to COVID-19, amidst Indonesia’s democratic regression, it is critical to ensure the safeguarding of other institutions that protect democratic rights and hold officials accountable, such as a free and active press, independent courts, and fair elections.

As the military’s role in domestic affairs intensified over the past five years, accelerating during the pandemic, the limits and scope of its involvement in civilian matters must be communicated clearly to the public and monitored closely, especially once pandemic conditions ease. To balance perceptions of military competence in civilian roles, a stronger and better supported civilian bureaucracy is needed. Like all ministerial portfolios, investment in education will be strained by COVID-19 recovery funding. Since boosting Indonesia’s human capital is a stated priority of Jokowi’s second term administration, education can be supported as a priority area for investment and policy development within the country and with external assistance.

As alluded to earlier, another potential implication from the current situation is the strengthening of political standing of military figures, especially Prabowo Subianto. Depending on perceptions of his track record as defense minister, Prabowo could run again for president in 2024, this time with experience in office. Already the Trump administration has had to accommodate Prabowo’s visit to Washington by easing his travel ban, smoothing ties ahead of a future rise. Thus far, while some analysts say it is too early to tell, the public has perceived Jokowi as having poorly managed the country’s early response against COVID-19, which could undermine perceptions of competent civilian leadership. By the end of his term as defense minister, without any serious gaffes, Prabowo and his retired military advisors could emerge as more significant political players even if he does not run again.

Overall, while Indonesia has made a remarkable transformation from authoritarianism to electoral democracy, several of the underlying currents from New Order civil-military relations have rolled back some of its liberal character. This is supported by broader ambivalence to liberal norms among Indonesians and high levels of trust in an older and more familiar institution. Indonesia’s ability to steer its democracy back into a healthy state will be hampered by its economic recovery and public health pressures, the extent of which is yet to be truly revealed. Some steps that partners might take to arrest the further rollback of Indonesia’s democratic gains would be to ensure the vibrancy of actors other than the military or police. These include a strong civilian defense bureaucracy, civil society, the university sector and the media. Many of these groups played a pivotal role in shaking up Indonesia’s political system leading up to Suharto’s fall and after, and will need bolstering in the coming years. This could come not just via funding but through capacity-building, research support, training and external networks. The country has transformed itself once—but where will it head next?