No politics, says new Jakarta navy chief

While the TNI has declared it won’t quit Parliament until 2009, the navy makes it clear it will focus on professional duties.

As the army manoeuvred behind the scenes to return to a position of power in Indonesia, the navy slowly distanced itself from such attempts as its new commander made clear that it would not dabble in domestic politics.

Admiral Bernard Kent Sondakh told The Straits Times in an interview that the navy’s profile would increase significantly in the next few years as it grappled with rising problems of piracy, protecting natural resources and securing the country’s busy sea lanes.

But politics was a no-go for the navy, he said.

‘Our task is a very professional one,’ he maintained. ‘It is a military function to defend the sovereignty of Indonesia and not take part in day-to-day politics.’

His comment flies in the face of ongoing developments in Indonesia where the army has been taking steps over the last year to preserve its political position.

Amid mounting controversy and what some critics see as a setback for democracy in the country, the Indonesian Armed Forces (TNI) declared last week that it wanted to remain in the legislature until 2009 to allow the military to ‘consolidate internally’.

The original plan was to leave Parliament in 2004.

The TNI was also contemplating allowing its members to vote and be elected.

According to a draft of the election Bill, officers could be elected in the provinces provided they obtained a permit from their superiors.

The Bill appears to have the backing of major parliamentary factions like President Megawati Sukarnoputri’s Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle (PDI-P) and Golkar – parties seen to be veering towards the TNI for support ahead of the 2004 polls.

Admiral Sondakh did not comment on the latest moves by the TNI but said in jest that the media was always trying to draw the military into politics.

Noted the four-star general: ‘It’s all you reporters trying to create the impression that we are intervening in politics.’ Analysts said Admiral Sondakh’s comments were a broad reflection of sentiments in the navy and even in the air force. Some officers have privately expressed reservations at the army continuing to call the shots four years after Mr Suharto’s fall.

During the interview, the navy chief took pains to explain that the navy was trying hard to raise its profile as a professional outfit.

Moves were under way to revise the academic curriculum of naval cadets and officers attending courses at the staff and command college.

The Indonesian navy was also intent on stepping up bilateral exercises with neighbouring countries like Singapore and Malaysia.

More importantly, he said the navy was seeking to upgrade its ships and equipment to handle a range of problems the country was facing from piracy and smuggling to potential conflicts that could arise in Indonesia’s sea-lanes of communication.

The country’s economic problems and budget constraints meant that there was a tight lid on the purchase of equipment now.

He said that the navy was getting around the problem by ‘overhauling’ several of the 113 ships in its operations.

He said: ‘We are looking at ways to ensure that all our ships are in prime condition to handle whatever security threats we face.’

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