Indonesia’s defence and foreign policy and Widodo’s new-look cabinet
31 Oct 2019|

Last week, newly inaugurated Indonesian President Joko ‘Jokowi’ Widodo introduced one of his new ministers with these words: ‘I believe I don’t have to tell him about his job—he knows more than I do.’ Until then, few would have imagined Jokowi picking his former presidential rival, Prabowo Subianto, to fill the key position of defence minister and, as he put it, ‘build a democracy that upholds mutual cooperation’. Picking Prabowo gives a measure of theoretical stability to the effort to eliminate opposition to the president’s second-term agenda, but that needs to be tested in practice.

Hailing from a well-known family of wealth and political influence, Prabowo is a former army general, member of the notorious special forces unit (Kopassus) and son-in-law of former president Suharto. Having run (and lost) against Jokowi twice, he now has a chance to fulfil some of his ambition to lead national policy—well, one part of it anyway.

Prabowo could be good for Indonesia’s defence posture. Jokowi is right: his former foe has the right background to take on defence matters and push forward the final stage of the military’s modernisation program, known as the Minimum Essential Force.

During the election campaign and in his speeches, Prabowo espoused strong ideas about China (which might need tempering) and the exploitation of Indonesia’s natural resources by foreign entities (although he said nothing about the domestic management of those resources). The portfolio is a chance for Prabowo to make good on some of those promises. Strengthening Indonesia’s maritime defences, bolstered by the opening of a new base in the Natuna Islands, is a key priority area. And he’ll have the resources that he’ll need. In August, the government allocated a budget increase for 2020 of 127.4 trillion rupiah (A$13.05 billion), an increase of 16% over 2019, to cover costs for modernised equipment and personnel.

Whatever Prabowo’s plans for national defence, his priorities must include strengthening the military’s readiness for responding to disasters, including droughts, earthquakes, landslides and forest fires. While this should primarily be an issue for National Disaster Mitigation Agency (BNPB, run by army general Doni Monardo), the military is a first responder throughout the archipelago because of its size, presence and logistic and engineering capacities.

On the other hand, Jokowi’s off-the-cuff remark about Prabowo knowing more than he does isn’t necessarily a good thing for Indonesia’s civil–military relations. It reinforces the belief that the military is the organisation that’s most able to take care of the defence portfolio. Prabowo’s appointment follows a five-year stint by former army chief Ryamizard Ryucudu. The country’s first civilian defence minister, Professor Juwono Sudarsono, who served under presidents Wahid and Yudhoyono, had invested in building up the country’s civilian defence expertise to balance the influence of the military, the legacy of which was continued during Yudhoyono’s time with a decade of civilian defence ministers. As helpful as Prabowo’s military credentials might be, his appointment is a lost opportunity to demonstrate civilian capacity—and thus different thinking—in the portfolio and to provide a prominent role model for defence civilians.

The army chief, General Andika Perkasa—who is the son-in-law of Jokowi’s adviser, former general AM Hendropriyono—is the current favourite to ascend to the top military job. If he’s appointed, the influence of army men in the president’s defence and security circles will be further cemented.

Jokowi chose retired Lieutenant General Fachrul Razi as religious affairs minister and the head of the National Police, General Tito Karnavian, as home affairs minister. It’s common for retired military officers to enter politics and become ministers, but the thinking of these figures will inevitably permeate their portfolios. Karnavian comes with a strong reputation in counterterrorism and dealing with Papua. His appointment, together with the appointment of former chief justice of the Constitutional Court Mahfud MD as coordinating minister for political, law and security affairs, could enable Jokowi to strike a balance between law enforcement and military approaches.

Prabowo himself has a seriously dark side. His role in the kidnapping of political activists in 1997 and 1998 has raised objections domestically, particularly among mothers whose children were victims. Documents leaked in 2014 show that his dismissal from the military was the result of his hand in forced disappearances that Jokowi had said he’d investigate. Prabowo’s appointment shows us that human rights and accountability, as outlined last week by Olivia Tasevski, are seemingly not a priority for this second-term president.

What about Australia? Prabowo seems largely pragmatic when it comes to dealing with Australia. However, he served in East Timor, so it’s possible he might invoke narratives about alleged Australian interference in Indonesian sovereignty when it’s politically convenient to do so. Such narratives continue to have emotional traction among sections of the Indonesian public and dovetail well with Prabowo’s more nationalistic, particularly populist, election promises.

It isn’t the first time that Australia, the US or UK has partnered with militaries with a history of systemic human rights violations and with figures with questionable backgrounds. Even if those militaries today have largely purged many old habits, figures such as Prabowo represent the older generation, and that will continue to raise objections from some quarters in Australia.

Prabowo’s appointment follows a long line of controversial military figures in Indonesian politics, so in some ways nothing’s new. That said, the Australian government must follow its usual practices in being accountable to the community while explaining with care and respect why this is to the greater good—as murky, disconcerting and unsatisfying as that might sometimes seem. Prabowo might not be ideal but, for now, he’s what Indonesia has got—and, by extension, what we’ve got.