Executive Overreach: Jakarta Seeks Security at a Heavy Cost
February 7, 2013
Indonesian president Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono issued an executive order on January 29 allowing closer cooperation between military, police, and local officials to prevent communal conflicts. The order itself did not grant any sweeping new powers to the security forces, but it was followed the next day by an agreement between military and police officials that allows military personnel to deploy to conflict-prone areas without the consent of police or civilian authorities. Ostensibly, both moves reflect an effort by Jakarta to grapple with chronic outbreaks of communal violence and low-level terrorism, but their timing and broad scope have unnerved many Indonesians.
The agreement between the military and police, which is likely the more troubling of the two developments, reportedly allows military personnel deployed for internal security purposes to act independently of civilian authority. The police will still manage operations and pay logistical costs if they themselves call for military assistance. But according to a January 29 statement by army chief Adm. Agus Suhartono, “Every time a military commander thinks that he needs to deploy his troops to an area that has a potential for conflict, he will be able to do so.” |
Activists and opposition parties quickly criticized Yudhoyono’s order, arguing that it circumvents the Indonesian legislature by strengthening the hand of security services in ways similar to those contained in a proposed national security bill. Rights groups also likened the military-police agreement to the proposed legislation, which would give military forces similar authority to respond to vaguely defined national security issues. The bill has been held up in the parliament amid concerns that it could roll back more than a decade of effort in bringing Indonesia’s powerful military under civilian control and battling a long tradition of military impunity. Yudhoyono’s move adds to those concerns by short-circuiting the legislative process in favor of presidential fiat.
The motivations behind the actions of Yudhoyono and the security forces are clear. The government has come under fire in recent months for failure to effectively prevent social conflict and communal violence. Poso, in South Sulawesi Province, has been home to a string of clashes between police and terrorists in recent months. Police found and defused 12 pipe bombs on a plantation in neighboring Central Sulawesi Province on February 1. The targets of preference for these new terror cells are local authorities and religious minorities.
Recent cases of communal conflict have also led to criticism of the government. A three-day clash in Lampung Province in October pitted Balinese migrants against villagers of the local ethnic community, leaving 14 dead and forcing dozens to flee their homes. Then, on December 31, a bloody, intervillage clash in the Maluku Islands left 5 dead and 8 injured. The Lampung violence may well have been the trigger for Yudhoyono’s executive order.
The president defended his decree, citing a national survey showing popular dissatisfaction with the frequency of social conflict, and he claimed that it will address the issue. Unfortunately, the good intentions behind Yudhoyono’s decision were undermined by a preliminary investigation into the Poso violence by rights group Komnas. The group’s initial findings indicated that authorities may have manipulated events there, allowing the violence to worsen before they intervened in order to create a pretext for the legislature’s passage of the national security bill. In many eyes, that ploy’s failure to sway the parliament might be the best explanation for the recent executive order and military-police agreement.|
Regardless of the causes of the Poso violence, the military’s newfound independence represents a step back for Indonesia’s democracy and the primacy of civilian leaders, especially in light of the country’s history of military and authoritarian rule. Plus it could easily have the opposite of its desired effect. Separatist organizations and violence-plagued communities already perceive military and police forces as heavy-handed, particularly in conflicts involving suspected terrorist activity. Military impunity and human rights abuses are also frequent contributors to violence and are likely to increase with reduced civilian oversight.
Worst of all, granting the military a freer hand in domestic operations will not remedy the real causes of communal and social violence. According to the International Crisis Group’s Sidney Jones, the president’s decree is “an acknowlegment that government agencies, notably the police, have failed miserably to prevent or manage outbreaks of violence…but it's also a remedy that avoids any real analysis about why and how this violence erupts. It's not just the police that have failed—it's the schools, the courts, and local government.”
This is why activists have stressed that existing laws could be used to deal with communal conflicts, if only the government would invest the time and political capital to implement them effectively. Without addressing the root causes of communal and religious conflict, the heavy-handed approach of the military will only exacerbate ongoing tensions.
The decree and agreement could also have repercussions for Indonesia-U.S. cooperation. The curtailment of military impunity over the last decade and a half provided the space for the United States to engage with Indonesia’s armed forces. The military’s ongoing shift from an internally to externally focused force gave two successive U.S. administrations the opportunity to roll back most sanctions against the Indonesian military, renew training and exchange programs, engage in joint exercises, and cooperate on counterterrorism and other fields.
Much will depend upon how the new decree and agreement are implemented, as well as on the responses of the legislature and local governments. But Indonesians are rightly concerned about their potential repercussions. The United States should be as well, and it should express that concern. It should also seek opportunities to boost training and exchange programs for Indonesian law enforcement agencies.
Support and training go only so far, however. Indonesians have spent 15 years consolidating democratic institutions and institutionalizing civilian control of the military. The task now, as in all democracies, is to remain vigilant and prevent backsliding.
(This Commentary originally appeared in the January 7, 2013, issue of Southeast Asia from the Corner of 18th & K Streets.)
Gregory Poling is research associate and Jeremiah O. Magpile is a researcher for the Sumitro Chair for Southeast Asia Studies at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C.
Commentary is produced by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a private, tax-exempt institution focusing on international public policy issues. Its research is nonpartisan and nonproprietary. CSIS does not take specific policy positions. Accordingly, all views, positions, and conclusions expressed in this publication should be understood to be solely those of the author(s).
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