What Wibowo means for Australia

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.

1 thought on “What Wibowo means for Australia

  1. Hi Natalie- So I think that you and the Greta (who I am not familiar with at all) are anticipating similar trajectories here but focusing on, alternately, the political and the security. Its possible to imagine that Wibowo’s appointment will augur strong if not stronger AUS-RI ties. For a reason that I think you both are tacitly pointing to, which is the affirmation of a continuation of the SBY military legacy. Wibowo, as it has been caricatured, has been ‘tapped’, nepotistically, blessed by the family. And he at least is not an appointment that the AUS government can’t touch.

    Greta’s phantasm is 2014 and political. Of course its possible. I like how she is sort of encouraging us to not forget to see the continuity here. However, referring to indonesian politicians as generals is, to tell a bastardized version of the joke, is like calling american politicians politicians. What ‘kind’ of general is much more important. I am mostly unfamiliar with any deeper accounts of Wibowo but would like someone who knows more (maybe Allan Nairn, M Mietzner, and of course ICG folks) to say something about him. I would, however, reserve my PD political projections for a bit.

    Re security – as we of course know, there are domestic and international ramifications. Your post refers to the AUS-RI tie. The question I am interested in is the lets say Papua dimension to the appointment. Is there a change in course or not? Mietzner again might be the person to ask how the decision making within TNI is affected by the top dog. I said earlier that all generals are not created equal and what that really means is that the TNI is an active internal policing/military force ‘against’ warga RI skrng so the appointment has a greater, if not just more immediate, impact on security, than on the 2014 presidential election.

    But, if we speak of continuity, there is something to be said that there will be no change of course in Papua and that the appointment actually is a politically preparatory position. I mean everything Greta says re power of TNI in contemporary Indonesian society and politics is true. The point, it seems, is whether or not having a general in the top position matters to the rest of the ways TNI functions (entrenched). How about we come up with a list of the 3 most likely 2014 RI presidents- or 3 generals and 3 non generals?

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