Academic journal article Strategic Forum

Indonesian Democratic Transition: Implications for United States Policy

Academic journal article Strategic Forum

Indonesian Democratic Transition: Implications for United States Policy

Article excerpt


* Broad consensus exists within Indonesian political circles on the need for major reforms aimed at building effective political institutions and establishing civilian control over the Indonesian national military, the Tentera Nasional Indonesia (TNI).

* Recognition is growing within TNI that political reform is essential and that it must be accompanied by military reform. Differences exist, however, on the content, scope, and pace of reform. Opposition by powerful, senior officers has caused President Wahid to proceed carefully while seeking support from a majority of the military leadership.

* TNI reservations stem from three factors: its historical self-image as being responsible for and to the nation rather than to the state; fear that the emerging drive to hold TNI accountable for past abuses will damage the institution as well as a number of retired and serving officers; and, concern about the military budget.

* TNI would accept civilian control more willingly if its leaders were to believe the civilian government is capable of maintaining national unity, which includes ensuring territorial integrity, making appropriate use of the military and police, and reinvigorating Indonesian economic life. Government actions in Aceh, Ambon, and the Moluccas and success or failure in jump-starting the economy will be key long-term tests of civilian effectiveness.

* Integrating TNI into the national polity will require as long as a generation to accomplish. Even then, the military is likely to retain significant political influence throughout the country.

* Military reform and political reform are inseparable from each other, and both depend on economic recovery.


The onset of the Asian economic crisis in May 1997 assured the end of the tottering "New Order" regime of President Suharto. Economic collapse re-energized social and political grievances long muted by the cumulative effects of steady economic growth and political repression. In May 1998, the discredited Suharto regime collapsed. In June 1999, democratic elections led to the formation of a reform government led by President Abdurrahman Wahid.

The Wahid administration did not begin from a position of great strength. It has relied on a coalition of forces (the so-called Axis Force) whose continued support is uncertain. Wahid's party gained only slightly more than 10 percent of the parliamentary vote held in June 1999, so he needs to maintain alliances with other parties in order to get legislation passed.

Also, fearing national disintegration, Wahid selected a national unity cabinet that, while representing many regions, ethnicities, and religions, has been criticized for being inexperienced and lacking internal cohesion. In effect, Wahid is operating a parliamentary-style government within a presidential system. This complicates his challenge.

The Wahid government must restore the economy, maintain the unity of the Indonesian state, and reform Indonesian political, economic, and military institutions. Crucial to success in all three areas is the need to redefine the roles and missions of Tentera Nasional Indonesia (TNI), the Indonesian national military, in the national polity. Wahid's success or failure bears directly and indirectly on important interests of the United States.

The immediate test for the Wahid government is to hold TNI accountable for its long record of human rights abuses and economic corruption during the Suharto era. This requires institutional change as well as punishment of individual officers.

United States Interests

Indonesia is important to U.S. military strategy. The largest nation in Southeast Asia, covering some 2 million square kilometers and stretching nearly 5,000 kilometers from east to west, the Indonesian archipelago straddles the critical sea lines of communication that run from the Persian Gulf to Northeast Asia. …

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