Indonesian Armed Forces (Tentara Nasional Indonesia-TNI)

Research Paper 23 1998-99

Bob Lowry
Consultant, Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade Group
29 June 1999


Major Issues Summary


The Political Impact on Foreign Policy

Continuing Themes in Defence Policy

TNI's Internal Security Role

The TNI's Stance on East Timor

Continuity of Policy on Irian Jaya

Handling Pressures for Regional Autonomy

The Armed Forces in Politics

Australia-Indonesia Defence Cooperation




Map if Indonesia

Source: United States Central Intelligence Agency, map no. (R02495)5-98

Major Issues Summary

For several months after the fall of Suharto in May 1998 the Indonesian armed forces particularly the army, police and marines, withstood a severe buffeting as democratic forces mobilised to demand total reform of the political, economic and social structures of the state. This was followed by the outbreak of communal violence across Indonesia as various communities vented years of frustration at the failure of the central government to satisfy regional aspirations and at the brutality of the armed forces in suppressing regional dissent. The violence has been prolonged as a consequence both of Indonesia having a caretaker government whose legitimacy is contested and of a severely depressed economy.

This was the second major shock that the Indonesian armed forces (TNI)(1) had suffered in less than a year. By then it was apparent that the Asian financial crisis which had spread throughout Southeast Asia in the last quarter of 1997 had become a severe economic depression. It was a depression that hurt Indonesia more severely than most. Not only did this crisis produce the social unrest that toppled the Suharto government but it also crippled the capability and prospects of the TNI. Operations and training had to be curtailed and plans for replacement and upgrading of equipment were cancelled or deferred. Previously, official Australian analysts had been pointing to the strategic consequences of regional armed forces, including Indonesia's, possessing capabilities which might soon rival Australia's.(2) Now, the focus turned to concern that the TNI and police would be unable to maintain order and prevent inter-communal violence.

The primary determinant of these issues is essentially political. Meanwhile, the TNI and police, guided by deep-seated conceptions of their role as the guardians of the state, are struggling to keep their own cohesion. At the same time they are trying to keep Indonesia together until the popular elections of June and Presidential elections of November 1999 give birth to the first democratically elected government since 1957.

There are no guarantees that the new government will have general public acceptance or that it will prove equal to the challenges it will confront. Even if it has general initial public acceptance, and is reasonably competent, public expectations might far exceed the capacity of any government, producing ongoing social and political tensions, including regional independence movements.

The TNI's position at the centre of Indonesian politics is on the wain after 41 years of authoritarian rule. However, it will continue to play a major role in Indonesia, despite its battered image, for many years to come. It can make or break the democratic transition. It can be part of the solution to regional independence movements or part of the problem, as in the Suharto era. More specifically, it can provide a firm base for East Timor's transition to independence or TNI actions can destabilise it for years to come.

One of the first acts of the new democratic government is likely to be a total review of defence and security policy and the organisation and administration of the armed forces. The success of these measures will also be determined by the ability of the new government to satisfy the expectations of a long suppressed population. Failure to at least give some hope that these aspirations will eventually be satisfied could lead to another descent into authoritarianism.

Major changes in foreign and defence policy are unlikely but foreign policy will be more politicised as a democratic government responds to the predominantly Islamic nature of Indonesian society. Any conflict in the Middle East, for example, is likely to raise calls for Muslim solidarity with the parties involved, including calls for the restriction of passage of military vessels through the archipelagic straits. Any attempt to restrict maritime passage by commercial or military vessels through archipelagic waters and straits would be of concern to the international community

Although the first signs of the recovery of the Indonesian economy are becoming visible, it will be some time before the TNI will be re-equipped and modernised. For the next few years the main focus of the TNI will continue to be internal security. However, other roles will get increasing priority as Indonesia struggles to maintain control of its borders and its maritime resources, such as the potential Natuna gas fields on the fringes of waters in the South China Sea disputed with China. Given Indonesia's resource limitations, the TNI is unlikely to increase in size or capability for many years but there is scope for significant qualitative improvement to better cope with the challenges ahead.

Australia and Indonesia signed an Agreement on Maintaining Security (AMS) in December 1995. The AMS is an oddity of history that might be of more practical use as Indonesia makes its transition to a relatively open political system and the East Timor issue is settled. Australia has spent about $7 million annually in the late 1990s on defence cooperation with Indonesia, including military exercises, training, limited material and logistic support, and reciprocal visits.

The fall of Suharto has opened up an opportunity to exchange ideas on how the TNI might adapt to the new political reality. These activities could prove valuable as the TNI adapts to more open political structures and revamps its policy, strategy, force structure, training and administration. However, if the East Timor issue deteriorates, the clash of 'interests' versus 'values' in Australia's cooperation with the TNI is likely to intensify. Whatever disruptions may be caused by the transition process in East Timor, the prospects for greater cooperation between the forces of the two countries will be greatly increased as democracy take hold in Indonesia.


In 1998, the Indonesian armed forces were subject to numerous pressures. The Asian financial crisis brought severe depression and the consequent social unrest toppled the Suharto government and crippled the capability and prospects of the armed forces. Operations and training had to be curtailed and plans for replacement and upgrading of equipment were cancelled or deferred. For several months after the fall of Suharto in May 1998 the Indonesian armed forces, particularly the army, police and marines, withstood a severe buffeting from democratic forces. This was followed by the outbreak of communal violence across Indonesia. The violence has been prolonged as a consequence of Indonesia having a caretaker government whose legitimacy is contested, and a severely depressed economy.

Under pressure to improve it public image, the armed forces announced it own internal reform program, including separation of the police from military command and the renaming of the armed forces. The Indonesian Armed Forces, that is, the three Services (TNI) and police (POLRI) were known collectively by the abbreviation ABRI. On 1 April 1999 the police force was separated from military command with the aim of reducing its military image and refocussing on police functions. Consequently, the term ABRI has been dropped and the armed forces are now known as the TNI.

