By Guest Writer Rafsi Albar
Image by Arkananta Dhimas Naufal
For 31 of its 78 years, Indonesia was ruled by the iron fist of the “smiling general,” Suharto. His leadership, known as the “New Order,” originally focused on economic development in order to make up for the losses suffered as a result of President Sukarno’s political manoeuvres. Despite being arguably successful in improving the welfare of its more than 100 million people across three decades, his military background eventually found a way to intervene in the young nation’s supposed democracy.
The dual function of the armed forces, more commonly known locally as Dwifungsi ABRI, is a doctrine developed around the same time as Suharto’s rise to power following the political upheaval caused by the Indonesian Communist Party’s insurgency in 1965. The armed forces—or ABRI—then encompassing both the military and police, saw civil administration as ineffective. As such, they believed that former and active ABRI personnel should be able to assume strategic positions in the government.
As Suharto’s influence over the nation’s democracy through his party, Golkar, so too did its intertwining with the military. There was even a stereotype that joining ABRI meant being in the pipeline to become a politician. The lack of separation between civilian and the armed forces, which naturally involves lopsided power dynamics, posed a real threat not only due to the corrupt practices that went on without accountability, but also the fact that ABRI personnel often abuse their powers to extreme extents.
In early 2023, President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo made a formal statement admitting 12 gross human rights violations which took place between 1965 and 2003. The state, through none other than ABRI, took the lives of and arrested more than 500,000 people, most common for allegations of communist leanings. Though the launch of a reparations program in June the same year was seen as a step forward, its lack of unequivocal action towards perpetrators of these atrocities drew criticism by activists and civil society alike.
Despite these events unfolding in real time and the fact that many victims of human rights violations are still looking for justice to this day, the government appears to not learn from the past. The abolition of the Dwifungsi that took two presidents to accomplish now seems like a futile attempt at medicating an incurable disease.
A recurring theme in post-Suharto democracy has been the active and repeated effort to romanticize the past, especially by the people that will benefit most out of it, which is the military. In 2019, the Coordinating Minister of Maritime and Investment Affairs, Luhut Binsar Pandjaitan who was a former soldier himself, proposed a revision of the Indonesian Armed Forces Law of 2004 in order to allow for active personnel to join the ranks of his ministry. In 2022, under the guise of including a universal people’s defense and security system, the Parliament included a revision to the 2004 Law as a legislative priority.
The biggest surprise yet came earlier this year as a proposal for the revision of the Law resurfaced. With more concrete plans to change the provisions that limit the authorities of the military, many fear that the revised law would be detrimental to the newly reborn democracy and bring back past trauma. In particular, expansions to the scope of authorities covered in Articles 7(2) and 47(2) of the Armed Forces Law of 2004 would allow active military personnel to also sit in more civilian positions in at least 8 strategic institutions including at the Presidential Aide and the Attorney General’s Office.
Intergovernmental organizations and advocacy groups collectively agree that, in the interest of upholding human rights and democracy, the military should not be provided with more power than they already have in civilian matters. Should the trend of pushing such an agenda persist and find its way be materialized as legislation, there is no telling what tragedies Pandora’s Box will release.