Jokowi and the General
13 Jan 2017|

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After the debacle over Indonesian Armed Forces (TNI) commander General Gatot Nurmantyo’s short-lived unilateral suspension of military co-operation with Australia, can President Joko Widodo afford to let his military chief serve through until his mandatory retirement next year?

It wasn’t the first time that the 56-year-old Nurmantyo has blindsided the country’s commander-in-chief and it mightn’t be the last given his growing reputation as a loose cannon and his apparent ambition to run in the 2019 presidential election.

Lacking any political party support, it isn’t that he’s shaping up as a genuine election threat at this stage. And the lesson of his predecessor is notable: General Moeldoko had the same misguided ambition before melting into obscurity after he handed over command in July 2015.

But Nurmantyo has clearly unsettled Widodo because of his alleged links to the hardline Islamic Defenders Front (FPI) and other Muslim groups which staged the two recent mass demonstrations against Jakarta’s ethnic-Chinese governor, Basuki Tjahaya Purnama. Insiders say the president suspects Purnama, now on trial for blasphemy, wasn’t the only target of the protests and that political rivals are using the case to weaken him ahead of 2019 when he’s expected to run for re-election.

Nurmantyo may have done some damage to relations with Canberra, but the impact won’t be far-reaching thanks to the efforts of Widodo, political coordinating minister Wiranto and even nationalistic Defence Minister Ryamizard Ryacudu to help smooth things over.

Firing senior figures for insubordination is rarely done in Indonesia, but Nurmantyo’s actions are making Widodo look weak and ineffectual—something he can ill-afford at this stage of the political game. Short of dismissing him, the president may do the next best thing and apply police pressure on FPI leader Habib Rizieq, the racist firebrand who has become increasingly emboldened in his campaign to turn Indonesia into an Islamic state.

As army chief of staff in the early 2000s, Ryamizard was equally problematic, openly opposing the 2005 Aceh peace agreement and expressing suspicions about Indonesian officers who were being trained abroad—just as Nurmantyo is doing now. President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono did nothing at the time, but he subsequently sidelined Ryamizard, who despite all the misgivings at the time of his appointment to the defence portfolio, has mellowed with age.  

The days when the military seemed to be a conduit to higher office in Indonesia are long gone, even if Yudhoyono rose to the rank of a three-star general during his 27-year military career. It was only after president Abdurrahman Wahid plucked him from the military to become mines and energy minister and later political coordinating minister that he started on the path to the Presidential Palace.

Unlike Nurmantyo and Moeldoko, Yudhoyono is highly-educated and, for all his many faults, brought Indonesia back onto the world stage after languishing in the shadows through the early chaotic years of democratic rule. Nurmantyo is a throwback to an earlier era, an ultra-nationalist who has never had outside experience and believes Australians and other foreigners are engaged in a so-called ‘proxy war’ aimed at eventually taking over Indonesia.

A 1982 military academy graduate, Nurmantyo would have only been a captain when the US suspended all military co-operation with Indonesia over the 1991 Dili massacre, a ban that stayed in place until 2005. As a result, a generation of Indonesian officers were deprived of the opportunity to train overseas, an education that would have widened their horizons and perhaps stifled a national tendency to buy into wild conspiracy theories.

Nurmantyo does that in spades. He’s been spreading his fiery proxy war diatribes in speeches and on social media since becoming chief of the Army Strategic Reserve (Kostrad), Indonesia’s main combat formation, in 2013.

The General claims ‘many countries’ are jealous of Indonesia’s economic performance and its rich store of natural resources and shares the widely-held suspicion that US Marines training in northern Australia have their eyes on seizing Papua. ‘Tainted officers (like him) are unable to see the Pentagon is running out of midnight oil planning the destabilization of Indonesia,’ says one US graduate of Indonesia’s Command and Staff College. ‘We left a generation of officers in the dark and shouldn’t be surprised at the result.’

Widodo, for his part, has only himself to blame for hand-picking Nurmantyo as Moeldoko’s replacement and ignoring what had become the new democratic-era tradition of rotating the TNI’s top post among the three armed services.

Under that process, the job should have gone to air force commander Air Chief Marshal Agus Supriatna. But he had only just been promoted and Widodo needed an army man with experience as he struggled to deal with ruling Indonesian Democratic Party for Struggle (PDI) leader Megawati Sukarnoputri and her favoured candidate for national police chief.

Some analysts exaggerate Nurmantyo’s links to the FPI and overlook what loyalty he may or may not command among the rest of the army leadership, where only deputy army chief Lt-General Erwin Syafitri, 57, is a 1982 classmate—and he’s due to retire in April. Low-key army chief General  Mulyono, 56, is a 1983 graduate and Lieutenant-General Edy Rahmayadi, 55, the head of the Kostrad, comes from the class of 1985. Both will step down in 2019 as the army goes through another generational change which Indonesian analysts doubt will be any more enlightened than the last.

In the meantime, how Widodo manages to regain his balance is going to be closely watched. By failing to stand his ground and show who’s in charge, he risks leaving the door open in 2019 to the possible return of someone who does—his 2014 presidential rival, tough-minded opposition leader and retired general Prabowo Subianto.