Henny Youngman and Indonesian military reform: part I
27 Mar 2013|

 U.S. Marines and Tentara Nasional Indonesia - Angkatan Laut (TNI) marines find concealment in the tall grass of Banongan Beach. (May 29, 2010)One of the routines of 1950s American stand-up comedian Henny Youngman was to have his sidekick ask: ‘So, Henny, how’s your wife?’ Youngman would face the audience, roll his eyes to the roof and fire back: ‘Compared to what?’

Many critics of post-New Order reform of Indonesia’s National Defence Forces (Tentara Nasional Indonesia, or TNI) could take a leaf from Youngman’s book of one-liners. Those who challenge the nature, extent and pace of TNI reform over the past 15 years mostly frame their judgments in absolute terms, unleavened by context or comparisons. The process of reform is viewed as an end in itself rather than a means of achieving the important goal of military professionalism. Those critics would do well to heed Youngman’s question; compared to what?

Some criticism of TNI reform is entirely valid. Serious contemporary scholarship, particularly out of the ANU, has highlighted Indonesia’s vulnerability to a Thai-type reversal, with Indonesia statistically facing the real chance of experiencing a military coup in the next two decades. While recognising the progress made by Indonesia in sector reform across the board, some analysts point to shortcomings that could jeopardise the consolidation of democracy in the world’s fourth largest nation.

But much of the criticism of TNI reform is selective and one-dimensional, presents only half a picture and is viewed through a Western liberal democratic lens.

One of the laments is that TNI lacks civilian control. This undersells the authority and reforms over the past decade by civilian defence ministers, professors Juwono Sudarsono and Purnomo Yusgiantoro. It ignores the oversight and budgetary approval function of Commission I of the Indonesian National Parliament. It also fails to grasp the important leadership role of President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono.

True, the chiefs of TNI and the national police occupy seats in Cabinet alongside the defence minister, unlike democracies in the West. Although this differs from the Westminster and Jeffersonian systems, it’s consistent with good government, Indonesia-style.

Criticism is also frequently levelled at the Indonesian Army’s territorial system, whereby the majority of the standing army is assigned throughout the archipelago, across 12 geographic Military Area Commands, comprising both conventional army units and largely locally-drawn, territorial units. This is seen by critics as anachronistic and unwanted by the populace, and a vestige of the oppressive Suharto-era system of internal control. But there are several inconvenient truths about this characterisation.

In the far-flung extremities of Indonesia, the army’s presence is the only tangible manifestation of national government. Contrary to the view of many critics, the overwhelming majority of Indonesians don’t support separatism within their borders and most Indonesians support their armed forces. In an annual opinion poll by Indonesia’s largest circulation national newspaper, Kompas, which solicits popular views on Indonesia’s various government agencies, TNI is regularly rated by Indonesians among the top two most respected and trusted organs of government.

The ability of the central government to mobilise the Army’s territorial system is also critical in time of natural calamity. When earthquake or floods strike, the president’s first ‘000’ call is to the commander of TNI, not his chief of police. Even with the establishment of a relatively new National Disasters Organization, the territorial system provides the skeletal framework onto which disaster response efforts can be grafted. In late 2010, TNI concurrently deployed some 20,000 troops in response to a tsunami off western Sumatra, an explosive volcano in central Java and major floods in the province of West Papua. This is thanks largely to the territorial system.

Much is made of the ‘impunity’ of TNI members, who don’t fall under the jurisdiction of civil law. This is where most critics stop, implying that soldiers are somehow above and beyond any form of justice or legal censure. There’s little recognition of the fact that Indonesian soldiers, like our own, are subject to disciplinary action under a code of military justice which has legal standing within the hierarchy of Indonesia’s national laws.

Those commentators who recognise the military code of justice rarely credit that nowadays charges are laid, offenders convicted and sentences handed down more than ever before. Some critics complain that courts martial are infrequent, inconsistent and lack transparency. Justice is seen as slow in coming and sentences are slammed as lenient. Compared to what?

If the corollary is that the civil legal system is better equipped and able to mete out justice swiftly and incorruptibly to TNI offenders, this isn’t a perception shared by Joe Citizen across Indonesia. Many Indonesians hold their legal system in very low regard. In a 2010 article, New Straits Times columnist John McBeth reported that sentences imposed on TNI soldiers convicted of human rights abuses in Papua were harsher than those imposed by a US court martial on all but three of the eleven military police convicted of torture and abuse at Baghdad’s Abu Ghraib prison.

TNI is still in the business of doing business, much of it camouflaged nowadays as ‘cooperatives’ or ‘foundations’ and an indeterminate proportion of TNI businesses operate illegally. And herein lays another (perhaps legitimate) layer of dissatisfaction with the course of TNI reform. It’s often argued that denying TNI such funding sources will increase civil control, on the grounds that whoever holds the purse strings will necessarily call the shots.

That argument is tenuous. To see why, we need to look no further than the experience of our neighbours in Papua New Guinea and East Timor for lessons on how restive troops can become when they are underpaid, underfed and underemployed. Most of Indonesia’s defence budget is spent on salary increases and on replacing obsolete equipment. The operational budgets of military commanders, which cover everything from barracks maintenance to the training and sustainment of forces, are often, at least to some degree, self-funded.  Until this is properly addressed, extracting TNI from business enterprises will be difficult. It’s clear that the inter-ministerial body set up in October 2009 to oversee the takeover of TNI enterprises by other government departments has had little impact. TNI Inc. will likely be around for some years yet.

Most critics concede that the lion’s share of military reform achieved since the start of the reform era has been at the initiative of the TNI leadership itself, notably General Wiranto and General Endriartono Sutarto. When reform was thrust upon it, TNI responded by abruptly withdrawing from all forms of active politics and disassociating itself from the former ruling Golkar Party, by abolishing the system of sinecures in provincial government and civil administration for high-ranking officers, surrendering its one-third of seats in the People’s Consultative Assembly and formulating its own philosophical basis to guide future reforms, known as the ‘New Paradigm’.

But in recent years the pace of reform has stalled and some commentators warn of possible backsliding, noting that military reform is reversible. They’re right, of course, but they’re less accurate in sheeting home blame to TNI for this drift. Instead, the administration and the National Parliament must bear the principal responsibility for enacting and enforcing legislation, which has been painfully slow in all public sectors during President Yudhoyono’s second term.

In my next post, I’ll address what yardsticks we might employ to better gauge the extent of TNI reform.

Gary Hogan is a former Professor of Grand Strategy at the US National Defense University. He was the first foreigner to graduate from Indonesia’s Institute of National Governance (Lemhannas) and was Australia’s Defence Attaché to Indonesia 2009 to 2012. Image courtesy of Flickr user #PACOM.