Too Soon to Resume Military-to-Military Engagement with Indonesia

Report Asia

Too Soon to Resume Military-to-Military Engagement with Indonesia

September 21, 2000 18 min read
Dana Dillon
Dana Dillon
Policy Analyst

Indonesia, the fourth most populous country in the world and a cornerstone of security and economic development in Southeast Asia, is a continuing source of international concern amid worries that President Abdurrahman Wahid is not in control. The September 14 car bombing under Jakarta's stock exchange, which killed at least 15 people, is only the latest example of the instability in this nation of 6,000 inhabited islands. Just weeks ago, an Indonesian military-supported, militia-led mob killed three United Nations relief workers in West Timor, including one American. Yet the Clinton Administration, which has condemned Jakarta for not keeping order and controlling its military, is working to renew U.S. military engagement with Indonesia's military, the National Armed Forces (TNI).1

The TNI is widely considered responsible for the September 1999 chaos in East Timor and the armed attacks that continue in that newly independent state. About 120,000 refugees who fled last year's violence remain scattered in camps in West Timor. Militias continue to terrorize them as well as U.N. workers. All international aid workers were withdrawn from West Timor in September 2000 as a result of the continued presence and activities of army-sponsored militias. The TNI is also being held responsible for provoking bloody sectarian violence in the Moluccas islands and for the savage suppression of independence movements in the provinces of Aceh and Irian Jaya (Western Papua). It also retains important political appointments in the legislature, even after the government's transition from an authoritarian dictatorship to a nascent democracy, and owns legal and illegal business ventures in all the provinces.

To remedy Indonesia's numerous security problems, the National Defense University's Institute for National Security Studies, in Washington D.C., recommended that the United States increase "the number of TNI officers enrolled in professional military education institutions in the United States."2 This traditional solution to civil-military problems of increasing the number of Indonesian soldiers trained in U.S. military schools is unlikely to resolve Indonesia's numerous problems. It is time for a new approach.

A better way to address Indonesia's enduring problems would be to continue forgoing military-to-military training for Indonesia until the TNI is under Jakarta's control and placed under civilian authority. The TNI must demonstrate that it respects the rule of law. Indonesian officers who have received training in the United States should be encouraged to use that training to build a professional armed force in Indonesia by sharing the values they learned about democratic ideals and the importance of a civil society.

Engagement with foreign militaries, especially in the form of military schooling, has become an increasingly important national security tool. It offers an opportunity for the United States to build important relationships with foreign armed forces, particularly those of its allies and potential coalition partners. It also helps small or poorly funded forces to develop institutional strength. Finally, military-to-military engagement helps to spread democratic values and respect for the rule of law.

During the Cold War, it was easy to argue that engagement with the Indonesian armed forces was beneficial. At that time, Southeast Asia was a hotbed of Cold War confrontation. In 1965, Indonesia had the largest communist party outside of the communist bloc; it received extensive Soviet military support; and its army was locked in a power struggle with the communists. In 1966, after a bloody purge of the communists, Suharto assumed the presidency, backed by the Indonesian army. Suharto's reign ended in 1998 when he was forced from power in a democratic revolution.

Although the Indonesian government was authoritarian and undemocratic, the Cold War and the fact that the Indonesian armed forces shared America's security objective of a non-communist Indonesia justified U.S. engagement with the regime. Nevertheless, at the conclusion of the Cold War, the U.S. Department of Defense did not reevaluate its strategy. Military-to-military engagement was still touted as the best way to influence the government of Indonesia.3

The results of this policy decision have been dismal. Indonesia's military remains systemically corrupt, and the professional education of many of its officers in the United States did little to change the nature of the armed forces. Engagement, instead of fostering such American interests as political stability, economic development, and democracy, allowed the Indonesian armed forces to create or aggravate every security crisis in the country.

