JOURNAL | POINT OF VIEW by: Lt Gen (Ret) Agus Widjojo

It’s been 20 years since Indonesia embarked on its transition to democracy. Perhaps lost in the shuffle of that historic period was the reforms undertaken by the Indonesian Armed Forces. It’s not necessarily surprising – a lot was going on at the same time, something I like to call a “multidimensional transition.” So, it’s important to take a step back today and look closely at reforms within the military, or TNI, in the context of our country’s democratic transition.

The word “transition” covers a lot of ground. We had a political system transition; a democratic transition; a cultural transition; a cross-generational transition; as well as the dynamics within the international environment at that time. For Indonesia, there was a core strategic value of TNI reforms: to support the new democratization process and to understand that this was a political process and that there would be no intervention by the military.

The TNI’s role in democratic transition

The Armed Forces’ reform process was self-initiated in many respects, and actually preceded the political reform process that would lead to multiparty democracy and free and fair elections. The TNI agreed to terminate its “dual function” doctrine of involvement in social-political issues in Indonesia, in addition to its national defense role, and gave up its reserved seats in the House of Representatives.

The military had no involvement in steering the country’s democratic transition, and in fact the less the TNI was involved, the more it helped contribute to the process. Indonesia’s democratic transition was left solely to the politicians, and as such the military played the maximum role it could play in the process – mostly by staying out of it.

That doesn’t mean the TNI didn’t care or was not interested. We were very much interested. So, in the eyes of the military, what were the greatest challenges during Indonesia’s democratic transition? First, both political and military reforms took place simultaneously, with no single institution left to play the role of overseeing the reform process. Yet, as a spillover of past realities and our political culture, civilian politicians still have the tendency to seek political support from the military. Second, military reforms were not carried out in a gradual sequence, which, combined with the challenges arising from the changing political environment, created the need for multiple responses and “learning by doing.”

Current support for democracy

Given the various laws on positioning Indonesia’s security forces to support the democratic transition, the TNI’s role has mostly been decided. There are still some unfinished issues, such as putting the Armed Forces commander under the Minister of Defense and the future of the territorial functions of the military, which originated in the emergency era decades ago when there was a war government and later a declared state of military emergency.

How can the security sector contribute today to sustaining democracy in Indonesia? First, by opening access to comparative studies of professional militaries in established democracies, and by providing TNI personnel more professional military education opportunities and participation in combined international exercises or operations. Second, by reviewing its doctrines and strategies to focus on external security threats, moving away from involvement in domestic Indonesian security affairs. Third, by enhancing professionalism within the military by allocating sufficient funds to support the building of the required defense posture and to look after the welfare of soldiers. And fourth, build a knowledgeable civilian defense force than can work with the military when needed.

Challenge to security reform and governance

There remains a lack of political will on the part of Indonesia’s civilian political authorities to push for reforms, and there has been a failure to establish a culture of democracy and democratic supremacy over security forces. Indeed, politicians seek political support from the military, in particular during election cycles. Any failure of democracy caused by incompetent civilian political leaders may cause the Indonesian public to turn to the Armed Forces to again lead the country and bring better results. There also remains the specter of the emergence of an ultranationalist leader who would use the military as a main instrument in seizing political power.

There are many keys to a successful democratic transition. Indonesia had a vibrant civil society long before the start of its reform era, which was due to the opening up of comparative studies for its people. For its part, the military, on its own initiative, began internal reforms, which directly led it to avoid involvement in the democratic transition, leaving the process to politicians and a new political process. In addition, Indonesia avoided the temptation to frame an entirely new constitution, and instead only made amendments that retained the basic values of the Republic while inserting forward-looking democratic principles. Finally, there were advance preparations to get civilian political institutions ready to govern, establish a new democratic cultural identity and find ways to promote and pursue national reconciliation.

It’s also important to note that there is a clear connection between Indonesia’s military reforms and Jakarta’s role in Southeast Asia. Force modernization as a result of internal reforms has enabled the TNI to shift from internal missions to focus on national (external) defense. Subsequently, this enables the TNI to play an enhanced role in regional security and contribute as a stabilizing force for regional security, peace and prosperity. 


Lt Gen (Ret) Agus Widjojo is the governor of Indonesia’s National Resilience Institute and a member of Strategic Review’s advisory board. This essay was adapted from a speech he gave in January to the United States-Indonesia Society in Washington.

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