Indonesia’s next military chief: Mr Proxy Wars?

General Moeldoko’s time as TNI’s head honcho is coming soon to an end. His term ends in July when he and his bapak rings will be up for retirement. Despite the looming deadline, Jokowi has not yet identified Moeldoko’s successor. Traditionally, the role has rotated through the services (since, 1999 anyway) with four-star generals eligible for the job. That should mean current Air Force Chief of Staff Agus Supriatna will become “Panglima”.

However, as Prashanth Parameswaran points out, it’s far from clear that’ll be the case.

There have been public murmurings, including most recently from VP Jusuf Kalla, that the rotational approach isn’t set in stone. For his part, Jokowi hasn’t indicated either whether he’ll follow tradition or go his own way.

The reasons for playing down Supriatna’s chances are not immediately clear (and happy to hear what others suggest), but let’s consider one of the options should Jokowi go with someone else. Remember, “Mr Proxy Wars” aka Army Chief of Staff General Gatot Nurmantyo? Back in March, he stated efforts to cede Timor-Leste from Indonesia were actually a proxy war for Australia to secure an oil field in the Timor Gap (a point I’ll return to another time). In the same talk to university students, he said Indonesia’s drug problem among the youth was part of a proxy war aimed to weaken them.

That’s the not first time he’s made such statements, and to be fair, they might not amount to much should he take over from Moeldoko. That said, at a time when there appears to be a renewed sense of nationalism in Indonesia, statements made by a Panglima that victimise Indonesia risk fanning nationalist flames. Moeldoko penned strident statements in the Wall Street Journal about the legality of China’s claims in the South China Sea, contrary to statements made by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Another vocal Panglima could widen the rhetorical divide between Indonesia’s military and diplomatic arms on key security issues.

As Evan Laksmana and Jim Della Giacoma rightfully note, the military—and army in particular—is searching for relevance. It could be that Nurmantyo’s comments are part of this trend. Yet at a time when Jokowi’s vision for Indonesia as a “global maritime fulcrum” depends on a stronger maritime force (being navy, coast guard and air force driven), there’s little apparent logic in appointing back-to-back Army chiefs.

Despite the need to rebuild the Navy and Air Force under the Minimum Essential Force plan, the Army has been given a boost in recent years. During SBY’s presidency, the Army has incrementally ramped up duties to include larger and more frequent peacekeeping operations, counterterrorism functions and, with a slew of MoUs since Jokowi’s presidency, civic affairs. These civic functions range from rice distribution to countering violent extremism activities and disrupting human trafficking networks. Some remote and insecure parts of Indonesia do need to rely on Army logistics for distribution of food and presence for security, but the Navy and Air Force need more championing if they’re to protect Indonesia’s maritime domain.

Naturally it’s hard to know exactly how a Panglima will perform just by looking at his track record. In any case, come late July, part of that mystery will be solved.

This entry was posted in Indonesia, TNI by Natalie Sambhi. Bookmark the permalink.

About Natalie Sambhi

Natalie Sambhi is co-editor of Security Scholar. She is also Founder and Executive Director of Verve Research, an independent research collective focussed on the relationship between militaries and societies in Southeast Asia.

2 thoughts on “Indonesia’s next military chief: Mr Proxy Wars?

  1. Its not hard to find a maneuver in Indonesian politics where a face issue is a proxy for something else. Nurmantyo’s comments at least draw attention to real effects or results of a process, whether or not the implied conspiracy is at play. Australia does now have an oilfield in the Timor gap (perhaps more through a deal with Suharto), Indonesia’s youth is at risk of weakening through a drug scourge (mostly of domestic manufacture). For a man of strategy, such as an army chief, the existence of a conspiracy is irrelevant – its thwarting a threat which is important. Certainly in the campaign to achieve clemency for Chan and Sukamaran all proxies were being called – and his words really were not simply an inoculation against a simple over-run of Indonesian law and order through bullying or pragmatism. The allegation of a proxy war primarily detracted from Indonesia’s own proxy war using Chan and Sukamaran as its “bonneka santet” for foreign nations. The existence of such proxy is evidenced by the organisationally planned facelift to the facade of the Kerobokan prison in time for the worldwide exposure on camera in early 2015, the immediately following auto da fe and subsequent stalling of the supposed 60 person execution programme.
    Nurmantyo’s words lacked the goonery of other Indonesian players such as Tedjo Edhy Purdijatno’s comments about a tsunami of asylum seekers and missile attacks against foreign vessels in the South China Sea.
    His elevation would dovetail well with the nationalist over-ride in current Indonesian appointments, and the man is clearly no fool.

  2. Actually, I’ve often heard the term proxy war arise when talking with a lot of Indonesian military officers. Currently, there are two dominant themes related to defense that dominates the mindset of many officers: proxy war and asymmetric warfare. An explanation of why these two themes became prevalent need further research. Perhaps you should research this trend.

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