This paper attempts to provide an overview of the TNI, its role in current developments inside Indonesia and an insight into its possible future. It begins by looking at the TNI's characteristics as a conventional military force. This is placed in context by a discussion of Indonesia's foreign and defence policies to provide an insight into the TNI's strategic thinking. The impact upon the TNI of recent economic events, and their consequences for the development of the TNI's military capabilities is discussed.

Since the 1950s the TNI has had a 'Dwi fungsi' (dual function) within Indonesia. As well as its role as a military service, the TNI has carried responsibility for the economic, social and political development of Indonesia. It is this role which has come under criticism most heavily over the last two years and it is here that the TNI is under most pressure to change. This paper studies these pressures and looks at their consequences in areas such as the cohesion of the TNI, its role in East Timor and other areas and its possible place in the future political structure of Indonesia.

The paper also includes a brief discussion of the defence links between Australia and Indonesia and the possible effects upon them of the current period of turmoil.

The Political Impact on Foreign Policy

Indonesia's general 'independent and active' foreign policy is unlikely to be affected by the change of regime but substantive change in its application and form is probable. As with other regional nations, Indonesia will continue to be jealous of its sovereignty and the challenges posed by emerging regional powers and globalising influences. Its policy options, however, will be severely constrained by a weak economy and a fractious population.

The re-emergence of Islam as a symbol and basis of political mobilisation is likely to politicise foreign policy to a greater extent than under Suharto. Any conflict in the Middle East, for example, is likely to raise calls for Muslim solidarity with the parties involved, including calls for the restriction of passage of military vessels through the archipelagic straits.

This should not be seen as a manifestation of Huntington's thesis of the 'clash of civilisations'. As with Christianity, there are many cross currents within Indonesian Islam and most clashes in the Middle East pit Moslems against Moslems. Almost inevitably different Moslem streams and organisations will take different approaches to such problems. The more radical elements accuse the USA and the IMF of compelling Habibie to ban the formation of an explicitly Islamic political party.(3) However, Islam in Indonesia, with minor exceptions, is of a much diluted form compared to that found in Iran or Afghanistan.

The sense of 'frustrated regional entitlement' that characterised Indonesian foreign policy through to the 1980s has been replaced by a more sober assessment of Indonesia's place in the world.(4) There is a consciousness, especially after the recent economic crash, that geographic size, a large population, and great resource potential do not of themselves equal power and influence. The opening of the economy to global influences and the Indonesian liberalising of its political structures are also weakening latent economic nationalism.

Nevertheless, democratic politics will ensure that economic nationalist policies will continue to be promoted. The establishment of Islamic Banks, the promotion of small and medium enterprises, and continued faith in an antiquated network of cooperatives are, in some circles, considered essential to promote indigenous business (that is, non-Chinese business) and to provide a buffer to international capital.

The Policy Adjustments in Multilateralism and East Timor

The commitment to regionalism through ASEAN and the ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF) will remain strong but tempered by a much sharper awareness of the weakness and limitations of these organisations. The corollary of this will be continuing but muted support for a USA presence in the region as a moderating influence until the political tensions in Northeast Asia are resolved and the political directions of the regions' emerging powers become clearer. In particular, Indonesia has hosted a series of talks on the South China Sea dispute between China and several Southeast Asian claimants to sovereignty over the Spratly Islands with the aim of promoting a peaceful resolution of those disputes.

Indonesia will probably continue its membership of peripheral organisations like the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) and the Islamic Conference Organisation (ICO) as a means of providing leeway in relations with the dominant global powers and institutions and globalising ideologies.

The UN might also become a more important forum for the expression of Indonesian aspirations. Indonesia has staked a claim to a permanent seat on the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) and might seek to use UN forums to blunt the hegemonic tendencies of the major powers and globalising forces. Beginning in 1957 Indonesia has contributed units and observers to several United Nations peacekeeping operations in Africa, Europe, the Middle East and Asia. This included playing a central role, along with Australia, in bringing the Cambodian elections to fruition in 1993.

Indonesia has an extant dispute with Malaysia over the sovereignty of the islands of Ligitan and Sipadan off the East Kalimantan border. After several failed attempts to settle the dispute bilaterally, including some mutual close quarter shadowing of naval vessels from the two countries patrolling the disputed area, both countries have agreed to submit the dispute to the International Court of Justice (ICJ) for adjudication. Apart from this dispute, Indonesia' borders are settled except for some uncertainty in relation to the maritime boundary with China in the South China Sea.

If East Timor opts for independence the land and maritime borders of the new state will also absorb some diplomatic effort. The fate of the Occussi Enclave,(5) and the maritime boundaries between Indonesia and the new state might present some difficulties but should be settled by diplomatic means. Indonesia's promotion and ratification of the Law of the Sea Convention (LOSC) should assist in the process.

In summary, Indonesian foreign policy will be influenced much more by domestic political developments than during the Suharto era but such change is unlikely to produce a drastic re-orientation.

Continuing Themes in Defence Policy

Fading memories still linger of the latter years of President Sukarno's tumultuous era in the early 1960s when Indonesia had acquired large quantities of Soviet Bloc military equipment. That brief period of bluster and potentially threatening military force, however, was an exception to the general pattern of Indonesian defence policy before and since. Indonesian defence policy has been defensive in nature. It has consistently recognised the absence of an immediately menacing external threat and its own geographic and economic vulnerabilities and weaknesses.(6)

Alliances with either side in the Cold War were not practicable because of ideological cleavages in Indonesian society. Hence the pursuit of an 'independent and active' foreign policy and a complementary policy of self-reliance in defence, although in effect it benefited from US presence in the region.

