The response by the Indonesian Military (TNI) to the disclosure that the giant American mining company PT Freeport Indonesia has been giving millions of U.S. dollars in protection money was typical and expected. TNI Chief Gen. Endriartono Sutarto dismissed the report as irrelevant; he did not deny it, but said the amount did not reach $5.6 million in 2002 as the report suggested. He did not venture to give an exact figure, but said that it was payment for soldiers' meals.
Yet, the report -- confirmed and clarified by Freeport's office in Jakarta at the weekend -- raises serious questions about the credibility and integrity of our armed forces.
TNI's dismissive attitude suggests that accepting payment in return for providing protection was a normal practice. Yet, because this practice is condoned at the top, there is a strong feeling that it is carried out throughout the TNI's hierarchy.
Should the nation accept this as a normal practice and leave the matter to rest? We don't think so. The report has serious implications that could hurt the credibility of the TNI, and of the National Police for that matter, which also use this practice. At a time when its public image is still at a low ebb, the last thing that TNI or the National Police would want to do is to dismiss the report.
They need to address the question and come clean.
We know that our TNI has serious budgetary problems. The state allocation barely covers 30 percent of its operational costs. TNI must come up with the rest of the money by itself.
Some of the money has come from business conglomerates managed by TNI foundations. Some have come from protection money that it gets from corporations that it helps to protect.
Here lies the real problem. Because this practice is condoned, you are just one step away from turning this affair into a racket. This makes TNI not all that different from the preman (thugs) who run most of the protection rackets in the country. Worse still, it raises the question about where TNI loyalty lies: With the people and the state, or with the financiers?
Freeport's mining operation in the heartland of Papua province is huge, and because of unending controversy surrounding its operations, it requires heavy protection. There is also the problem of pro-independence armed Papua rebels to deal with.
The Freeport office in Jakarta explains that the money went to finance the costs of infrastructure, catered food and dining halls, housing, fuel, travel, vehicle repairs, allowances to cover incidental and administrative costs, and community assistance programs conducted by the military and police.
While Freeport is not the only one making protection payments, this is by no means the only security system available in safeguarding major business operations. Other mining companies have devised a community-based security system, one that relies more on the participation of the local community to safeguard the installations, and less on the police or the military.
The danger of accepting the practice of money-for-protection is clear. It compromises the integrity of the TNI soldiers and reduces their effectiveness as organs of the state, as guardians of the nation. For $5.6 million a year, soldiers deployed around Freeport may as well call themselves the Freeport Army. If we stretch the argument further, it should come as no surprise at all if some TNI officers are already on the payroll of wealthy business people.
While the ultimate goal is to eliminate this practice completely and turn our TNI into a truly professional force fully funded by the government, we know that this is impossible in the near future given the present budgetary constraints.
But we can at least start by compelling the TNI to be both financially transparent and accountable.
Some of the payments the TNI takes may be defensible. The extra protection TNI provides to safeguard the nation's vital industrial installations is probably merited. To suggest that the payments be stopped overnight would be a folly, although they must be phased out over time. But other sources of funding may be illegitimate, and they are nothing more than a protection racket, a form of blackmail, or a form of bribery and corruption.
It is these kind of illegal payments that greater financial transparency and accountability will weed out. Now, the question goes back to the TNI and its generals: Do they have what it takes to restore the credibility and integrity of their institution?