January 6, 2005 | Commentary on National Security and Defense

A Tsunami Brings Opportunities to Indonesia

A devastating tsunami that slammed into Indonesia's Aceh province on Dec. 26 brought the Indonesian military its most daunting challenge ever -- and with it, unparalleled opportunity.

As the center and coordinator of Indonesia's relief effort, its military, also known as the TNI, will find itself in the international media spotlight as never before. This affords the opportunity for the TNI to demonstrate that democratic reform ha s transformed it from a state-sponsored mafia into a professional military dedicated to the security of Indonesia.

Today, the reforms are incomplete and the military still depends on funds from corruption. The TNI will have wide leeway in how it distribute s the hundreds of millions of dollars of international aid headed its way. Will the temptation prove too much? Will the world's television screens show scenes of arrogant soldiers or police misusing or stealing relief supplies or funds? Or will the milita ry seize this opportunity to show its professionalism and its commitment to cleaning up its act?

The answers to these questions will depend in large part on the strength of the leadership of newly elected President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono. He promised duri ng his campaign to eradicate corruption from the government and military, and already some reforms are in place. But the reputation of his country, and especially its military, rests on his ability to quickly implement measures that will reduce the TNI's temptation to steal aid meant for tsunami victims.

The TNI has been moving toward becoming more professional since the fall of President Suharto in 1998. In 2000, the police were formally separated from the military. Last Sept. 1, TNI's courts were placed u nder the authority of Indonesia's Supreme Court and on Sept. 30, the military's appointed members to the legislature stepped down. Now any officer who wants to serve in the government must first resign or retire from the military.

Yet, institutional flaws continue to invite corruption and human-rights abuses. In particular, in order to fully professionalize the police and military, President Yudhoyono must address three specific areas:

  • Strengthen civilian control of the police and military. Indonesia does have a civilian-led Ministry of Defense, but the minister does not outrank the military chiefs and has limited budgetary and policy powers. Each military-service chief reports directly to the president.
  • Apply civil law to the military. Although the mili tary's tribunal now functions as part of the Supreme Court, members of the TNI are still not subject to civil law and can be tried only in military courts, and the TNI does little to discipline its ranks. Security forces continue to be criticized for a va riety of abuses, including extrajudicial killings, arbitrary arrest, torture and rape.

Reports have already emerged that Indonesian soldiers are terrorizing tsunami refugees in Aceh, especially those believed to be associated with the terrorist Free Aceh Mo vement. Placing the military under civil law provides no guarantee soldiers will be held accountable, but it would create a check on their behavior that does not exist now.
  • Properly fund the military and pay its soldiers. Only 30% of the TNI's budget com es from the Indonesian government. The rest comes from unaccountable off-budget sources, such as illegal logging, poaching, drug smuggling and protection rackets. Police officers openly accept and even solicit donations, but they are not required to accou nt for those extrabudget funds. Not only does pursuit of off-budget funding distract soldiers and police from the relief effort and rob aid from refugees, it destroys the very basis of social trust and contributes to the breakdown of the rule of law.
It would be impossible for President Yudhoyono to resolve 60 years of TNI corruption during the course of disaster-relief operations in Aceh. For now, he should provide bonus salary for those who participate in relief operations to prevent them from moonlightin g to feed their families. He should also appoint a civilian leader -- one with the political stature and administrative capability to inspire trust -- and place this person above all military units that participate in the relief efforts.

And finally, since even these measures probably won't end corruption in the TNI, the president should appoint a special prosecutor with authority to pursue incidents of corruption related to the tsunami relief effort, including those involving members of the military.

What happened in Indonesia on Dec. 26 was a great tragedy. What follows -- if proper leadership is provided -- could be a great moment in Indonesia's history.

Dana Dillon is a senior policy analyst in the Asian Studies Center at the Heritage Foundation.

About the Author

Dana Robert Dillon Senior Policy Analyst
Asian Studies Center

First appeared in The Asian Wall Street Journal