Self-reliance through conventional defence, particularly naval and air forces, was not affordable so a policy of 'total people's defence' was adopted under which the whole population would be mobilised to ward off any external threat to the sovereignty of the nation. There is little likelihood that this general policy will change. Despite the technological advances of the last half century, it is still a viable policy especially given Indonesia's limited resources and its vast archipelagic estate.

Although Indonesia toyed with the idea of nuclear weapons in the early 1960s, the Suharto regime did not pursue that option. On the contrary, it became a firm advocate of the Southeast Asian Nuclear Weapons Free Zone (SEANWFZ). It has also ratified the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC) and several other weapons limitation and control conventions.

Despite an emphasis on self-reliance, Indonesia has also played a leading role in promoting the concept of 'regional resilience'. This is a region in which the individual countries strive to achieve internal cohesion and unite to resist incursions into regional affairs by outside powers. The facts of geography mean that achieving this objective would provide Indonesia with a strategic buffer to its north. ASEAN provides the diplomatic expression of this concept and bi-lateral defence cooperation, principally with Malaysia and Singapore, provides a nascent basis for coordinated defence of the South China Sea approaches.

Indonesia's Regional Defence Relationships

The Agreement on Maintaining Security (AMS) signed between Indonesia and Australia in 1995 is the only defence treaty Indonesia has. However, it has yet to be given any operational relevance.

Indonesia also engages in defence cooperation with a number of countries across the globe to obtain education and training and to acquire and maintain equipment and systems. Many TNI officers and other ranks have undergone education and training overseas in a number of disciplines since the 1940s and foreign military officers have been invited to participate in Indonesian armed forces command and staff college courses since 1964. Training and technical support teams have also been deployed to Indonesia for a variety of projects by several countries on a regular basis. Regular combined exercises, most on a small scale, are also conducted in Indonesia by various countries.

Historically, Indonesia has focussed its strategic outlook to the north. The virulent anti-communism of the Suharto regime meant that it paid particular attention to developments in China. The Cold War in East Asia began to thaw soon after China began opening its market to capitalism in 1978. Subsequently, doubts arose about USA commitment to the region particularly after the announcement of its withdrawal from the Philippines when questions were asked about who would fill the supposed vacuum and what would China do with its growing wealth. Increasing tensions over disputed islands in the South China Sea also unsettled the region. Nevertheless, Indonesia has not assessed that there is any immediate threat from China and has sought, since unfreezing relations in 1989, to enjoin China to participate in building a cooperative and peaceful regional community.

Nevertheless, China's size, it nuclear capability, its potential to develop large military forces, its uncompromising stance on its ocean frontiers and its domestic political uncertainties combined with its potential for internal chaos mean that Indonesia, along with the rest of the region, pays close attention to developments there. None of this is likely to change with Indonesia's transition to democracy.

Strategic Policy for Indonesian Defence

From a strategic perspective the bulk of Indonesia's population is in the western half of the archipelago. Most of its economic wealth is also found there. Its main defence and security concerns are centred on the South China Sea approaches. And, being a medium regional power like Australia, it has an interest in moulding a region dedicated to cooperative relationships and a commitment to the peaceful resolution of disputes.

Although Indonesia has no formal binding alliances, it would seek the cooperation of regional countries and global powers in the unlikely event that its sovereignty was threatened. Cooperation with the countries of Southeast and Austral Asia would be sought to deter aggression and multiply military capability if conflict ensued. Having no nuclear capacity or missile defences Indonesia might also seek the support of sympathetic regional and global powers.

Should such efforts fail to stop hostile forces reaching Indonesia, its military strategy is based on deterring threats to its sovereignty by demonstrating that it has the cohesion and determination to resist external aggression on a sustained basis until the invader is worn down and withdraws or is ejected by a counter offensive.

To achieve this it has developed a small conventional military force including an embryonic air defence system, naval fleet operations and mobile ground forces. They can be grouped into joint task forces which can be deployed throughout the archipelago at short notice to handle two trouble spots at once. This force marks the borders and represents a visible public declaration that Indonesia will not take lightly incursions on any scale.

These forces could not sustain intense combat operations against a major regional power for any length of time, nor could they protect the whole archipelago. Consequently, Indonesian defence against a major invasion relies on territorial forces and coordinated conventional and guerrilla operations to contain, wear down and evict invading forces. Despite the rhetoric of self-sufficiency, continued access to external logistic supply would be an essential element in the success of this strategy.

The likelihood of having to activate this strategy is very low but it does provide a basis for defence planning, organisation, doctrine, and training. In addition the armed forces share routine responsibility with other state organs for guarding the land, air and sea borders and protecting national resources from unauthorised exploitation by Indonesian nationals and foreigners.

In particular, the navy and air force are responsible for surveillance of the vast reaches of Indonesia's Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) and archipelagic waters and coordinating the activities of the other agencies involved.

Organisation of the Indonesian Armed Forces

The armed forces are organised on conventional lines with a separate army, navy and air force under the operational command of a commander-in-chief (C-in-C). The army comprises 240 000 personnel organised into two major components, central forces and territorial forces. The primary central forces comprise of the Army Strategic Command (Kostrad) with two light infantry divisions and supporting arms, and the Special Forces command (Kopassus) with four operational groups, in all about 35 000 troops. Apart from centralised headquarters and agencies, most of the remaining army forces are distributed between 11 territorial commands covering the archipelago.

The navy comprises two operational fleets, Western Fleet based in Jakarta and Eastern Fleet based in Surabaya. Western Fleet covers the vital South China Sea approaches and the Malacca and Sunda Straits. Eastern Fleet covers the Pacific Ocean approaches and the Lombok/Macassar Straits and straits further east. Each fleet also has several bases scattered throughout its area of operations to support deployed units and units in transit.

The air force comprises around twenty squadrons, including six fighter squadrons. The fighter squadrons are deployed to provide air defence of Java and the major approaches to Java. It has virtually no strategic strike capability and very limited maritime surveillance capacity. There are over 40 bases around the country capable of supporting limited air operations as necessary.