Today, the Indonesian military and its activities are the greatest threat to the security and territorial integrity of Indonesia. The TNI is heavily vested in both public and private power structures. It owns businesses throughout the islands. Members of the military have been appointed to the national legislature. And its officers show little respect for the law, despite decades of military engagement with the United States. Though various officials in Washington praise military-to-military engagement with Indonesia, they fail to show how engagement with Indonesia's armed forces is complementing U.S. foreign policy objectives. From Aceh, Indonesia's westernmost province, to Irian Jaya, the easternmost, the TNI has been intimately involved in civilian society; worse, it has instigated or aggravated nearly every security crisis.

"Sweeping Operations" in Aceh
The chronic insurgency in Aceh seeks independence or substantive autonomy from Jakarta. Although the Indonesian government negotiated a "humanitarian pause" for peaceful negotiations with the rebel group GAM ( Gerakan Aceh Merdeka ), both the military forces and the national police largely ignore the truce. Sixty-four people were killed in Aceh this year between the start of a truce on June 2 and August 21.4 Of those, 51 were civilians.

The TNI's maneuvers in Aceh, called "sweeping operations," typically move troops into an area; these troops proceed to rob indiscriminately, burn villages to the ground, and shoot anyone engaged in suspicious behavior--which could include anything from raising an Aceh flag to sitting peacefully in a café. When a military unit moves into an area to conduct a sweeping operation, the inhabitants flee; consequently, there are now tens of thousands of displaced refugees within Aceh and neighboring northern Sumatra. Anecdotal evidence suggests that the majority of people in Aceh would rather remain citizens of Indonesia than push for independence, but the arbitrary and cruel actions of the TNI have eroded that slim margin of support.

Inciting Militias in Irian Jaya
As in Aceh, the people of Irian Jaya fear and hate the military and the police. They are fighting for independence, but they are much less willing than the people of Aceh to seek autonomy. Indigenous leaders are willing to negotiate peacefully with Jakarta to gain a peaceful and just transition to independence; nevertheless, the TNI refuses to permit peaceful discussions of the future status of Irian Jaya.

Along with its brutal suppression of and disregard for human rights in Irian Jaya, the TNI has created a pro-Jakarta militia to provoke riots and other security-related incidents, which in turn are used to justify its repressive tactics. The TNI had used a similarly indirect method to attack the local population in East Timor during its 24-year occupation of that state. There, militia units terrorized the local population and were principally responsible for the destruction of East Timor after the people passed a referendum on independence in August 1999. Elements of the TNI are believed to continue to fund, train, and equip former East Timor militias to infiltrate that country and shoot at U.N. peacekeepers.

Violence in the Moluccas Islands
The problems in Aceh and Irian Jaya pale in comparison to those of the Moluccas islands, where more than 4,000 people have been killed in the past 18 months. This formerly peaceful province has been wracked with sectarian violence between evenly divided Christian and Muslim populations.

Many observers suspect that the TNI is inciting the fighting in the Moluccas islands, since no substantive underlying issues seem to be driving the combatants to battle. Compared with Aceh and Irian Jaya, there has been no insurgent uprising in the Moluccas. Leaders of both sides proclaim their desire to remain in Indonesia and to live together peacefully. Evidence of TNI involvement came after the initial rioting between Muslim and Christian communities began to ebb and new fighters from Java called the Laskar Jihad (Soldiers of Jihad) appeared. Their funding is widely believed to come from members of the TNI and the Suharto family.

President Wahid ordered the TNI to prevent the Java-based terrorist organization from deploying to the Moluccas islands,5 but the military claims it is powerless to stop them. More than 2,000 heavily armed Laskar Jihad fighters have been seen provoking instability in the Moluccas. For months, the TNI denied any involvement in the fighting, but the British Broadcasting Company (BBC) succeeded in filming an Indonesian army unit as it provided covering fire for Laskar Jihad fighters. Now representatives of the Indonesian army and the Ministry of Defense are blaming this problem on "rogue" elements.

