Today, we celebrate the Indonesian National Armed Forces Day which will be a good opportunity to evaluate how far the Indonesian military has gone since it relinquished power in the aftermath of the fall of Suharto and the signing of the Indonesian Military Law in 2004.
First, it cannot be denied that the armed forces have done what was expected from them. As regulation forbids them from getting involved in politics while in uniform, gone was the military representation in the parliament that was a fixture of the New Order.
The military also formally gave up its business enterprises. For an organization that had been involved in politics constantly since the 1950s, the military’s willingness to completely return to the barracks without much fuss and for giving up its political power was an indication that the military was truly committed to transforming itself into a professional organization.
Second, there have been many positive developments in the past few years, notably the fact that the military as an institution is no longer involved in human rights abuses. In fact, it tried very hard to avoid any actions that would be seen as human rights violations.
While there have still been incidents of violence between military personnel and locals, such as the Atambua incident in March last year (in which a group of soldiers severely beat several locals in East Nusa Tenggara, killing one), they should be seen as isolated incidents.
Unlike in the past, where the entire episode would be have been hushed up, Adm. Agus Suhartono, the chief of the Indonesian Military (TNI), vowed to investigate the case thoroughly, with the deputy commander of the battalion in question, Capt. Nuryanto, apologizing to the victims’ families. In July, several soldiers were tried and sentenced, with one getting expelled from the military.
While critics might justly argue that the sentence was too lenient, it should also be noted as an indication that the military no longer shields its members from persecution nor turns a blind eye to abuses caused by its members. The fact that it is willing to be held accountable over the misdeeds of some of its members should be seen as a welcome development, as senior officers attempt to turn the military into a modern and professional institution that is widely respected and even loved by the public.
At the same time, the military still has a lot of homework to do.
The Atambua incident showed that the military still has a long way to go to become the truly professional organization it aims to be. It still needs to instill more discipline, improve training, change the mind-set of some of its members who are still stuck in the past, and foster close cooperation between civil and military authorities.
More importantly, however, the TNI needs to redefine its purpose in the new era. It has to start answering the difficult questions, notably what kind of military is needed in the future to protect the entire Indonesian archipelago?
Should the TNI simply be content with defending Indonesian territory, or should it also look at the entire Southeast Asian region as its sphere of interest, and thus get involved with the defense of Indonesia’s friends in the region? Should Indonesia actually be involved in regional disputes, notably the ongoing dispute involving multiple nations in the South China Sea?
In order to answer those questions, the military needs to have more soldier-scholars, people with strong military backgrounds and at the same time strong academic backgrounds, as they are able to grasp the current situation and think about long-term strategic planning. Examples of such soldier-scholars of the past are Gen. T.B. Simatupang and Gen. Abdul Haris Nasution.
These soldier-scholars, however, could only exist when the TNI allowed more soldiers to grapple and experiment with untested ideas without the fear of having their career derailed for having an unorthodox mind-set.
While the military has been moving in that direction, it needs to provide additional institutional support to foster more exchange of ideas among officers and to create an outlet for those who dare to criticize the system.
In the end, it is the wish of every Indonesian soldier to have a professional and well-respected military organization with a broad vision to safeguard Indonesian interests locally and globally.
Yohanes Sulaiman is a lecturer at the Indonesian Defense University (Unhan).