Plans are in progress to increase the number of territorial commands (Kodam) from 10 to 17 with the aim of intensifying the army's capacity to maintain internal security across the archipelago.(7) There are also proposals to interpose joint operational commands (that is, a single headquarters commanding units of all services in a given operational area) between the C-in-C and the existing primarily single service commands (that is, army, navy and air force commands).(8) This would allow the C-in-C to concentrate on strategic functions and his interactions with government. Ideally, such changes should flow from an overall government review of defence and security arrangements by the new government rather than being implemented on an ad hoc basis.

Pressures for Change

Some of the problems experienced since the fall of Suharto stem from General Wiranto's decision to retain the positions of both Minister for Defence and Security and C-in-C. He has done this for political reasons, that is, to limit the scope for President Habibie to impose policy on the military, to promote and appoint senior officers, or to generally subordinate the TNI to the presidency.(9) It also gives Wiranto the power base from which to seek the presidential or vice presidential nomination in November 1999 if other factors allow. Furthermore, it gives him the independence to foil the UN process in East Timor if that is deemed necessary.

Apart from the proposals mentioned above, the general structure of the armed forces will probably remain largely unchanged but comprehensive qualitative reforms are needed at all levels. Some superficial changes have been made since May 1998. The police were separated from the armed forces on 1 April 1999 and placed under the Minister for Defence and Security pending the election of a new government and their decision on administrative arrangements for the police.

The social-political role has also been adjusted by demanding that all armed forces personnel seconded to non-military roles be retired from the service. The 'social-political staff' of armed forces headquarters was also retitled 'territorial staff' but retained a social-political sub-section to manage armed forces political representation in parliament and in cabinet.

Some people have called for the abolition of the army's territorial chain of command because it was the means by which the armed forces suppressed the people in the past and that its continued existence is a latent threat to a democratic transition. There is some basis for these fears but other means of constraining the latent political menace of the command arrangements will have to be found if the territorial structure remains appropriate to Indonesia's defence and security policy and strategy.

These measures could include legislation to define and restrict the military's role, separating the position of minister and C-in-C, a major reduction in personnel deployed in territorial commands and units, oversight of the intelligence system, improvements in conditions of service, enforcement of supervision of the role and functions of the territorial commands, enforcement of restrictions on business activities by serving personnel, and the impartial application of the law against all offenders, including those from the military.

Limited Prospects for TNI's Capability Development

The current organisation of the armed forces has been outlined above. Prior to the fall of Suharto there was a 25 year plan for the development of armed forces. These included expanding the army to 330 000 men and strengthening conventional defences provided by the navy and air force. These plans have been set back by the economic depression Indonesia has suffered and will probably be reviewed by the new government.

The scale of the challenge can be glimpsed from the fact that Indonesia's GNP before the economic crash was about half that of Australia's but Indonesia has over ten times Australia's population and a fraction of its infrastructure. Its official defence budget was a little less than 10 per cent of the government budget or less than one third of Australian's defence budget. Although the armed forces were able to draw on other official and unofficial sources of funding these were mainly expended on personnel and operating costs rather than capital equipment purchases.

The dollar value of the defence budget has also collapsed causing the cancellation of the purchase of German submarines and Russian fighters and helicopters. The TNI has also cancelled contracts for the local production of French artillery and all orders for transport and maritime patrol aircraft and helicopters from the Indonesian aircraft manufacturer IPTN.

Although capital expenditure has been drastically reduced from an already low level Indonesia will proceed with the purchase of an additional squadron of Hawk multi-role aircraft, bringing the total to 40. The squadron will be based at Pontianak (West Kalimantan) and, along with the squadron based at Pekan Baru (Sumatra), provide air defence, close air support and maritime strike on the South China Sea approaches including the Natuna Islands.

The navy is in the most desperate condition with a fleet of ageing surface combatants and support vessels mostly overdue for replacement. It is also left with a submarine force of only two vessels after the cancellation of the order for five German vessels. The navy is also responsible for coordinating, and much of the conduct of, maritime surveillance but it is inadequately equipped and funded for the task and poor conditions of service detract from effective implementation.

Given the state of Indonesia's defence and security challenges and the state of its armed forces there is scope for a total review and some imaginative thinking on the whole gamut of Indonesian defence and security from the highest levels of policy down to conditions of service for the private soldier before any further major capital expenditure is contemplated.

TNI's Internal Security Role

Internal security has been the principal employment of the armed forces since 1949, increasingly so since 1957 when martial law was declared and Indonesia descended into a long period of authoritarian rule. Although regional revolts and insurgencies were overcome or contained, the failure to address the underlying political causes of those movements left a growing list of grievances and frustration that erupted when Suharto was deposed.

Compounding these grievances were the racial, ethnic, religious and social cleavages that have bedevilled Indonesian politics since the rise of nationalism early in the 20th Century. In 1945, the founding fathers adopted the formula of a God fearing but secular state which, with the promotion of Indonesian nationalism, was designed to unite this diverse community. Unfortunately, these policies were undone by other policies like favouritism of the politically neutered Chinese in business, unfair land acquisition for politically sensitive projects like transmigration, golf courses, forestry and dam building, and the exploitation of religion for political purposes, especially in Suharto's later years.

The armed forces were both the agents of many of these dysfunctional policies and the repressers when discontent arose. It must be acknowledged that the armed forces became very sophisticated at managing discontent with minimum force during the Suharto era. Suharto's political adroitness and a prolonged period of economic growth were also crucial factors in the regime's longevity. The exceptions to this were on the periphery of the state, particularly Aceh, Irian Jaya and East Timor, where grievances were deeply entrenched and the brutality of the military response only served to deepen the resentment of Jakarta.