Repressing citizens is not the TNI's only involvement in violent affairs. The TNI has been linked to a spate of bombings in Jakarta: The bombs and equipment used appear to be military in origin. Indeed, Akbar Tanjung, Speaker of the Indonesian Parliament, specifically linked these bombings to the military.6 The TNI's motivation for its activities, especially in Aceh, Irian Jaya, the Moluccas islands, and Jakarta, seems to be a desire to retain political and economic power by holding hostage the security and territorial integrity of Indonesia.

Seeking More Power
U.S. foreign policy makers should understand that in Indonesia, the goals of the government and the TNI are not necessarily the same. The Indonesian military is an independent political, social, economic, and security entity outside government control; yet it has the strength to manipulate the instruments of political power. It is not responsible to the Indonesian government, and the president is the only figure with constitutional authority over the armed forces; yet presidential control appears to be more formal than real.

Since 1966, the military has co-ruled Indonesia through a doctrine of its own creation, called dwi fungsi ("dual function"). This doctrine postulates that the Indonesian military has a double role: defender of the country and sociopolitical leader. The doctrine legitimized the military's self-promotion into politics, the government bureaucracy, and large portions of the economy. At its peak during Suharto's presidency, the military controlled 100 seats in the national legislature, important cabinet positions, and the governorships of several provinces, while it also appointed representatives to every village in Indonesia.

During the Suharto era, the president and the army worked in unison, each supporting the other's position. With the introduction of a democratic government in 1999, justification for military control disappeared, but the TNI's pervasive influence did not. The security apparatus that had supported Suharto and effectively suppressed political dissension still exists and is unapologetically unreformed. President Wahid, to his credit, attempted to gain control over the military by reducing its presence in the legislature (abolishing all military presence by 2004), appointing a civilian defense minister, dismantling the territorial command structure, and prosecuting members of the military who were suspected of human rights violations. Sadly, most of these measures have come to naught.

Today, the TNI maintains its territorial command organization embedded throughout the country. The organization runs parallel to the government down to the village level, and in many cases the authority of the army supersedes local government authorities. Although there has been substantial discussion in Jakarta about the territorial apparatus, it is still very much in place. As Harold Crouch, an Australian observer of Indonesia, has said, "This territorial structure has given the army considerable capacity to intervene in local politics under the guise of maintaining

Through open intimidation and blunt threats, Indonesia's army generals convinced the last parliamentary session to extend the TNI's numbers in the national legislature until at least the year 2009. The parliament also granted them a blanket amnesty for past human rights abuses. Although there was an enormous public outcry against the extension, legislators afterward admitted that they had voted for it because of threats from the generals.8 Juwono Sudarsono, Indonesia's first civilian defense minister, admitted that he is powerless against the TNI: "The Ministry of Defense is not directly in charge of the chain of command. I cannot order them around."9 Most informed observers have concluded that the Indonesian military is, in fact, the most intransigent obstacle to the development of democracy.

Constraining the Economy
In Indonesia, government intervention in the economy through state-owned enterprises has skewed entrepreneurial choices and stunted economic development.10 The TNI now controls many businesses and "foundations." Ostensibly, this was a way to augment Indonesia's tiny defense budget and improve soldiers' welfare, but coupled with rampant corruption, such involvement in the economy distorts economic incentives and impedes progress.

The military-owned enterprises date back to the 1950s, when many military units seized Dutch businesses during the decolonization period. They justified their larceny by citing political disagreements with their former colonial masters. Generally, businesses grew rapidly because of their relationship with the TNI.

The armed forces made liberal use of the resources they gained, including considerable political clout. Over time, the TNI's dependence on these enterprises has grown to the point that today, the government's defense budget covers only an estimated 25 percent of military expenditures. The rest of the military's funding comes from the foundations and businesses it owns, both legally and illegally.11

There are about 50 military-owned businesses and seven foundations associated with each of the armed services and major commands,12 but it is almost impossible to measure the size of these foundations and businesses or their economic impact.13 The government began its first-ever audit of the TNI businesses in June 2000 and already has uncovered many irregularities, especially in the areas of bookkeeping and procurement. The government's response: Under pressure from the army leadership, it relieved from duty a prominent reform-minded general who had pursued an investigation into the financial dealings of his unit's foundation too enthusiastically. It appears unlikely that the government will prosecute any officer for mismanaging or stealing funds from these enterprises.14

