Indonesian peacekeeping and civil–military relations: a double-edged sword
6 Jul 2021|

During Indonesia’s two-year stint on the United Nation’s Security Council (2019–2020), the country made significant gains not just in promoting peacekeeping operations but in augmenting the role of female peacekeepers with the passing of Indonesian-sponsored resolution 2538.

Since its first first peacekeeping deployment of 559 infantry personnel to Sinai in 1957, Indonesia’s commitment to UN peace missions has met many of the country’s foreign and defence policy objectives as well as domestic interests.

Most notably, these operations have strengthened Indonesia’s constitutionally mandated obligation to be a ‘free and active’ contributor to global peace and stability. Its participation has garnered reputational dividends for its military, the Tentara Nasional Indonesia (TNI), and police, the Kepolisian Republik Indonesia (POLRI).

Domestically, Indonesia’s peacekeeping is also driven by a belief that it will enhance military professionalism by promoting interoperability and enhancing skills. However, peacekeeping might be a double-edged sword: what works in the short term for Indonesia’s military capacity may throw up challenges for civil–military relations in the long run. While there are several other factors like patronage systems and strongman nostalgia that influence the civil–military balance in the archipelago, the impact of UN peacekeeping has been a relatively underexamined area in scholarly and policy analysis.

Since 1998, both civilian and uniformed leaders have pushed for reform of the TNI, starting with its exit from formal politics and separation from the police. Policymakers have also endeavoured to build up the military’s reputation as a capable and externally focused fighting force, leaving behind memories of human rights violations and an obsession for internal security.

Normatively, while civilians’ influence over the military has grown, including in the development of defence policy, budgets and procurement, uniformed members still hold considerable sway over state affairs. Active and retired generals serve as senior ministers, advisers and the heads of critical taskforces, and the military has a pervasive presence throughout the archipelago due to its territorial command system.

Peacekeeping affects civil–military relations in three areas. The first is military culture, often defined as the institutional beliefs, practices, attitudes and preferences of a military. It’s important for  armed forces’ identity and cohesion, and can also mean a military’s ‘way of war’ or how it fights. Indonesian leaders have attempted to shift the TNI’s culture away from an internally focused and land-based mindset to a more externally focused and maritime-based outlook.

However, as numerous studies show, cultural change takes time. With the lion’s share of Indonesian peacekeeping being land-based operations, there’s ample justification for the army to receive additional funding, resources and training while gaining international experience.

Since 2009, Jakarta has contributed naval assets to the UN Maritime Task Force in Lebanon to support the Lebanese navy; however, that represents a limited proportion of Indonesian peacekeepers. For instance, out of 1,300 personnel deployed in 2018, only around 100 came from the navy. The reputational dividend largely goes to ground forces, privileging army officers. This added international exposure potentially reinforces the army’s sense of primacy among the services, and further promotes a land-based culture and influence within the military. As has been demonstrated during Joko Widodo’s presidency, active and retired army officers are often first picks for important roles.

Peacekeeping commitments also justify the TNI’s expansive territorial system across 15 regional commands (or KODAMs) which privilege land-based forces. Due to its geographic circumstances and historical trajectory, Indonesia maintains a military presence throughout the archipelago, in a system that mirrors civilian administration from the provincial level down to the village level.

Indonesian academic Muhamad Haripin notes in a recent book about the country’s non-war military operations that the TNI maintains that the community engagement skills soldiers learn in remote areas of the archipelago are useful in training them for peacekeeping operations and vice versa. He says this logic allows senior military officials to argue that the territorial system is justified, as are its attendant resources, to meet Indonesia’s foreign policy interests.

While the territorial system was touted as a potential area for reform after 1998, it has endured. Not only has there been a lack of political will to reform it, but it remains useful. The military’s sprawling presence allows it to engage remote communities and, in many cases, the TNI is the only force with the strategic lift, logistics and command-and-control capabilities to properly respond to the country’s frequent natural disasters.

The military’s remote presence has led to its involvement in areas such as education, counter-radicalisation and health, muddying the division of labour between security forces and civilians.

For Australia, there are several gains from Indonesia’s continuing passion for peacekeeping. For one, both governments have committed to working towards a co-deployment of their militaries on a future UN peacekeeping mission, representing a ‘new chapter’ in their comprehensive strategic partnership.

Expectations of progress on this co-deployment need to be managed, however, in the context of Covid-19 resource constraints. It’s also in Australia’s interests to see further professionalisation of Indonesia’s military and police through international experience. From Canberra’s strategic perspective, while land forces are important for the kinds of potential amphibious operations Indonesia would need to prepare for to defend its Natuna Islands, peacekeeping represents an untapped opportunity to bolster the naval forces Jakarta needs to guard its exclusive economic zone.

It’s clear that Indonesia and the international community derive many important benefits from peacekeeping. Indonesia’s global reach and presence as a security actor are welcome and Jakarta should rightly be proud of its commitments. It’s among the top 10 contributing countries to UN peace missions since 2017.

However, complexities in domestic civil–military relations result from deploying Indonesian military and police on these operations. The continuing professionalisation of the armed forces must be balanced against the need for a stronger maritime culture. Maintaining a clearer division of labour between civil and military forces while strengthening the forces is no simple feat.

By being cognisant of some of the tensions and interactions between its foreign policy objectives and domestic aims, and making the requisite adjustments, Indonesia can continue to maximise the value of its contributions to international security while maintaining a civil–military balance at home.