John Haseman, a former US military attache to Jakarta with several postings in Indonesia, has declared that: 'There is still no substitute to the territorial structure of the army for effective local government in rural Indonesia. The volatile Indonesian society needs the firm hand of the security forces to maintain domestic stability both nationally and locally.'(10) However, as mentioned above, some Indonesians have called for the dismantling of the territorial command system because its primary purpose has been to maintain authoritarian rule.

Options for a New Stance in the Internal Security Role

There is some truth in both arguments but much of the volatility Haseman refers to has arisen from the failure to develop legitimate political structures and norms and address the political grievances and aspirations of the people. Moreover, no amount of military rule, no matter how well intentioned, is a substitute for responsive local and regional government within an appropriate national structure.

The armed forces can provide a firm base on which the democratic transition can take root, assuming that an effective government emerges from the 1999 electoral process. It also assumes that the creative and productive forces of the regions are unlocked by genuine decentralisation of political authority and appropriate economic incentives. These are sensitive matters in a multi-ethnic empire with an understandable history of suspicion and antipathy toward the central government and its regional agents. Inappropriate actions by the military could easily foil reform efforts.

The turmoil in Indonesia during the caretaker period of the Habibie government and the prominent role of the military in containing the violence is indicative of both years of pent-up tensions and the absence of legitimate government in the interregnum between the fall of Suharto in May 1998 and the formation of democratically elected national and regional governments at the end of 1999. This has put the military in the difficult position of having to maintain internal security without, in many cases, effective political leadership to formulate and coordinate community responses to unrest and violence. Such leadership is essential if military operations are to complement the search for political solutions to such problems rather than aggravate them as has often happened in the past.

If any progress is to be made, the military will have to step back as the new government takes control and the police are given the appropriate authority, organisation, doctrine, training and conditions of service essential to their gaining the respect of the public. The military might still be required to assist the government and police in prescribed circumstances but under the general direction of the civil authority.

The military's internal security doctrine is well developed but its application often deviated from doctrine. Correcting that shortcoming requires a review of doctrine, the implementation of appropriate governmental and military oversight, the effective application of civil and military law, appropriate training, and appropriate conditions of service.

Even in the latter years of Suharto's reign the military had been influenced by calls for respect for human rights in the performance of its duties. Human rights considerations were incorporated in some training programs and some local commanders issued aide memoirs to guide their troops. However, without appropriate political oversight and enforcement, infringements continued. In the current environment, and probably even more so under the new government, the military will need to pay greater attention to this aspect of doctrine and training.

Current signs are not encouraging. The military has shown contempt for the rule of law in its handling of the case of politically motivated kidnappings involving the disappearance of thirteen activists and the kidnapping of another nine in the last months of the Suharto era. Lieutenant General Prabowo, Suharto's son-in-law, and the officer responsible for many of these crimes, was given an honourable discharge and told to remain overseas until the dust had settled(11). Eleven of his subordinates were then tried for the kidnapping offences and given light sentences(12) for which they will undoubtedly be compensated later.

Some of the leniency shown towards Prabowo stems from a fear that his more radical Islamic support base might have caused trouble within and outside the armed forces had justice been allowed to prevail. Prabowo had cultivated the more radical elements of Islam who also backed Habibie's rise to power and supported him against those elements of the reform movement which sought to unseat Habibie in late 1998. Along with others, they opposed calls for Habibie's replacement by a collective leadership at the People's Consultative Assembly (MPR) meeting held in November 1998 and helped mobilise counter-demonstrations and auxilary units to assist police protect the MPR session from disruption by demonstrators demanding Habibie's dismissal.

A Prabowo trial might also have uncovered dubious actions by other senior military officers and Suhartos involvement in the case. This would have created difficulties for the military's undertaking to preserve the honour and dignity of Suharto and his family after he resigned. The case will be left to haunt the new government along with the more general question of what to do about past abuses of power.

Problems of Cohesion Within the TNI

Discipline within the military has also deteriorated as the economic crisis has lowered their standard of living and welfare, and the intensity of employment has increased with the rise in political unrest. In April 1999 the C-in-C's chief of general staff said that some groups in society were trying to weaken the military's cohesion and solidarity by destroying respect for law, discipline, and good order among soldiers. He said breaches of law, discipline and traffic regulations by servicemen, the police and defence bureaucrats was still high and could affect the achievement of the military's tasks.(13)

The dispersion of the military's loyalties contributes to the problem of declining morale as reflected by the decline in disciple. Although members of the armed forces cannot vote they live in a very plural society where mono-loyalty to the governing party and the figure of Suharto has disappeared overnight leaving many disoriented. In these circumstances loyalty to family, ethnic group and region can at times transcend their over-arching duty to the armed forces as an instrument of the state. The accusations of bias by some troops deployed to trouble spots around the archipelago is indicative of this as is fighting among members of different military units and between members of the armed forces and the police(14).

Nevertheless, the military still maintains a high level of cohesion relative to the rest of the nation and is still capable of providing a firm base for the democratic transition. But, could this base be used to bridle political reform or even reassert military rule? The answer depends on the election results and the inclinations and capacity of the new government.

The TNI's Stance on East Timor

From a strategic perspective it does not matter whether the East Timorese vote for autonomy within Indonesia or for independence in the de facto referendum being conducted under UN auspices in August. With the demise of the communist threat, with Indonesia's transition to democracy and, in the absence of any military threat from Australia or Papua New Guinea, an independent East Timor would be no loss to Indonesia.

A poor East Timor might pose non-military security concerns but these are law and order problems which arise from a host of other sources. One more source will not overwhelm any neighbouring state. Moreover, an independent East Timor would be forced by geography and economic reality to establish comprehensive relations with its immediate neighbours.

Moreover, with the weight of Indonesia's strategic interests being at the other end the archipelago why is the Indonesian National Army (TNI) wasting its soldiers lives and its limited resources on trying to keep a strategic, political and economic backwater? Why is it defying its own government's commitment to the letter and spirit of the UN process? And, why does it enjoy independence from government direction in this matter?