Legitimate business activity has often served as a front for illegal business dealings, including unlawful logging and animal poaching in West Papua, fuel smuggling across the archipelago, and marijuana production and smuggling in Indonesia's westernmost province. Army Chief of Staff General Tyasno Sudarto stands accused of coordinating the largest counterfeiting operation in Indonesia's history, and many other officers are believed to be involved in illegal activities and innumerable questionable businesses independent of their military duties.15 Many observers regard this widespread corruption as a leading cause of the TNI's rampant disorder and factionalism today.

Washington should reevaluate U.S. policy toward Indonesia based on U.S. national interests, such as enhancing security, bolstering economic prosperity, and promoting democracy and human rights.16 To that end, the United States should support Indonesia's nascent democracy and bruised economy while working to isolate the errant Indonesian military. It should assist Indonesia's process of democratization and support its newly elected president.

However, the Clinton Administration has chosen another path. It is rewarding the TNI with renewed military engagement even as it condemns the government for not keeping order. For example, in May and July 2000, Indonesian military officers and units participated in military exercises in Thailand and Indonesia, respectively, at the Pentagon's invitation. These exercises are a prelude to a much larger military-to-military engagement program that the Clinton Administration hopes to send to Congress soon.17 Then, in September, when Indonesian militias reportedly backed by the TNI killed three U.N. aid workers in West Timor, President Clinton and Secretary of State Madeleine Albright criticized Jakarta for neither meeting its obligations nor restoring order. The President also dispatched Secretary of Defense William Cohen to Jakarta to tell Indonesia's leaders that if the government did not restore order, it might lose international support, economic assistance, and military ties.18

Support for Indonesia's government is not equivalent to military-to-military engagement with the TNI. For professional military organizations such as the U.S. armed forces, it is practically inconceivable that officers who are duty-bound to protect and defend their country would act as officers of the TNI have acted. While the TNI is a large and sophisticated institution with a national monopoly on the use of force, it is not a professional military.

Therefore, in order to increase security in Indonesia and Southeast Asia, the United States should encourage the subordination of Indonesia's military to the legally constituted civilian government. Specifically, the United States should:

  • Cut off military-to-military contact at all levels. TNI officers are likely to view any contact with the uniformed members of the U.S. military as American military validation of the TNI and its activities. The only way to convince Indonesia's military officers that there is no latent sympathy for their activities and to impress upon them the importance of democratic values is to restrict all TNI contact with uniformed American officers. The current policies toward the Burmese military should serve as a model.

  • Review the necessity of having a TNI representative accredited to the Embassy of Indonesia in Washington, D.C. As long as the Indonesian military retains a direct political role and acts as an obstacle to democratic reform and a cause of regional instability, there is no reason to credit the TNI with an official representative to the United States.

  • Use current assistance dollars to train Indonesia's legislature to conduct proper legislative oversight of the military. After decades of the legislature's rubber-stamp acquiescence to the regime and fear of reprisal, Indonesia's new democratic parliament is not increasing oversight of the military. In one respect, it is unfamiliar with appropriate means and methods to oversee military activities. Providing U.S. expertise on legislative oversight to members of the Indonesian legislature would enhance civilian control, increase respect for the rule of law, and create necessary transparency in the TNI's activities. Experts from other Asian parliaments that have armed forces oversight committees could be included in these training sessions.

  • Train a cadre of civilian defense experts to staff a future Ministry of Defense. The creation of a civilian-led Indonesian Ministry of Defense should be a priority for U.S. policy. An immediate obstacle is the lack of a cadre of indigenous civilian experts on defense management, budgeting, and acquisitions that could staff a Defense Ministry once it has been put in place. The United States should use current security assistance to train a cadre of civilians who could be selected to occupy positions in a Ministry of Defense.

