The Indonesian Military ( TNI ) celebrates its 70th anniversary on Oct. 5. This makes TNI one of Asia’s oldest national defense forces. The TNI was born out of the struggle for independence. Now, the TNI has a good reputation in places where our soldiers join in UN peacekeeping operations. Our soldiers’ achievements in the Military Olympics are among the best in the world.
However, as a political tool of past authoritarian regimes, the TNI was the perpetrator of scores of human rights violations and other illegal acts, some of which sought to wipe out pro-democratic activists and students for the sake of state and economic stability. Advocates for democracy and human rights were declared state enemies. The New Order claimed TNI as a vanguard of the nation, and legalized its ‘dual function’ in politics and security.
After Soeharto stepped down in May 1998, the TNI had to adjust from being a tool of the regime to becoming a professional defense force. Their activities in politics and independent business had to be abolished. Their budget was controlled by government and supervised by the House of Representatives. Furthermore, legislations including Law No. 34/2004 on the TNI aimed to reform the military and to curb its desire to return to politics. The law intended to make the military pay heed to human rights, especially during military operations.
But problems emerged when civilian government lacked self confidence in governing the country independently without military assistance. The latest example is the encouragement of President Joko ‘Jokowi’ Widodo’s administration for military involvement in several non defense sectors. For example, the President has encouraged the practice of babinsa ( village-based noncommissioned officers ) becoming advisors to farmers. Some ministries even have exclusive agreements with the TNI, mostly unrelated to defense.
No wonder Pandora’s box is now open, and the TNI desires to come back into politics. TNI leaders offer their opinions on various issues, whether requested to or not. Recently, TNI Army Chief of Staff Gen. Mulyono rejected the ‘dichotomy’ of civilians and the military, arguing that it was an effort to ‘split the nation’. He has also remarked on the possibility of a ‘communist resurgence’, and has rejected efforts to achieve truth and reconciliation for the sake of victims of the 1965 slaughter.
The government should learn a lot from history where our military has always been keen to retain a political role. Strengthening civil-military relations is a must in this administration because this issue is always targeted by conservative politicians and the military. They often raise the ‘dichotomy’ between civilians and the military and that a synergy is needed between both elements to strengthen the nation since they share the same obligations. This kind of opinion is misleading and promotes the rejection of military submission to civilian government.
While citizenship does not discriminate between civil and military spheres, it does not mean that there should be equality between civilians and the military in politics, law and human rights. Civilian supremacy is a concept inherent to democracy where the military, as the only actor that can legitimately use violence for state defense, should obey a civilian government elected through a democratic process.
Thus, any acts interfering in politics by force or by request from the government, acts that are unrelated to their main duties and functions based on the constitution and other related laws, should be considered unconstitutional and illegal. For example, the agreements between ministries and the TNI should be considered illegal regarding functions unrelated to defense ‘ such as the guarding of airports and train stations, which is the function of the police.
There are differences between civilians and soldiers regarding rights and duties as citizens. Civilians are citizens entitled to the full range of human rights guaranteed by the state through the constitution and other laws. Military personnel, meanwhile, possessing state authority, are obliged to take up arms when required, to protect both the rights of the state and the rights of citizens.
Military members still retain non-derogable rights. The right to life, the right to be treated equally before the law, the right not to be tortured or subjected to degrading and inhumane treatment, freedom to religion are rights shared by military members and civilians in accordance with the Constitution and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.
Regarding equality before the law, President Jokowi should continue to reform military justice, which is demanded by the Constitution following the second amendment on reform Law No. 31/1997 on Military Tribunals.
Until now, there has been no effort to continue the reform. The draft is absent from the current National Legislation Program. The military justice system notoriously doles out insufficient punishment to those who breach the laws and human rights violations. Examples include the forced disappearance of student activists, the shooting of students in 1998 and the Cebongan case, where special forces members killed detainees in a Central Java police detention center.
It is not too late for President Jokowi to bring back security sector reform by keeping the TNI away from politics and other activities outside their main duties and functions. It is also important to modernize our defense forces. These efforts would lead to success in creating a more professional TNI and enhance our prestige as a nation with one of the world’s most respected and finest defense forces. Happy 70th anniversary of the glorious TNI.
Bhatara Ibnu Reza
The writer is researching civilian involvement in state defense for his PhD in law at the University of New South Wales, Sydney. He is a researcher for Imparsial ( an Indonesian Human Rights Monitor )
The Jakarta Post, 5 Oktober 2015