Although East Timor is a drain on the Indonesian economy, individuals have benefited from exploiting its resources and the contracts awarded for public works. George Aditjondro has written of the land holdings and business interests of the Suharto family, members of the East Timorese elite and past and present members of the TNI leadership in East Timor.(15) He also asserts that there are untapped oil resources in East Timor that the Suhartos want to retain. Evidence of oil in East Timor has been known for decades but there is no evidence that the resources are prolific or that they are economically exploitable. Material interests are a factor but not a deciding factor.

Military pride and an unwillingness to admit defeat is a factor, especially when one of the military's doctrinal slogans, inherited from its Japanese army antecedents, is that it does not accept surrender, it does not give up. In some cases strong bonds of comradeship have also grown up between TNI officers and men who have served for long periods of time in the province and their East Timorese comrades, subordinates and agents. Some have also married local women further cementing these emotional linkages.

Another factor is the continuing influence of former President Suharto and the army officers whose reputations will be diminished by a vote for independence in East Timor. Suharto was reluctant to take East Timor by force but having done so he was implacable in keeping it. He refused to accept concessions or proposals for autonomy, even those suggested by his son-in-law, Prabowo, a special forces officer who took a personal interest in operations in the province. Ironically this issue unites many formerly estranged parties in trying to foil the UN process.

The Attitude of General Wiranto

General Wiranto has been deeply influenced by the aura of Suharto and his way of thinking and problem solving. Wiranto owes his worldly success not only to his own undoubted abilities but also to the patronage of Suharto. Despite Suharto's fall from power Wiranto still has culturally ingrained obligations to him that continue to influence policy. These cultural obligations are compounded by the legacy that authoritarian regimes do not encourage independent conceptual thinking about fundamental political questions by their military officers. With few exceptions, the TNI's senior officers are still trapped in the dogmatic formulas of the past.

It has also been suggested that the TNI does not want to encourage a snow-balling of demands for independence that might follow East Timor's independence. However, the Irianese and the Acehnese would press their respective political demands regardless of what happens in East Timor. They will certainly use whatever political leverage they can, including that of East Timorese independence when it comes, but the fate of these other movements will not be determined by what happens in East Timor. This argument carries little weight but has historically been effective in dampening criticism from foreign governments. Nevertheless, the combination of all the factors mentioned above confounds the formulation of sensible policy by the TNI leadership.

Wiranto has the freedom to ignore the injunctions of President Habibie because of the way he came to power in May last year. Habibie had never been a favourite of the military, with some important exceptions. He owes his elevation to the vice presidency to Suharto. When Suharto fell the military agreed to Habibie's succession on the understanding that he would not interfere in what the military considered its internal affairs. In particular, Habibie does not have the political clout to dismiss Wiranto or to curtail his authority by leaving him as Minister for Defence and Security but appointing another officer to command the armed forces.

Wiranto has been careful not to openly flout government policy but actions on the ground in East Timor leave no doubt about TNI policy. Some observers suggest that Wiranto has no control over his subordinate commanders. But how can that be when he personally appointed them in mid-1998 and has the authority to dismiss them at will? Nevertheless, although a change of policy would have to be carefully managed to neutralise the influence of some senior officers who would oppose it and to preserve morale in the army generally, most of the TNI would be glad to be done with East Timor.

The fact that Wiranto has set the policy does not mean that he authorises every act of violence undertaken but the general strategic direction comes from Jakarta. The TNI strategy indicates that they do not believe that they can win a vote for autonomy without resort to intimidation. At some point they will have to decide whether intimidation will secure the desired result and let the vote go ahead; or accept the possibility of a vote for independence; or drive the UN back to New York before the vote is taken.

A rigged result or the foiling of UN process will only lead to renewal of the insurgency and leave an unnecessary legacy for the new Indonesian government to grapple with. It is to be hoped that the TNI leadership will see the wisdom of supporting the UN process before it is too late.

Continuity of Policy on Irian Jaya

Gaining the allegiance of the Irianese will be a challenging endeavour for the new regime. Irianese society, like that in neighbouring PNG, is highly fragmented and diverse reflecting the provinces' size and difficult geography. Indonesia has been able to play on this diversity to forestall or stunt the creation of Irianese identity while trying to superimpose Indonesian identity. A recent, hastily announced intention to divide Irian into three provinces this year is also underpinned by a desire to further fragment Irianese identity. With only two million people it is doubtful that Irian needs more government, despite its size.

What it does need is greater participation by the Irianese in government and greater opportunities for them to gain higher education and equality, if not priority, of employment in Irian. Fears for security, low levels of education, and patronage flowing to non-Irianese has kept Irianese participation in government and state agencies low. The brutality and duplicity of the armed forces in dealing with dissent has also left a legacy of bitterness that will not be easily forgotten.

Although Indonesia might be convinced to let the East Timorese determine their own fate they will not countenance the same fate for the Irianese. Irian was part of the Netherlands East Indies and so falls within the boundaries of Indonesia's colonial legacy. The fact that it took twelve years for the Dutch to relinquish sovereignty to Indonesia and that it entailed a fraudulent face saving plebiscite, for the benefit of the Dutch, does not diminish Indonesia's claim to Irian under international law. Moreover, Indonesia would be very reluctant to forgo the resource potential of Irian.

Consequently, although Irianese nationalism might grow, Indonesia will vigorously resist calls for independence. To avoid a more muscular insurgency the Indonesian government will have to find ways of channelling Irianese aspirations into building their own province for their own benefit while at the same time offering them equality of access to the privileges of membership of the wider nation. Critically, the political leadership in conjunction with the military and police will have to find ways of dealing with armed separatists in ways which do not alienate the general population or close legitimate channels of political expression.

