Military trying to stick to its guns on politics-free role

Last week’s celebration of the 58th anniversary of the Indonesian armed forces (TNI) was one of pomp and military muscle.

The newly acquired Russian Sukhoi jets screamed overhead as red beret troops engaged in special manoeuvres.

Amid this display of force in an organisation creeping to national ascendancy, TNI chief Endriartono Sutarto declared that the military would stay out of politics.

Nothing new in this message.

It reinforces the ‘new thinking’ of the top brass, which decided after Suharto’s fall in 1998 to leave national politics to the civilians.

What is significant is the timing – and the target – of that message.

It was aimed at political parties seeking to enlist military backing – and more importantly at retired generals running for presidency next year.

There are three of them: security czar Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, former commander Wiranto and Suharto’s son-in-law Prabowo Subianto.

General Endriartono explained: ‘They are no longer within our structure. So there will be no obligation for us to support them.’

Analysts believe that his comment is underscored by three factors.

For one, it reflects the growing rift between the top brass and the retired generals who have been more critical of the military’s failure to restore law and order in Indonesia.

Secondly, it could be an attempt to dismantle the patron-client network between retired and active generals ahead of the election.

Historically, serving officers have been obliged to back their retired superiors. Many retired generals still draw on the allegiance of former army connections.

Gen Endriartono is also steering the TNI back on course for reform, which began in 1999 when the military dismantled its socio-political division and declared that it would not dabble in politics.

In 2001, it resisted former president Abdurrahman Wahid’s bid to impose emergency rule to preserve his own power.

But the reform agenda has wavered, most conspicuously demonstrated by a defence White Paper earlier this year.

It spelt out the TNI’s inherent right to have special powers to ‘intervene’ in state affairs when needed. The TNI has been able to assert itself over the last two years partly because politicians are unwilling to disaffect the military openly given its far-reaching influence.

Gen Endriartono may have laid out the OB markers for the TNI’s role in politics. But he can only go that far. The onus is on civilian politicians and retired military officers to stop dragging the generals into the fray.

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