The Reform of the Indonesian Armed Forces

By Kingsbury, Damien | Contemporary Southeast Asia, August 2000 | Go to article overview

The Reform of the Indonesian Armed Forces


Kingsbury, Damien, Contemporary Southeast Asia


Indonesia's armed forces have played a dominant role in domestic politics from 1957 under their so-called "dual function". While the armed forces consolidated in the early Soeharto period, a significant faction later came to challenge his authority, contributing to his resignation from the presidency. This marked the beginning of the armed forces' reform movement, and its transition away from the political arena. Despite its reform orientation, under the Habibie presidency the armed forces were a stronger (and united) political actor. This carried over into the presidency of Abdurrahman Wahid. However, as a consequence of the reform movement within the armed forces and with the assistance of Abdurrahman, the armed forces have splintered into several factions. This factionalism has given greater strength to the reform movement within the armed forces, and may contribute to the strengthening of democracy in Indonesia.

Introduction

When Indonesian President Abdurrahman Wahid (Gus Dun "suspended" Coordinating Minister for Politics and Security, General Wiranto, on 14 February 2000, he marked what was seen by many as a new direction in the political role of Indonesia's military. By extension, this act also signified a critical juncture in Indonesian politics. For two weeks Wiranto had refused Abdurrahman Wahid's request to resign over being implicated in the bloody carnage surrounding East Timor's vote for independence and, briefly, Gus Dur appeared to accede. But the President did an abrupt about-face and relieved Wiranto of his Cabinet position. This action followed weeks of open speculation about a possible military coup against Gus Dur, and, although many ambiguities remained, it appeared that Gus Dur had triumphed over Wiranto. [1]

While Wiranto was in the Cabinet, he was effectively equal to the most powerful person in Indonesia. Despite having been removed from his position as armed forces chief in October 1999, Wiranto still retained a strong grip over the Tentara National Indonesia (TNI, or the Indonesian National Military), [2] which had its own firm grip over Indonesian political society. The TNT had played a pivotal role in Indonesian politics, in particular through its so-called dwi fungsi (dual function) of engagement in civil and military affairs. [3] However, as Indonesia moves through its transition towards democratization, the role of the TNI as a political participant has been identified as a major impediment to that process.

Yet, throughout the post-Soeharto period, at a time of continuing unprecedented political change, the TNI had also been reinventing itself. This process had begun before the fall of Soeharto and had deep roots in divisions within the armed forces, particularly between what was known as the "professional" as opposed to "financial" officers. [4] It was a later manifestation of this division that finally undermined Soeharto's presidency and led, via the economic collapse it precipitated, [5] to his resignation. The question remained, however, whether or not the changes that were taking place in the TNI marked a broad shift in commitment to its previous politically active policy. Most of the signs were that the TNI had partly shifted its style, but was only slowly shifting its substance. After a period of relative unity, the TNI had again fractured and there were competing visions for its future, with a more genuinely reformist movement aimed at political disengagement gaining ground.

The TNI in Decline?

It was suggested, after the fall of Soeharto as President in May 1998, that the TNI then called ABRI, Angkatan Bersenjata Republik Indonesia, or the Armed Forces of the Republic of Indonesia) [6] enjoyed little public support and, without the support of Soeharto, was seriously weakened as a political institution. In particular, many commentators claimed that ABRI had come into public disrepute and that this had weakened its standing as a state institution.

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