Handling Pressures for Regional Autonomy

The success and speed of democratisation and economic recovery will in large measure be determined by the way regional autonomy is designed and implemented. It will also determine whether separatist movements flourish or disappear. Obviously, those people benefiting from centralisation will resist such moves, including some within the military. Nevertheless, there are genuine security concerns with establishing regional autonomy.

A prime issue is to what level autonomy should be delegated-to existing administrative divisions, that is, province or district; or according to ethnicity, or geography. The prime security concern is to avoid forming political entities which might develop separatist ambitions. Consequently, Indonesia has chosen to delegate autonomy to district level, of which there are 327, with supposedly limited coordinating functions being performed by the 27 provincial governments. There are doubts about the economic rationality of having such a large number of autonomous units and whether Indonesia has the human and other resources to make it work. Previous studies had examined the idea of reducing the number of districts to about 60 but trying to restructure provincial government at a time of political and economic uncertainty would only add to the current turmoil.

If decentralisation to district level fails, Indonesia will have to switch rapidly to some other form of political and economic devolution if it is to avoid centrifugal pressures. The police and military could come under extreme pressure in the political foment which will accompany these adjustments. Firm control from the centre combined with responsiveness to local conditions will be essential to maintaining control and respect for law and order during these turbulent times. Consequently, the risk of the military using force against political movements with possible violations of human rights will continue.

The Armed Forces in Politics

To use Harold Crouch's term, it was a 'disguised coup' in 1966 which put Suharto in power and it was the armed forces which kept him there until the very end.(16) To maintain the support of the armed forces Suharto, among other measures, allocated a percentage of seats in regional and national parliaments to military officers. He also allowed them to occupy civil posts from village chief to cabinet minister both as a means of purchasing loyalty and to balance the power of the bureaucracy.

Military participation in all aspects of government, which came to be known as the dual function of the armed forces (Dwi fungsi ABRI), grew out of dissatisfaction with the inability of the governments of the 1950s to address fundamental political questions due to the alleged priority accorded to personal and sectoral interests over national interests. Military participation was supposed to instil some discipline and concern for national interest into the political process and executive agencies. Implementation of the concept sprouted under Sukarno and bloomed under Suharto.

Since Suharto's fall TNI participation in national policy making and the placement of officers in executive agencies has come under political pressure. The TNI allocation of parliamentary seats has been retained for the coming parliamentary term (1999-2004) but the percentage of seats in the national parliament has been reduced from 15 to 8 per cent. This might still provide the TNI with a decisive influence if, as expected, no one party or combination of aligned parties wins an absolute majority.

Shifting parliamentary coalitions need not destabilise government in Indonesia's presidential system of government. Consequently, the critical issue will be the presidential elections in November following the parliamentary elections of June. The president is elected by the Supreme Consultative Assembly (MPR) which is a combination of the parliament plus two hundred members elected/appointed on a regional and functional basis, some according to proportions of votes won by successful parties in the June elections and others as appointed representatives of professional groups (farmers, professions, etc). This arrangement allows scope for conservative forces to manipulate the voting patterns of the additional two hundred members thus subverting the majority established in the parliament and perhaps giving the armed forces a decisive directed vote in the presidential elections.

Retention of parliamentary seats by the armed forces allows them some influence on the direction and pace of democratic reforms but it also has some disadvantages. According to doctrine the armed forces stand above all Indonesia's diverse social, ideological, racial and ethnic cleavages. It thus declared its neutrality in the June parliamentary elections. However, when it comes to some issues in parliament, and, in particular, the presidential elections it will have to declare its hand and this will inevitably establish a pattern that will align the TNI with certain political forces and undermine its non-partisan proclamations.

It could also create a situation in which the C-in-C, who is also an ex officio member of cabinet-unless the new president changes the cabinet structure-could direct his faction to lobby and vote against government legislation. Given the president's prerogative to appoint and dismiss the C-in-C, the armed forces faction could equally become a mere cipher of the president. In either case the armed forces doctrinal position and rationale for involvement in politics is undermined.

Options for the TNI's Political Role

Amien Rais, leader of the Partai Amanat Nasional (National Mandate Party) has suggested that the armed forces faction could avoid this dilemma by giving up their voting rights. This would allow their views to be represented in parliament, giving the national perspective they fear many parties and politicians lack, while allowing some distance from partisan politics. This solution also has some dangers. It might, for example, allow the armed forces to represent themselves as the only true moral force in the nation above the fray of day-to-day politics and provide some justification for a coup should 'authoritarian nostalgia' emerge in the wake of the elections and the massive challenges the new government will face.

The TNI has reformed the system of seconding officers and other ranks to government, the bureaucracy and government business enterprises by giving incumbents the choice of resigning or returning to the armed forces. It has also severed its political direction of seconded personnel, and directed that in future they will only be seconded in competition with appropriately qualified civilians. It is too much to expect that nepotism will disappear overnight but the measures adopted will gradually reduce the influence of the TNI in non-military posts.

The compromises that will be needed in forming the new government in late 1999 will give the military some scope for bargaining but the military's political role will fade away; the only question is how fast and under what conditions. General Wiranto forecast the political debate to come when he said that three extreme tendencies had to be prevented: the military over-reaching its authority, the isolation of the military from the people, and excessive civilian interference in the internal management of the military.(17)

Australia-Indonesia Defence Cooperation

Australia and Indonesia signed an Agreement on Maintaining Security (AMS) in December 1995. The AMS is an oddity of history which might be of more practical use as Indonesia makes its transition to a relatively open political system and the East Timor issue is settled. Meanwhile, for Indonesia it is largely irrelevant, while for Australia it provides a bureaucratic umbrella for cooperation which would have proceeded regardless of whether the AMS existed or not.(18)

Australia's Department of Defence (DOD) has spent about $7 million annually in the late 1990s on defence cooperation with Indonesia. Cooperation includes low level combined exercises with all three services, training in Australia and Indonesia, limited material and logistic support, and reciprocal visits between senior officers and officials.