  • Resume military-to-military training only when the TNI is firmly under civilian control and is disengaged from political activities. Reform of Indonesia's armed forces, following more than 40 years of corruption and political association with authoritarian dictators, will be a Herculean task. At a minimum, the TNI should be subordinated to civilian authority; otherwise, professional military standards will have no meaning. As long as the Indonesian military has a direct political role, any assistance rendered by the U.S. military would prove to be little more than giving assistance to a specific, albeit heavily armed, political party.

Thus, no training program should begin until (1) the Indonesian military has surrendered all seats in the legislature, (2) the Defense Ministry is legally superior to each of the services and functions as the commander in chief of the armed forces, and (3) members of the military are subject to civilian courts. Milestones for restoration of military-to-military engagement with the TNI should be attainable and worthy, but not mobile.

The problem of controlling the military in Indonesia stems in part from the lack of political will in Jakarta. The United States can help by showing disfavor toward the unrestrained behavior of members of the TNI and showing support for the democratic government of Indonesia. American leaders should look very carefully at any proposal to expand military-to-military engagement with the TNI; in fact, U.S. policy leaders should refuse to work with the TNI at all levels unless it is fully subordinate to civilian authority. Not only will this benefit the citizens of Indonesia, but it also will support U.S. interests over the long term.

Dana R. Dillon is a Policy Analyst on Southeast Asia in the Asian Studies Center at The Heritage Foundation.

1. The Tentara Nasional Indonesia .

2. Ronald N. Montaperto, James J. Przystup, Gerald W. Faber, and Adam Schwarz, "Indonesian Democratic Transition: Implications for United States Policy," Strategic Forum, No. 171 (April 2000), p. 4.

3. Hearing on Security Assistance, Subcommittee on Foreign Operations, Export Financing, and Related Programs of the Committee on Appropriations, U.S. House of Representatives, February 25, 1998, p. 8.

4. "Jakarta Debates Aceh Truce Extension as Killings Continue," Agence France-Presse, August 30, 2000.

5. "Wahid Meets with Alleged Jihad Sponsor," Jakarta Post , July 28, 2000.

6. Akbar Tanjung, Speaker of the Indonesian Parliament, in a speech at the Cosmos Club in Washington, D.C., sponsored by the Indonesian Society, August 28, 2000.

7. Harold Crouch, "TNI's Territorial Function Ample Snag for Reform," Jakarta Post, May 15, 2000.

8. Slobodan Lekic, "Indonesia's Military Wins Concessions from Top Assembly," Associated Press, August 18, 2000.

9. Juwono Sudarsono, "Juwono Speaks on Maluku Tragedy," Jakarta Post, July 15, 2000.

10. See Gerald P. O'Driscoll, Jr., Kim R. Holmes, and Melanie Kirkpatrick, 2000 Index of Economic Freedom (Washington, D.C.: The Heritage Foundation and Dow Jones & Co., 2000) for additional information on the effect of government intervention in an economy.

11. Interview with Ikrar Nusa Bhakti of the Indonesian Institute of Sciences, "Government Must Act on Military Businesses," Jakarta Post, May 20, 2000.

12. The Indonesian Armed Forces headquarters (distinct from the Ministry of Defense) owns two foundations; the Army, Navy, and Air Force each own one; the Army Strategic Reserve owns one; and the Army Special Forces owns one.

13. Shinta NM Sinaga, "Defense Department Audit Reveals Many Irregularities, Detikworld, June 24, 2000.

14. Karaniya Dharmasaputra, Dwi Wiyana, and Agus S. Riyanto, "The Untouchables," TEMPO, August 28-September 3, 2000.

15. Interview with Ikrar Nusa Bhakti, The Jakarta Post, May 20, 2000.

16. The White House, "A National Security Strategy for a New Century," December 1999.

17. Elizabeth Becker, "United States and Indonesia Quietly Resume Military Cooperation," The New York Times, May 24, 2000.

18. Charles Aldinger, "US to Warn Indonesia Aid at Risk over Militias," Reuters, September 18, 2000.


Dana Dillon
Dana Dillon

Policy Analyst