Sun, Jun 28, 2015 - Page 4 News List

Indonesian army expands civil role

TRANSITION TO DEMOCRACY:Indonesia’s democratic progress is under threat as President Widodo relies on military strength to rein in the powerful, unruly police


Indonesians ride on armored vehicles during an exhibition in Jakarta, Indonesia, on Dec. 12 last year.

Photo: AP

Nearly two decades after the fall of former Indonesian president Suharto forced Indonesia’s military out of politics, the army is inching back into civilian roles, risking a setback for democracy in this Southeast Asian nation and perhaps even for the turbulent region.

The vast Indonesian archipelago is one of the world’s most populous democracies and also among the youngest. Many Indonesians welcomed the army’s retreat from politics after Suharto’s often brutal 32-year rule was ended by mass protests in 1998. However, years later, analysts and former generals said the military’s national defense role is still not fully accepted among officers or the rank-and-file.

Now, the army is creeping into areas beyond defense as inexperienced Indonesian President Joko Widodo relies on it to strengthen his hand against the powerful and unruly police and political parties allied to former Indonesian president Megawati Sukarnoputri.

Megawati, the daughter of first Indonesian president Sukarno, positioned herself as the power behind Widodo’s presidency by letting her party back him during last year’s election.

The army has signed agreements with government ministries and state companies that involve it in areas such as providing security for airports, bus stations and railways and helping farmers increase their crops. Some officials have called for army involvement in Indonesia’s anti-corruption agency to counter attempts by police and their political allies to neuter an institution that is effective and feared.

Widodo recently nominated an army general to head all Indonesian military forces, breaking with the schedule of a reform-minded convention of rotating the post between the navy, air force and army.

“I think it is obvious that the move is calculated to bring the army on side given that the president is having so much trouble from friends and foes alike,” Australia’s Murdoch University Indonesia expert Vedi Hadiz said. “It is only the army that can scare the police.”

Indonesia is by far the most populous nation and biggest economy in Southeast Asia. The resilience of its democracy has extra significance at a time when China’s authoritarian leaders are testing US primacy in the region and US relations with Thailand — a key ally in the region — have chilled.

The region of about 600 million people is accustomed to rule by autocrats and Indonesia is not alone in struggling to nurture faith in the messy processes of democracy while also meeting expectations for improved living standards.

Last year, generals overthrew civilian rule in perennially unstable Thailand and have no firm timetable for elections. The military remains deeply embedded in Myanmar’s nascent democracy, while Malaysia’s opposition alliance has collapsed, dimming chances of a change in government after decades of rule by one party.

The risk of greater army involvement is that it “might cause failure in the progress of the transition to democracy for Indonesia,” said Agus Widjojo, a retired Indonesian army general who helped lead reforms of the military. “If this is a relapse and a counter-reaction, especially if it starts from the military, it can cause a ripple effect.” Widjojo sees weaknesses on both sides: Widodo, who lacks confidence without the army at his side, and in the military where many still “cling to the extensive role” of the past.

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