The Indonesian Armed Forces (ABRI): Role, Prospects and Implications

By Cronin, Patrick; Ott, Marvin | Strategic Forum, August 1997 | Go to article overview

The Indonesian Armed Forces (ABRI): Role, Prospects and Implications


Cronin, Patrick, Ott, Marvin, Strategic Forum


Conclusions

* Indonesia's stability is increasingly challenged. Unlike the rock-solid Indonesia of several years ago, Indonesia appears to face mounting domestic unrest at the very time that its strategic role in the region is looming larger. Uncertainty about the future of Indonesia concerns the United States, because any instability in this pivotal Southeast Asian nation is inextricably linked to stability throughout the entire Asia-Pacific region.

* Much of the uncertainty concerns the prospective political succession to President Suharto. As the President's age increasingly poses the succession issue, it is not clear that there is a strong set of institutions to guide a smooth transition. In fact, the only truly integrated national institution is the armed forces (known by its Indonesian acronym, ABRI). Exactly because of ABRIOs central role in Indonesia, it is essential that the United States and its friends in the region understand the Indonesian military.

* Any analyst of ABRI knows that Indonesian military officials have enormous and growing respect for the professionalism of the U.S. Armed Forces-and for the Australian military as well. Thus, contacts with the United States have an unusually important and potentially enduring impact on Indonesian officers.

* The United States needs to have an active, comprehensive and long-term plan for engaging ABRI. Fortunately, the United States and Indonesia have numerous contacts beyond the recently curtailed IMET exchanges. Joint exercises and high-level staff talks, for instance, are just part of our current engagement. But as we look toward the future, we need to see how we can be even more actively engaged with the Indonesian armed forces.

The Three Events

Indonesia is in the midst of a protracted political transition. No one knows how it will play out, but all agree that the military will be a pivotal actor. Within this context, three recent events have caused a reexamination of the current state of Indonesia, its armed forces, and its relations with the United States.

1. The first key event was the parliamentary election at the end of May. The Suharto government intended it to be a reaffirmation of the regime and the system. Indeed, the long-ruling party, Golkar, won with more than 70 percent of the vote. However, widespread incidents of violence and the removal of Megawati Sukarnoputri from the leadership of the PDI opposition has to some extent led to quite the opposite result. The pressures for change are seen to be deep and growing. Signs of increasing societal tension are evident as national political institutions have weakened. This, paradoxically, has left the Indonesian Armed Forces, with its administrative structure down through the provincial to the local level, with an increasingly important role in guiding Indonesia's transition into the next century.

2. The second key event was the recent reshuffling of the military leadership and what it portends. Following the elections, President Suharto changed a few senior military personnel. Most notably, General Wiranto was appointed the new army chief, and there is wide press speculation that he will take over from General Feisal Tanjung as armed forces chief next year. The reshuffle was significant because it demonstrated Suharto's continued power to impose his will on the most senior military appointments. In purely military terms the more important personnel shifts will come in the next 6-12 months when dozens of senior officers in ABRI reach the mandatory retirement age of 55. This will usher in a new generation of military officers, most of whom will have graduated from the military academy in the first half of the 70s.

3. The third key event was Suharto's letter to President Clinton on 2 June announcing that Indonesia no longer had a need for F-16 aircraft or participation in the International Military Education and Training program (IMET).

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