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Will Indonesia's military regain civilian roles?

Indonesian National Armed Forces (TNI) Commander Air Marshall Hadi Tjahjanto recently called for the revision of a 2004 law which forbids active members of the military from serving as civil servants. Ex-military commanders now in President Joko Widodo’s Cabinet have since voiced support for the idea. But how realistic is the proposal?

Indonesia's presidential candidate Joko Widodo (left) during a debate with his opponent Prabowo Subianto in Jakarta on Feb 17. Some members of Mr Widodo's current administration support a proposal for active members of the military to serve as civil servants.

Indonesia's presidential candidate Joko Widodo (left) during a debate with his opponent Prabowo Subianto in Jakarta on Feb 17. Some members of Mr Widodo's current administration support a proposal for active members of the military to serve as civil servants.

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In late January, the Indonesian National Armed Forces (TNI) Commander Air Marshall Hadi Tjahjanto called for the revision of a 2004 law which forbids active members of the military from serving as civil servants.

He argued that changes are necessary to accommodate the hundreds of middle-ranking TNI officers who are currently without commission.

The proposal is controversial because it is reminiscent of the Dual Function (Dwifungsi) Doctrine during the late President Suharto’s 32-year rule, under which active military officers were eligible for appointment to government departments and the legislature.  

It led to so much abuse of power by the military that one of the key acts of reform by the post-Suharto administration was its revocation in 2000.

The timing of Mr Tjahjanto's proposal, so close to April’s presidential and legislative elections, is striking.

It came ahead of a political rally in February where retired military and police officers endorsed President Joko Widodo, better known as Jokowi, for a second term.


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While both the military and police are required by law to remain neutral during any political contestation — active members of both TNI and Polri have no voting right — such impartiality is more honoured in the breach than in the observance.

So could a re-hashed version of dwifungsi be the price tag for the unofficial support President Jokowi expects from the men in uniform and their extended families, given how in Indonesia, joining the military often becomes a family tradition. If so, how realistic is the proposal?

The upcoming presidential election is a re-run of the 2014 contest, pitting Mr Widodo against Prabowo Subianto for the second time.

Five years ago, Mr Widodo became the country’s first leader from outside the political elite and military. With Mr Subianto being a former military officer, it was unsurprising that more retired TNI officers declared their support then for him rather than Mr Widodo.

Support from active branches of the military for Mr Subianto was also apparent. Members of Babinsa, a remnant of the Dwifungsi era comprising non-commissioned army officers posted in villages, were found to be performing door-to-door campaigning on behalf of Mr Subianto.

However, the tables have turned since 2014. As the incumbent, Mr Widodo has found it easier to garner support from both active and retired military officers.  

Last year he also made a strategic decision to replace the TNI Commander Gatot Nurmantyo, who harboured presidential ambitions, with an ally.

Given how partial segments of TNI were in 2014, it is understandable why Mr Widodo wants the military on his side this year. However, it remains unclear how much of an impact the support from the extended “military families” can have on an election as no empirical study has ever been done on the subject.

A more pertinent question is whether, if re-elected, President Jokowi will seek to revise the 2004 law to enable active military officers to occupy civilian posts within the government.  

There is definitely great pressure on him to do so from former military officers within his own administration. One vociferous voice has come from his Coordinating Minister for Maritime Affairs, Luhut Pandjaitan, a retired lieutenant-general.

Not one to mince words, in his speech at the retired officers’ rally for Mr Widodo, Mr Pandjaitan said it was he who suggested to the president that middle-ranking military officers be admitted into government.   

In response to criticism of the plan, the minister later told the press that he believes military officers are eminently more capable of tackling problems than their civilian counterparts.

“So I’d like to challenge anyone to explain why they object to (military officers serving in civilian posts).”

Minister of Defence Ryzamirad Ryacudu, a former TNI Commander, has also spoken supportively of the plan. But he dismissed the suggestion that it is the return of dwifungsi.

“Dwifungsi was revoked long ago and that is that. Under the new plan, it is up to individual ministry to take in military officers as they see fit. No one will be forced to admit anyone they don’t want,” he said at a press conference at the Ministry of Defence.

Judging by Mr Ryacudu’s comment, it would appear that the plan is to implement a gradual intake of military officers as civil servants, with the initial phase being a voluntary move at every ministry’s own discretion.

If so, ministries with former military officers as heads such as Mr Pandjaitan’s may be partial to having military officers within its ranks in a “jobs-for-the-boys” drive while departments with civilian heads may be more resistant. If anything, such arbitrariness can only lead to division within the civil service.

Accommodating non-commissioned military officers at the expense of civilians will also send the wrong message. Until recently, there was a four-year moratorium on recruitment of civil servants, effected by President Jokowi not long after he took office.

The reasons given for the recruitment freeze were overstaffing and under qualification, not to mention the ballooning salary bill. Given that it is already cumbersome, the civil service can hardly be expected to make room for military officers.

Parliament may be another hurdle to TNI’s wish to re-enter the civilian sphere. Any revision to the 2004 law will have to be approved by the House of Representatives.

But the likelihood of political parties supporting such a bill may not be high. Not many have forgotten that under Suharto, the military had its own faction in parliament, establishing military supremacy over its civilian counterpart.

There are signs that any return to dwifungsi, even in a different guise, may be an anathema to the Indonesian public as well. There is currently an ongoing online petition against it. A protest rally outside the State Palace took place in late February involving activists from different civil society groups opposing dwifungsi.

Perhaps this is why both Mr Widodo and Mr Subianto, a former son-in-law of Suharto, have not said anything on the subject.

However Mr Subianto currently has the backing of Suharto's children, including Mr Subianto's ex-wife, Titiek Suharto, who is often quoted in the press saying that if he wins in next month's election, things would be as they were under her father.

The termination of dwifungsi for the past 20 years has been one of the key democratic achievements of Indonesia’s Reformasi. It initiated the "back to the barracks" reform within TNI, which is still ongoing.  

Return to a policy resembling dwifungsi will be a setback for both democracy and military reform.

It will also be a highly ironic footnote in history since its roots would have planted during the tenure of a president known for his civilian and non-elite background, particularly as Mr Widodo's supporters have always argued that the president is the only thing that stands against the return of Suharto's New Order.



Johannes Nugroho is a writer and political analyst from Surabaya whose commentaries have appeared in the Jakarta Post and Jakarta Globe since the 1990s. He is currently working on his first novel set around the May 1998 riots in Indonesia.

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