Indonesian domestic security and the presidential election

Commentary by Zachary Abuza
Indonesian domestic security and the presidential election Presidential candidates Ganjar Pranowo (left), Prabowo Subianto and Anies Baswedan stand on the stage during the presidential candidates’ debate in Jakarta, Dec. 12, 2023.
Tatan Syuflana/AP

The Indonesian parliament’s controversial approval of the new military chief in late November prompted concerns that Joko “Jokowi” Widodo, the president who appointed him, was trying to extend his influence beyond his constitutionally limited two terms.

The bumping up of Gen. Agus Subiyanto to the top military slot, after he served as the army chief for less than a month, was also a reminder that domestic security and the role of the military resonate as electoral issues with important implications for democracy in Indonesia.

On these issues, there are distinct differences among Prabowo Subianto, Anies Baswedan and Ganjar Pranowo – the three presidential candidates running for election on Feb. 14 to succeed Jokowi.  

Gen. Maruli Simanjuntak, Indonesia’s new army chief who succeeded Gen. Agus Subiyanto after he was promoted to the country’s military chief, reacts as he speaks to the media after his swearing-in ceremony at Merdeka Palace in Jakarta, Nov. 29, 2023. [Achmad Ibrahim/AP]

In the nine years since Jokowi first took office, the Indonesian military (TNI) has clawed back significant authorities that it ceded when democracy was born in Indonesia starting with the fall of President Suharto, the longtime dictator, in May 1998. 

President Jokowi’s first minister of defense, Ryamizard Ryacudu, outlined a national security doctrine, known as Bela Negara, which identified secessionism, illegal narcotics, communism and LGBTQ rights as the greatest national security threats to the republic. Ryucudu reinstated many civil militias and involved the military in food security and other civilian functions.

In 2018, after the terrorist attacks in Surabaya, Parliament rushed the passage of a controversial counterterrorism bill that allowed for preemptive detention and restored counterterrorist authorities to the military; the sole purview of the police since 1999.

After the 2019 general election, Jokowi offered the Ministry of Defense portfolio to Prabowo, who had been banned from entering the United States because of well-founded allegations of human rights abuses during his time as an army special forces commander in East Timor, and in fomenting unrest in Jakarta in 1998.

Although Prabowo has focused largely on trying to modernize Indonesia’s military, he never rolled back his predecessor’s Bela Negara policy.

Members of Indonesia’s Student Forum for Reform and Democracy burn a portrait of Suharto during their protest against the former president in Jakarta, May 21, 1999. [Jonathan Perugia, AP file photo]

Under Jokowi, the military clearly has been trying to regain civil authority that it gave up in 2004 (Law No. 34). In May 2023, the TNI proposed the re-establishment of territorial commands in each of the 38 provinces; a move backed by Prabowo, but provoking a backlash from democracy and human rights activists.

On Oct. 2, 2023, a new civil service law went into effect (Law No. 20), which revives some of the Suharto-era dwi fungsi (dual function) provisions. Article 19 of the new law, for example, allows active duty military and police officers to concurrently serve in civil administrative positions.

Also in October, defense chief Prabowo attended the inauguration of the Reserve Component of the Indonesian National Armed Forces, known as KOMCAD, with Jokowi. The ceremony saw the intake of at least 3,000 civilians into what is expected to be a 25,000-member reserve force that has Prabowo’s staunch backing.

Fuzzy positions among candidates

If Prabowo’s stance on civilian oversight and accountability are unclear, those of his rivals are not a lot better. Both Ganjar and Anies have criticized Prabowo’s human rights record, but have given few details in public on their views about civil-military relations, security sector reform, and accountability. 

Perhaps where we are seeing the divide among the candidates emerge most clearly is on the issue of Papua, the insurgency-stricken region that has seen an increase in violence since 2021.  

The government and security forces have maintained a hard line and not countenanced a peace process along the lines of with the Free Aceh Movement (GAM) in 2005.

In April 2021, the government designated the West Papua National Liberation Army (TPNPB) a terrorist organization after the group assassinated the Indonesian intelligence chief in the Papua region. In June 2022, Jakarta established three new provinces in Papua in a bid to further consolidate its administrative control.

This prompted the TPNPB to more systematically target Indonesian security forces and the mining sector. In October, TPNPB militants killed 13 non-Papuan civilians at a gold mine and on Nov. 25, four police officers. The TPNPB still holds a New Zealand pilot captured on Feb. 7, 2023.

Security forces have responded to this increase in insurgent activity with their own dirty war that has included the intentional targeting of civilian populations and the destruction of schools and houses of worship. Security forces were accused of mutilating the bodies of five TPNPB members killed in a raid and have been accused of killing suspected rebels in custody.

Indonesian presidential candidates Ganjar Pranowo (left), Prabowo Subianto and Anies Baswedan pose after the first presidential election debate at the General Elections Commission (KPU) office in Jakarta, Dec. 12, 2023. [Yasuyoshi Chiba/AFP]

Yet against this backdrop, during the first televised debate among presidential candidates on Dec. 12, Prabowo quickly resorted to tropes when discussing Papua: “We see that certain forces always want Indonesia to break up and disintegrate.”

Labeling the TPNPB as “terrorists,” he blamed “geopolitics, ideology” for the ongoing insurgency, not security force excesses or impunity, according to the South China Morning Post.

Without offering any evidence, Prabowo asserted that “we see foreign interference there.”

Anies pushed back, arguing that the “lack of justice is the main problem in Papua.”

If elected, Prabowo, the current frontrunner, can be expected to maintain the current policies and give the security forces the resources and political cover to put down the Papuan rebellion. But neither Ganjar nor Anies has clearly articulated the need for a peace process or political solution to the conflict. 

While on the campaign trail last month during a visit to Papua, Ganjar made little mention of the issue of Papuan secessionism or counter insurgency. He simply spoke of the need for improved local governance, greater economic development and educational opportunities.  

In addition to the human rights situation, the conflict in Papua has important implications beyond the restive region. A parliamentary committee is investigating the civilian intelligence agency for the illegal import of mortar shells from Serbia for use in Papua. Meanwhile, the government is still blocking access to the region for international media and still routinely restricts internet access.

Given Prabowo’s surge in the polls – now close to 38% – civil-military relations and security force accountability have become more important than in any previous election.

Zachary Abuza is a professor at the National War College in Washington and an adjunct at Georgetown University. The views expressed here are his own and do not reflect the position of the U.S. Department of Defense, the National War College, Georgetown University or BenarNews.


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