Thu, 25 May 2000

Audit the military

No one doubted the statement from Minister of Defense Juwono Sudarsono on Tuesday that the Indonesian Military (TNI) and the National Police (Polri) were so underfunded as to affect their overall performance. But when Juwono warned that the defense and security forces might resort to illegal means to supplement their meager budgets, it must have come across as a slice of political blackmail aimed at extracting more money from the government.

Some may argue that TNI and Polri are simply emulating what teachers on the government payroll did last month. In an attempt to secure higher salaries, thousands of teachers throughout Indonesia took to the streets. Some went on strike for a few days to make their point. Others threatened to boycott nationwide school final examinations, which, thankfully, they did not carry out. While their demand was justifiable, their action of disrupting the education process was simply reprehensible.

Now the military and the police, who also have a valid case, are doing the same thing. Unlike teachers, they don't have to take to the streets, and God forbid if they do. The prospect of armed servicemen marching into the House of Representatives simply defies imagination. The ease with which they have used, or rather misused, their weapons these last 30 years is enough to convince us that Juwono's statement, coming after a TNI/Polri leadership meeting, is a veiled threat to the government and the nation.

To a large extent, the government of President Abdurrahman Wahid must be held responsible for people's growing penchant for making a show of force, first teachers, and now soldiers and police officers. The way the government secured hefty hikes in allowances for top civil servants and legislators, and not for others on its payroll, indicates that the 2000 budget was apportioned based on proximity to the center of power. TNI/Polri, which was part of the ruling elite during the Soeharto years, have obviously been cut out of the loop.

But this in no way justifies TNI/Polri making such threats, which clearly go against their oaths. Every one must try to live within their means, especially when the economy is still in the doldrums. Low-ranking civil servants are in the same boat as soldiers and police officers, and they too are providing essential services to the public. In fact, defense spending has already increased in the 2000 budget, not by the 62 percent Juwono sought, but by a still respectable 10 percent. Defense spending has risen to 5.6 percent of the government budget, which is comparable to what most other developing countries allocate.

Scheming ways of raising public sympathy, or of political blackmailing like Juwono on Tuesday, is unlikely to work because there is no more money left in the pot. It may even be counterproductive, by unnecessarily creating more polemics at a time when the country could do with a lot less of them to begin focusing on solving its economic problems. Many of the current budgetary problems, in fact, would be resolved if the economy could start running smoothly.

The meeting of TNI and Polri leaders to discuss their budgetary problems on Tuesday would have been far more productive had they focused on finding the most efficient way of allocating their existing budget without sacrificing their performance. In corporate circles, this means reviewing priorities and allocating the budget accordingly. In terms of Juwono's portfolio, this means allocating more money to the police force, most likely and unfortunately, at the expense of Army's share, in order to deal with the various internal security problems.

This is another good reason to accelerate the phasing out of the Army's expansive and expensive territorial networks, now that every one has agreed that the military must quit politics and the police take over the main responsibility for internal security from the Army. And it is also a good reason to speed up the process of separating Polri from TNI, each with its own budget.

Finally, let's not forget that the operations of the military have never financially relied solely on the government budget. Through its immense political power in the last 30 years or so, the military, particularly the Army, has built up huge and complex business empires. These have helped finance military operations as well as supplementing the income of soldiers and police officers.

These businesses, and their relation to the various units in TNI/Polri, must now be independently audited to assess the extent to which they have supplemented the nation's defense spending. There is no reason why this arrangement could not be maintained, provided the businesses are legal, and therefore ease the pressure on the government's budget. But their operations must be transparent and therefore audited by an independent body. Only then can we truly assess the budgetary needs of the military and the police force, and determine whether their demand for more money is justifiable.