Civil-Military Relations in Indonesia and the Problem of Surplus Officers

As Indonesia’s April elections draw near, the country finds itself confronting once again the challenges of separating the country’s powerful military from civilian politics. The specific issue is a structural problem internal to the Indonesian Armed Forces (TNI): a surplus of mid-career officers with insufficient promotion opportunities. This would not be a national conversation were it not for the proposed solution: placing many of these officers in civilian bureaucracies.

To an Indonesian audience, such a move is reminiscent of the old Indonesian armed forces doctrine of dwifungsi, or dual function. This doctrine held that the Indonesian military legitimately had a role both in providing for national defense and in sociopolitical affairs. It justified the active role that the armed forces (then known as ABRI) played under the New Order regime, noting of course that Soeharto himself was a general before he was a president and that generals occupied many influential positions in various New Order cabinets. After democratization, Indonesia passed various laws that were designed to bring the military under civilian control, and dwifungsi was abandoned. Yet although reforms have been halting and incomplete (see Sebastian and Iisgindarsah [PDF] for a progress report), at least in doctrinal terms, TNI no longer is supposed to claim a legitimate sociopolitical role.

The fact that officers will be moved to civilian posts reveals very clearly the incompleteness of military reform after democratization. The problem of surplus officers ought to be a problem for the military alone, and the very fact that it is being “civilianized” illustrates the influence that the military continues to wield. This, of courses, is nothing new. And as a Jakarta Post editorial from earlier this month hints,

The issue of idle soldiers indeed needs an immediate solution, as restless colonels have changed the history of nations.

But nevertheless, placing these officers in the bureaucracy ought to require an amendment to the 2004 TNI Law that outlined the post-authoritarian role of the armed forces, and

such an amendment would counter the spirit of TNI reform, which envisions a strong and professional defense force. The reform mandated the TNI to focus on defense, relinquishing its long-preserved dwifungsi (dual function) doctrine of the New Order. The amendment, if passed, would open Pandora’s Box, practically resurrecting the ghost of dwifungsi.

In the past several days, retired generals serving in the current administration of Joko Widodo have weighed in on the issue. Not surprisingly, they have denied that there is a problem, and opaquely specified that they had studied the issues and the needs of the moment, and that that’s enough (Luhut Panjaitan); or asserted that civilian bureaucracies can recruit whomever they want (Ryamizard Ryacudu).

All of this is further evidence of the growing militarization of Indonesian democracy, a phenomenon that I and others have commented on for years (see e.g. this post from 2015 and this essay from IPAC).* In the context of a presidential election between Jokowi and a disgraced former general who evokes memories of the country’s authoritarian past, however, Indonesia watchers ought to reread this important essay by Tom Power, published last October.


* By “growing militarization” I mean to clarify that these changes go above and beyond the obvious fact that retired military figures have been prominent politicians throughout the contemporary democratic period.