Training with the special forces has been suspended because of political sensitivities and the scale of other exercises reduced. There have been accusations, like those aired on the Channel 9 Sunday program on 30 May 1999, that Special Air Service Regiment's (SASR) training with their Indonesian counterpart, Kopassus, included ambush techniques taught by Falintil prisoners. By implication, counter-measures to these techniques were then applied against Falintil (the military arm of the Timorese independence movement) in East Timor. This assumes that Kopassus could not have discovered such techniques for themselves and that the SASR made a contribution to the development of minor tactics applied by Kopassus in East Timor. Both assumptions are questionable. Nevertheless, the moral question of whether the SASR should have been involved in such training with a unit renowned for it callousness in East Timor and other areas of operations remains a matter for political judgment.

The fall of Suharto has opened up an opportunity to exchange ideas on how the TNI might adapt to the new political reality. In March 1999 senior officers and officials met in Jakarta to explore the nature of conflict; relations between civil and military institutions; roles that governments expect militaries to play in promoting security; and reform and organisational change. They also agreed to establish working groups on a number areas of mutual interest. These activities could prove valuable as the TNI adapts to more open political structures and revamps its policy, strategy, force structure, training and administration.

However, if the East Timor issue deteriorates, the clash of 'interests' versus 'values' in Australia's cooperation with the TNI is likely to intensify. In the absence of other pressing interests the government might have to accept a temporary souring of relations with the TNI to force it to reconsider its strategy in East Timor. If successful it would be in the long term interests of all the parties concerned. Whatever disruptions may be caused by the transition process in East Timor the prospects for greater cooperation between the forces of the two countries will be greatly increased should democracy take hold in Indonesia.


The TNI's position at the centre of Indonesian politics is on the wain after 41 years of authoritarian rule. The political structure is still in transition but the forthcoming elections will probably produce a fledging democracy. It will take some years to consolidate democratic institutions and norms and the TNI could play an important role in maintaining national cohesion during that time.

To be effective, however, the new government will have to order a total review of defence policy and ensure the subordination of the TNI to executive government at national and lower levels. The success of these measures will also be determined by the ability of the new government to satisfy the expectations of a long suppressed population. Failure to at least give some hope that these aspirations will eventually be satisfied could lead to another descent into authoritarianism.

Major changes in foreign and defence policy are unlikely but foreign policy will be more politicised. For the next few years the main focus of the TNI will continue to be internal security. However, other roles will get increasing priority as Indonesia struggles to maintain control of is borders and its maritime resources.

Given Indonesia's resource limitations, the TNI is unlikely to increase in size or capability for many years but there is scope for significant qualitative improvement to better cope with the challenges ahead.


  1. The Indonesian Armed Forces, that is, the three Services (TNI) and police (POLRI) were known collectively by the abbreviation ABRI until 1 April 1999 when the police force was separated from military command and the term ABRI was dropped.

  2. See, for instance, Department of Defence, Defending Australia, Defence White Paper 1994, Canberra, 1984, p. 9ff and Department of Defence, Australia's Strategic Policy, Canberra 1997, p. 10.

  3. Ahmad Sumargono, 'Islam Yes, Partai Islam Yes!', Media Dakwah, June 1998, p. 47.

  4. The best analysis of Indonesian foreign policy up to the early 1980s is provide by Michael Leifer, Indonesia's Foreign Policy, George Allen & Unwin, London, 1983.

  5. East Timor is less than one quarter the size of Tasmania or more than twice the size of Singapore. The Occussi enclave is a small pocket of land in West Timor about 120 kilometres west of the East Timor/West Timor border. Prior to 1975 it was part of Portuguese Timor.

  6. Full coverage of Indonesian defence policy and strategy and its armed forces can be found in Robert Lowry, The Armed Forces of Indonesia, Allen & Unwin, St Leonards, 1996.

  7. 'Pemekaran 17 Kodam Pertimbangan Teritorial', Suara Pembaruan, 22 May 1999.

  8. 'Mana Yang Efektif, 17 Kodam Atau 13 Kodam Plus 2 Kowilhan?, Suara Pembaruan, 24 March 1999.

  9. For a description of the power play between Habibie and Wiranto in the months after May 1998 see Marcus Mietzner, 'From Suharto to Habibie: the Indonesian Armed Forces and Political Islam during the transition', in Geoff Forrester, Post-Suharto Indonesia: Renewal or Chaos, Crawford House Publishing, Bathurst, 1999, pp. 65-102.

  10. John Haseman, Southeast Asian Affairs 1999, Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, Singapore, 1999, forthcoming.

  11. 'HOT NEWS: Prabowo Dipecat', Suara Pembaruan, 24 August 1998.

  12. 'Delapan Anggota Tim Mawar Naik Banding', Suara Pembaruan, 7 April 1999.

  13. 'Kasum ABRI: Ada Yang Inginkan Anggota TNI Dan Polri Tidak Kompak', Suara Pembaruan, 8 April 1998.

  14. 'Polisi Dikeroyok Puluhan Lelaki Berbadan Tegap', Suara Pembaruan, 7 April 1999.

  15. George Aditjondro, Is Oil Thicker Than Blood? A Study of Oil Companies Interests and Western Complicity in Indonesia's Annexation of East Timor, Nova Science, 1999.

  16. Harold Crouch, The Army and Politics in Indonesia, Cornell University Press, Ithaca, 1988, p. 179.

  17. 'Wiranto: Cegah Kewenangan Terlalu Jauh Bagi Militer', Suara Pembaruan, 24 May 1999.

  18. Robert Lowry, Australia-Indonesia Security Cooperation: For Better or Worse?, Working Paper No. 299, SDSC, ANU, 1996.