Sat, 08 Apr 2000

Berets and pens: Civil-military ties in SE Asia

This is the second of two articles by Southeast Asian historian Hermawan Sulistyo, Ph.D, the executive director of the Research Institute for Democracy and Peace in Jakarta.

JAKARTA (JP): Indonesian history has so far only emphasized the political aspects of dwifungsi or dual function, while the term also touches on societal issues such as ethnicity and religion.

Ethnic relationships were one of the major problems facing the new country. The "imagined community," as Ben Anderson dubbed it, had more than 200 ethnic groups and 450 languages and dialects. Nation building was far from easy for any administration, including the military.

As the sole agent of a state with a monopoly on the legitimate use of violence, the armed forces had to deal with ethnic related problems. And with a membership made up of various ethnic and religious backgrounds, the military itself was not free from these ethnoreligious issues.

In March 1942 the Japanese defeated the Dutch in the East Indies. The three-year Japanese occupation provided the first opportunity for Indonesians to arm themselves. The establishment of military auxiliary bodies continued to provide more opportunities for youths from various backgrounds to "imagine" that they shared some similarities to unite as a big family.

More than previously realized, the process of nation-making was sped up by such military training, a process that encompassed ethnoreligious divisions. The result was armed Indonesians prepared to seize freedom in the power vacuum at the end of World War II.

The Japanese occupation therefore served not only as an interregnum between the Dutch colonial state and modern Indonesia but also as a bridge to imagining a society of multiculturalism.

After independence was proclaimed on Aug. 17, 1945, Indonesia entered two stages of armed struggle, in 1947 and 1949, to maintain independence.

During these two independence wars the new armed forces comprised of various elements. The first were those who had trained together as cadets in the Dutch colonial army (KNIL).

The second were those who had trained in various armed institutions during the Japanese occupation in the Defenders of the Fatherland (Peta), and also auxiliary armed forces that were actually civilian vigilante groups such as Heiho.

The third were those who joined the armed struggle with no military training at all. They were ordinary people who called themselves lasykar rakyat or people's militias.

All these groups played an important role in the independence wars, especially in the guerrilla battles when founding fathers Soekarno and Mohammad Hatta, who led the civilian government, surrendered to the returning Dutch colonial powers.

After the Dutch transferred sovereignty to Indonesia in 1949, the newborn state did not have enough money to pay its armed forces. Adding to the situation was the irregular structure of the Indonesian Military (TNI).

Many officers decided to assign their own ranks. Units of combat troops fighting in the guerrilla wars were almost independent of each other. A leader of a small group would assign the rank of, say, lieutenant, for himself.

He then would assign to his men the ranks of sergeant, corporal, private and so on. Rationalization of TNI's organization was then considered a must. The government's rationalization scheme resulted in mass layoffs, and disappointment toward the central government.

In the regions, mounting centralization of power caused resentment, finally erupting in at least four large separatist movements: PRRI (the Revolutionary Government of the Republic of Indonesia) in Sumatra, Permesta (Charter of Inclusive Struggle) in North Sulawesi, DI/TII (Darul Islam/Indonesian Islamic Army led by Kahar Muzakkar in South Sulawesi, and DI/TII led by Kartosuwiryo in West Java.

To gain popular support, the separatist leaders manipulated traditional and primordial affiliations. PRRI/Permesta used regional interests and ethnicity as their issues, while DI/TII used religious (Islamic) issues.

Learning from the past, during the era of Guided Democracy (1959-1965) under President Soekarno TNI continued trying to eliminate the potential of ethnoreligious conflict. But the new political format also opened up new a prismatic structure of conflicts. National pillars of power centered on the military, the Indonesian Communist Party (PKI) and President Soekarno himself.

The abortive coup in October 1965 was the peak of factionalism within the armed forces. Traditional dividing lines of ethnoreligionism were added to by competing components in volatile political parties. The post-immediate period of the coup was one of the bloodiest in the history of violence; about 300,000 people were killed within only 10 months.

Soeharto came to power with strong support from the armed forces. Among the policies adopted in his first years was a shift from nation-building to economic development. Its requisite was stability; and with traditional ties such as ethnicity and religion as the social foundations of relationships, political stability could not be achieved.

Diversity, particularly in ethnoreligious fields, was denied as a potentially positive element in nation-building. Diversity was suppressed and treated more as a divisive factor in social and national integration.

Thus, values and norms were imposed through coercive instruments rather than consensus. In the armed forces, there were unwritten norms to prevent ethnoreligious sentiments among officers.

At the lower levels of the military hierarchy, tours-of-duty programs effectively eliminated or at least reduced the potential of ethnoreligious sentiments becoming a divisive factor inside the TNI.

Continuing the tradition in the military academy, young officers were almost constantly moving station from one area to another. Partly due to financial constraints in moving a large number of personnel, the lower the rank, the less the chance of being moved to another area.

In Aceh and Irian Jaya, the armed forces took a different approach from its policies in other ethnoreligious conflicts.

The military believed that the Free Aceh Movement and the Free Papua Movement were purely separatist and therefore treated them as traitors against a legitimate central government.

The two causes have seen less international attention than East Timor because of the absence of territorial sovereignty. East Timor, however, has been internationally designated as a "nongoverning territory".

Realizing that ethnoreligious issues in its internal structure could had a divisive impact, TNI has been trying, with some success, to eliminate them.

But it was also a potential supporting factor that was believed by armed forces' leadership to help restore social order.

A striking example is the policies that TNI adopted as a reaction to student demonstrations. The demonstrations started in the first quarter of 1998 and were only halted temporarily in the immediate-post Soeharto era.

By November 1998, when the People's Consultative Assembly (MPR) held its general session, student demonstrations were mounting again. Unable to control the rallies without being blamed as human rights violaters, TNI adopted policies to shift the nature of "confrontation" from the vertical to the horizontal.

Throughout its history, the TNI has adopted a civil mission paradigm toward the outside world. And since it has the monopoly over legitimate coercion, it believes that solving problems means legitimately applying coercive measures.

Unfortunately, in many cases, TNI cannot control the excessive use of this monopoly. For more than three decades, the rights over the use of coercion have been transformed.

Initially designed as an effective tool to protect national integration, it was in later years abused to serve the interests of the power holder.

Now, unprepared for the dramatic and rapid changes the country is going through, the military moves hesitantly.

It has to redefine its political doctrine, particularly in its perceptions and practices of civilian-military relationships; otherwise the nation will be in dangerous situation.

Unfortunately, what the military sees as too-rapid internal reform is seen by most prodemocracy civilian activists as being too slow.