Special forces from the Indonesian Air Force march before a ceremony marking the 69th anniversary of the Indonesian Air Force at Halim Air Base in East Jakarta, April 9, 2015.
Antara Foto / Reuters

Indonesian President Joko Widodo (popularly known as Jokowi) is the country’s first directly elected leader who does not have significant ties to the old authoritarian regime of Suharto, who ruled for over three decades until his fall in 1998. But Jokowi has had a rough first year: He was unable to jumpstart the country’s sluggish economy and was politically paralyzed by the entrenched oligarchs within his own party coalition. It is no surprise that he has disappointed his electorate. But the loudest cries against Jokowi center on his new alliances with the Indonesian military and how the military appears to have expanded its reach under his watch.

These critics point out, for example, the growing number of retired officers in Jokowi’s inner circle and cabinet. They also criticize the military’s swelling list of nation-building activities, which include patriotic education and civic-oriented projects, and the expansion of the military’s Territorial Command structure and its counterterrorism role. A recent Foreign Affairs article even claimed that there is a danger of returning Indonesia to a Suharto-style New Order system, under which the military dominates politics and governance.

Although there is some cause for alarm, the historical context and the larger trends shaping civil-military relations reveal that the military’s political footprint has remained largely the same under Jokowi as it has in all the administrations that followed Suharto.


Formally and institutionally, the military has no political role: successive post-Suharto administrations gradually scrapped Suharto’s dual function doctrine, which gave the military parliamentary and cabinet seats, among many other government posts. Now, the armed services have no parliamentary representation and active duty officers cannot be appointed to or hold political office. There is no evidence that Jokowi or the military are actively seeking to undo this reform or others like it.

The head of Indonesia's Armed Forces General Moeldoko (R) congratulates the country's new National Police Chief Badrodin Haiti at the presidential palace, April 17, 2015.
Darren Whiteside / Reuters

Further, although the current military leadership initially cut its teeth under Suharto, younger generations of officers, especially those who graduated from the academy in the 1990s, were troubled by the excessive politicization and subjugation of the military as a regime maintenance tool. And so many of them, rather than seeking a New Order revival, are more interested in modernizing the military and to reclaim a respected professional role, especially as China’s rise is rapidly changing Indonesia’s geostrategic environment.

Some observers, meanwhile, tend to equate the growing role of retired military officers as evidence that the military is playing a political game behind the scenes. This is a problematic assumption, because although scholars have only begun to assess the role of retired officers in local elections and national politics, they have found no evidence so far that these former officers have any direct influence over the current military.

Further, although the retired generals in Jokowi’s inner circle do seek to protect their own interests, some of which overlap with the military’s (trying to halt investigations of the military’s past human rights abuses is one example), there is no evidence that they are directly planted in their political roles by the military. Nor do they fight for the military to return to politics. After all, these retirees—no longer bound by the chain of command—have been successfully transitioning into civilian life through various business and political activities. A return to a military-ruled New Order would mean surrendering their political positions and submitting to the military’s chain of command and organizational interests, rather than their own.

Indonesian soldiers patrol an area near Masani village in Central Sulawesi during a counterterrorism exercise, March 31, 2015.
Antara Foto / Reuters


The recent expansion of the military’s territorial command is not solely to maintain the military’s political leverage and internal security functions but also to ensure that the acute intra-military conflicts of the late 1990s and early 2000s, which some argue led to Suharto’s downfall and President Abdurrahman Wahid’s impeachment, do not happen again.

Among the key structural factors behind the infighting were the messy policies for posting and promoting personnel. Because it took so much time to promote the many mid- to high-ranking officers, they held onto posts that would have otherwise gone to their juniors. Further, as the academy continued to graduate more students in the 1970s and 1980s—roughly 300 annually—the military soon had more colonels and generals than it needed.

The military initially managed this problem by assigning thousands of them to civilian posts and political offices and accelerating their rotational tour of duty. But the New Order’s demise shrunk the available nonmilitary billets even as the officer corps size remained and then grew—from 46,168 personnel in 2004 to 52,940 in 2009. Maintaining the territorial command, therefore, helps keep mid- to high-ranking posts available. It is one method of dampening intra-military conflicts—and consequently, stabilizing civil-military relations over the long run.

The historical context and the larger trends shaping civil-military relations reveal that the military’s political footprint has remained largely the same under Jokowi as it has in all the administrations that followed Suharto.

Further, as local violence, ethnic conflicts, and localized secessionist movements flared up in the late 1990s and early 2000s, and with civil-military tensions running high following regime change, nobody within the political elite wanted to push for an all-out overhaul of the territorial command. As a compromise, the government separated the police from the military in 1999, but that led to a power rivalry between the two institutions.

This is also the context in which the army pushed for a greater role in counterterrorism. The navy and air force had thrived under the previous administration’s defense modernization plans, and even more so under Jokowi, who promised to turn the country into a “global maritime axis.” But the army continues to search for its operational raison d’être especially after the Aceh peace process in 2005 ended the country’s largest secessionist war.

Counterterrorism is a natural outlet. The army has thus used counterterrorism to justify its reinvigoration of some of its territorial command functions and nation-building projects to counter the influence of the police. These projects—which range from building roads and bridges to assisting with vaccinations—are also not new. Since the 1940s, the military has built up trust with civilians through similar missions. And with some local administrations unequipped to govern, the military is occasionally the only coherent institution able to provide certain public goods in some underdeveloped areas.

Of course, the military cannot escape the fact that under Suharto, civic missions became a regime tool to control and repress the population as well as to mobilize votes. Today, such missions could open the door to abuse once more. Still, there are no definitive signs yet that the military has actively sought to wield its influence in this way.

Indonesia President Joko Widodo reviews members of the Indonesian military's special forces in Jakarta, April 16, 2015.
Antara Foto / Reuters


Jokowi is also no more aligned with the military than the previous administration was. In fact, his predecessor, Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono (popularly known as SBY), gradually consolidated his control over the military through his former academy classmates, family members, and loyalists within the institution.

But more importantly, SBY sought to resolve tensions with the military by giving the military a new sense of professional purpose: becoming a modern fighting force. He initiated the so-called Minimum Essential Force program, which infused the military with billions of dollars’ worth of arms for two decades, and oversaw a near tripling of the defense budget alongside salary boosts for personnel. He promoted naval and air force officers to key military positions and also gave special privileges to army officers that came up through professional combat units, such as those from the Strategic Army Reserve Command. SBY further professionalized military education by establishing the Indonesian Defense University, transforming the academy into a full four-year college system, and sending more officers to study and train overseas. The military’s international engagements—from multilateral exercises to defense diplomacy—rose significantly under SBY’s tenure.

Compared with SBY, Jokowi takes a very hands-off approach to civil-military relations. He is reluctant to forcefully and personally take charge of managing the military leadership, set specific policies, and hold the high command accountable. This stems in part from his narrower domestic agenda—primarily social and economic development—for which he has built a small group of advisers, including influential retired generals such as Luhut Pandjaitan and A. M. Hendropriyono. Jokowi relies heavily on these advisers to communicate with the military and to set broad guidelines. Jokowi is, after all, a political outsider facing an opposition headed by former Special Forces Commander Prabowo Subianto.

Taken as a whole, when we unpack the broader organizational and civil-military contexts, it seems improbable that Indonesia will witness a politically resurgent New Order, now or in the near future. Instead, it will see the continued evolution of the military as it adjusts to a new political world.

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  • EVAN A. LAKSMANA is a Ph.D. candidate at Syracuse University’s Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs and a researcher with the Centre for Strategic and International Studies in Indonesia.
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