The political marginalization of the military in Indonesia Democratic consolidation, leadership, and institutional reform

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    In late July 2001, Indonesia’s democratic experiment appeared to come to a dramatic end. While the post-1998 transition from Suharto’s authoritarian New Order regime to a new democratic system had always been messy, the events leading up to July 2001 brought the country to the brink of constitutional collapse. The increasingly erratic President Abdurrahman Wahid had issued a decree to formally disband the People’s Representative Council (Dewan Perwakilan Rakyat, DPR) and the People’s Consultative Assembly (Majelis Permusyawaratan Rakyat, MPR), which were in the process of impeaching him.1 With the president’s supporters from his home area of East Java threatening to march towards Jakarta, the capital prepared for massive violence on its streets. Worse still, Wahid not only sacked one police chief and installed another without the necessary approval of the DPR, he also warned the head of the army that he would be arrested should the military try to prevent presidential loyalists from storming the MPR building. Eventually, the MPR removed Wahid from the presidency and appointed his deputy, Megawati Sukarnoputri, as the new head of state. While Wahid initially refused to leave the palace, he was subsequently convinced by his family to take a ‘vacation’ in the United States. In the midst of this chaos, there seemed to be only one clear winner: the Indonesian armed forces (Tentara Nasional Indonesia, TNI), which had been the backbone of Suharto’s government but was on the defensive since his sudden fall. The fight over Wahid’s presidency moved TNI back into the spotlight, allowing it to decide which side would prevail. TNI’s decision to back Wahid’s opponents was a game changer in the conflict, and the generals had strong reasons to believe that the new power holders would reward them handsomely. It was no surprise, then, that assessments of Indonesian civil-military relations in the early 2000s were less than glowing. Writing in Alagappa’s 2001 volume on the declining political role of the military in Asia, Geoffrey Robinson (2001: 247) stated that there was ‘room for pessimism’, emphasizing that ‘the post-1998 reforms have left largely intact ideological and institutional foundations of military power’ (2001: 250). Indeed, beside the destabilizing impact of the Wahid presidency, there had been other developments that highlighted the continued problems of establishing a functioning democracy and bringing the military under control. Most importantly, the 1999 bloodshed surrounding East Timor’s vote for independence had pointed to the failure of the civilian government in Jakarta tocontrol the actions of TNI in the field, leading to major damage to Indonesia’s international reputation and throwing the success of post-Suharto reforms into doubt. Furthermore, the ‘culture of violence’ (Robinson 2001: 241) prevalent in both TNI’s leadership and its ordinary troops continued to manifest itself in other conflict spots around the archipelago, whether in Aceh, Papua, Central and West Kalimantan, Central Sulawesi, or the troubled islands of the Moluccas. A decade later, however, Indonesia almost looked like a different country: the civilian polity had stabilized, separatist and communal conflict subsided, Indonesia’s elections were internationally recognized as the most democratic in Southeast Asia, and the military was increasingly marginalized (Mietzner and Aspinall 2010). Under the leadership of President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono since 2004, Indonesia completed its drawn-out post-authoritarian transition and entered into an early phase of democratic consolidation. Yudhoyono, a retired military officer himself, established firm personal control over TNI, forcing it to institutionally support a wide range of policies that many generals privately opposed. Equipped with two overwhelming electoral victories in direct and democratic polls, and supported by consistently high approval rates unprecedented in the Western world, Yudhoyono possessed the legitimacy and authority that all his post-Suharto predecessors had so desperately lacked. While Indonesia’s democracy in general and its civil-military relations in particular have continued to exhibit severe structural and institutional defects (Aspinall 2010), its ability to overcome the 2001 crisis and establish itself as a functioning polity must stand as one of the greatest success stories in the history of post-authoritarian transitions. This achievement was particularly remarkable since Indonesia’s democracy consolidated in a period when its Southeast Asian neighbors Thailand and the Philippines saw a significant decline in their democratic quality and a corresponding increase in the political influence of their militaries (Hutchcroft 2008; Funston 2009). This chapter discusses the extent and dynamics of military engagement in Indonesian politics and society after 2001. It begins with an overview of TNI’s history between 1945 and 2001, highlighting its claim to have achieved Indonesia’s independence and its participation in two successive authoritarian regimes. The second section analyzes the military’s involvement in Indonesia’s contemporary polity, with particular attention paid to its role in political institutions, the economy, security affairs, and society. The section will demonstrate that TNI’s political and economic influence has declined considerably since 2001, despite a lack of meaningful institutional reform in the security sector. In the third part, I test several explanatory propositions to explain the decline in TNI’s significance, among them historical legacies, the quality of civilian governance and leadership, internal military developments, and international factors. After weighing the importance of the various factors, the chapter will conclude by zooming in on political leadership as the major determinant of the quality of democratic control over the Indonesian armed forces after 2001. This conclusion has very complex implications for the future of Indonesian civil-military relations: on the one hand, it means that measured political leadership can overcome the historical legaciesof military-backed authoritarianism. On the other hand, however, it also points to the absence of strong institutional mechanisms that could insulate the oversight of TNI from the fluctuations of day-to-day politics and the inevitable changes in leadership in post-Yudhoyono Indonesia.
    Original languageEnglish
    Title of host publicationThe political resurgence of the military in Southeast Asia: conflict and leadership
    Editors Marcus Mietzner
    Place of PublicationOxon UK
    PublisherRoutledge, Taylor & Francis Group
    ISBN (Print)9780415460354
    Publication statusPublished - 2011


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