Natalie Sambhi is an ANU Hedley Bull Scholar graduate and co-editor of Security Scholar.
Greta Nabbs-Keller, in her 7 July post on the promotion of Lieutenant General Pramono Edhie Wibowo to Army Chief of Staff, is right to highlight the tenacity of Indonesia’s martial roots in its present-day democratic setting. However, this and other recent posts on Indonesia’s military (TNI) miss the implications of such developments for Australia. In the case of Wibowo, there are three questions for Australia.
First, what does Wibowo’s immediate promotion mean? Greta does not mention that Wibowo is the former head of the Indonesian Army Special Forces (Kopassus). The good relationship enjoyed between Australian special forces units (particularly the Special Air Service Regiment) and Kopassus is indicative of strong ADF-TNI cooperation. Security cooperation has, after all, been a significant and enduring part of Australian engagement with Indonesia, and these links have served us well, particularly in times of diplomatic strain.
Second, to what extent will Wibowo’s promotion affect military ties with other partners? Indonesia has stepped up its cooperation with Chinese and US special forces. Exercise Sharp Knife, a joint anti-terrorism exercise held between Kopassus and Chinese special forces in early June, marked a step towards thawing military relations between the two countries. The US lifted its ban on engaging with Kopassus in June of last year. Since then, the relationship — seen by some as the ‘barometer’ of overall US-Indonesia relations — has been steady.
Third, if Wibowo rises to greater political heights, how will Australia reconcile this with his track record on human rights and the perceived nepotism behind his appointment? As I have argued here previously, reconciling our democratic values with regional strategic imperatives is not impossible, but no cakewalk.
If generals are, as Greta suggests, what Indonesian political parties want, then Australian leaders, both civil and military, should fully appraise the role that figures like Wibowo will play and should use the relationships we have built with them.
Photo courtesy of official website for the President of the Republic of Indonesia: First Lady, Ibu Ani Yudhoyono congratulations her brother, LTGEN Wibowo, at his promotion ceremony.
A version of this post first appeared on the Lowy Institute’s blog, The Interpreter.