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War and Peace: Tensions Between Indonesia's Military and Police

23 Oct 2017
By Robert Lowry
Indonesian Army Soldiers

The Indonesian military continues to be heavily involved in state civil affairs, much to the dislike of the police who are weary of persistent interference. But with upcoming elections, President Widodo is set on keeping the peace between the two groups.

On 29 September the Indonesian military (TNI) impounded weapons and ammunition imported by the police. They have since released the weapons but retained the ammunition until it is determined whether the police are authorised to have such weapons. The weapon causing concern was a 40mm grenade launcher that can fire non-lethal (rubber bullets, tear gas and smoke) as well as lethal ammunition. The ammunition confiscated was of the latter variety which could be used in counter terrorism and counter insurgency operations. The event demonstrates the ongoing political role of the TNI and its ambitions for a more autonomous role in internal security.

The incident also revealed that the purchase was not conducted in accordance with the law on the defence industry which regulates whether weapons must be obtained domestically or can be purchased from foreign suppliers. It also revealed that the purchase was made through an agent rather than through government channels inferring corruption in the process of acquisition. However, the military did not make too much of this because it has its own problems in this regard.

There were also some references to legal uncertainties and the intention to clarify the law and regulations. The underlying issue, however, is competition between the TNI and the police that has been a feature of Indonesian politics since the inception of the state. It is rooted in different conceptions of national security and what role the military should play in internal security vis-a-vis the police.

In legal terms, the police are responsible for law enforcement and internal security. In simple terms, law enforcement involves bringing to account people who are suspected of breaking the law. Internal security has a much broader remit embracing the maintenance of public order (during demonstrations and other mass gatherings), prevention (deradicalisation of extremists, community education, and security services), and enforcement (crowd control, counter terrorism and counter insurgency operations). Obviously, the two functions overlap.

Although the police have primary responsibility, they can call for military assistance or the president can mandate it, as President Joko Widodo did in relation to counter terrorist operations in Poso in 2015. Tensions have risen in recent years particularly because the last two military chiefs, Generals Moeldoko and Gatot Nurmantyo, have pushed for a more autonomous role in internal security through presidential decrees, a proposed national security law, and amendments currently being considered by parliament to the counter terrorism law.

The post-1998 laws fixing the role and tasks of the police and the military provide for subordinate legislation on the provision of military support to the police. The military has blocked the formulation of such legislation preferring to use outdated legislation, presidential decrees, and more informal arrangements designed to keep open the possibility of a broader remit being inserted in the much delayed national security law.

The same applies to the confiscation of the ammunition mentioned above. The TNI does not want the police to improve their internal security capabilities thus raising the threshold at which military support has to be called. What role the military should play in support of the civil authority and how it should be mobilised and controlled is a legitimate question. In a democracy such matters should be decided by the government and legislature not the military but in Indonesia the military still exercises such prerogatives through a broad definition of its defence writ.

At face value, President Jokowi gave an anodyne address at the Armed Forces Day parade on 5 October 2017 about long-established normative doctrine on civil military relations. At another level, the fact that he did so rather than concentrate on past glories and aspirations for the development of the military can be read as rebuke to the military for crossing the line on civil military relations on several occasions over the last year—including in this case.

However, Jokowi has to tread a fine line because he needs both the police and the TNI to maintain public order in the lead-up to the 171 simultaneous regional elections to be conducted in June next year. Seeking to avoid the sort of tensions that marred the Jakarta elections late last year, the president, accompanied by the police chief and TNI chief, told a gathering of police leaders from across the archipelago on 9 October, that the two forces needed to retain their cohesion, remain apolitical, and resistant to the blandishments of political parties and forces that still believe that the support of the police and TNI might bring electoral success.

Some of the tensions will be alleviated when Nurmantyo’s term as TNI chief expires early next year, assuming he is replaced by a non-army appointee. Meanwhile, as Jokowi continues to promote a ‘mental revolution’ designed to encourage Indonesians to engage with the world and become globally competitive, the TNI chief continues to roam the country promoting conspiracy theories about how global warming, overpopulation, and resource depletion will make Indonesia a target for legions of state and non-state actors seeking to wrest control of its resources. The purpose is to convince the people of the centrality of the TNI in the survival of the country against both domestic and external threats and, as some commentators suspect, to promote his own post-military political prospects.

Central to resolving these tensions must be an objective and comprehensive review of national security that clarifies the role, functions and tasks of the security agencies as well as national command and control arrangements as suggested by Lieutenant General Agus Widjojo in his 2015 book on the transformation of the TNI.

Bob Lowry is president of the ACT Branch of the Australian Institute of Institutional Affairs, author of ‘The Armed Forces of Indonesia’ (Allen&Unwin, 1996) and a student of the Indonesian military and politics.

This article is published under a Creative Commons Licence and may be republished with attribution.