2. The Military and Democracy in Indonesia

Michael R.J. Vatikiotis


In this chapter, the author states that in order to understand the Armed Forces of Indonesia (ABRI) and its attitude towards democracy, it is important to grasp the relationship between the military and the state in Indonesia.

As well as the early history of the ABRI, the author gives details of Suharto’s relationship with the ABRI, the early years under the New Order, and the more recent years as the ABRI faces an uncertain future.

In summary, the author doubts that there could be a radical departure from the current patterns of social and political control as practised by the New Order while ABRI continues to play such a prominent role.

At the close of the 1980s, Indonesia’s military was in a state of flux. Over a decade of declining political fortunes for an institution considered the fulcrum of President Suharto’s New Order regime was generating something of an identity crisis. Yet as the political edifice which the military helped erect in the mid 1960s showed signs of age and decline, the military moved awkwardly to adapt its image and role in order to preserve its perceived position as the principal body in the political constellation. In doing so, new interpretations of the civil-military relationship evolved.

To understand the Armed Forces of Indonesia (Angkatan Bersenjata Republik Indonesia or ABRI) – and its attitude towards democracy – it is important to grasp the relationship between the military and the state in Indonesia. Basically, this relationship developed under stress. The earliest independent civilian government of the new republic, as Kahin (1952) and more recently Salim (1991) describe, hesitated to form a national army and prevaricated over its form. At the same time, the armed revolutionary youth groups (pemuda) which had launched the armed struggle almost as soon as the Japanese imperial occupation collapsed in August 1945 were suspicious of the civilian nationalists who not only hesitated to declare independence, but were keener to organise political parties than a national army. This reluctance on the part of the civilian government to deal with the army in the early days of the revolution created, Salim (1991:33) suggests,

a particular pattern of civilian military relations, and all subsequent efforts to bring the army completely under its control failed.

This bifurcation of the two most important elements of the Indonesian polity at so formative a stage of its existence provides a useful guide to the country’s subsequent political history.

Essentially, the history of Indonesian government since independence has been the progressive emasculation of the multi-party, parliamentary democracy envisaged by nationalist leaders, like Soetan Sjahrir, imbued in various degrees with the European liberal socialist orthodoxy. Sjahrir, as expressed in his influential 1945 pamphlet ‘Perjuangan Kita’ (‘Our Struggle’) specifically wanted to see Indonesia shun a one-party system under a monolithic executive.

He feared the development of a totalitarian government in Indonesia because of the legacy of feudalistic authoritarianism which had been kept alive and reinforced by the long period of colonial government (Kahin 1952 :166).

Herbert Feith (1962:313) argues that the adoption of a system of constitutional democracy in the first decade of independence reflected the influence of men like Sjahrir and Mohammad Hatta. But he is careful to distinguish between the idea of democracy as a ‘legitimating principle’ and actual majority rule. There was never any substance lent to the ‘characteristic principles and mechanisms of constitutional democracy’.

Imperfectly implemented, Feith argues that this early and only era of constitutional democracy in Indonesian political history was nonetheless reasonably effective. The parliament may not have been an elected body, but cabinets were accountable to it. The press was free, the courts operated independently, and a semblance of non-political bureaucracy emerged.

However, disillusionment with this system quickly developed. The 1955 general election, considered by many Indonesians to be the only genuinely representative election the country has ever held, etched out the country’s religious and communal elements with alarming clarity. The two main Muslim parties obtained almost 40 per cent of the vote; the Communists 16 per cent and the Nationalist Party (PNI) just 22 per cent. The results laid bare potentially divisive forces in the infant republic. The country was already afflicted by regional rebellions and the army grew restless, forcing Soekarno to step in with an alternative to constitutional democracy in the form of ‘guided democracy’. Indonesia turned its back on constitutional democracy and began developing the strong executive rule inherited by Suharto’s New Order.

The military’s attitude to this early period of post-independence politics was very much governed by its role in the independence struggle. ABRI considers itself the progenitor of the state , having fought a war of independence against the Dutch from 1945-1949. As stated in Law No. 20 on Members of the Armed Forces (1988):

The history of the Indonesian struggle has been a series of armed resistance put up by the people against colonialism.

As such ABRI projects itself as the guardian of the nation, a definition which, as Finer (1974:535) points out, imbues a tradition of loyalty to the state, rather than obedience to the rulers of the day. Indeed, as part of the soldier’s oath taken by every member of ABRI, loyalty is sworn only to ‘the Unitary State of the Republic of Indonesia that is based on Pancasila and the 1945 Constitution’. There is no mention of the government or the executive.

In crude terms, ABRI still regards itself as a people’s army. Central to ABRI thinking, however, is a doctrine crystallised in the soldiers’ oath, or Sapta Marga, which endows the army with guardianship of the state. To justify this, ABRI must be shaped as a people’s army, using a strategy of close cooperation with the people. In summary, the strategy of total defence and the Sapta Marga theoretically positions ABRI with the people and above the state. To understand why this is so, some consideration of national history, as seen through ABRI’s eyes, is essential.

ABRI considers that independence was achieved by the armed struggle against the Dutch, which not only had to contend with the colonial army, but also the treachery of Indonesian communists, and the weakness of civilian nationalist leaders who were prepared to fall back in the face of Dutch aggression. One of the events of the war most drummed into army cadets is the 19 December 1948 capitulation of the civilian government after the first capital, Jogyakarta, was occupied by the Dutch. It was only ABRI’s resolve to continue the fight ‘with or without the government’, that persuaded the world that Indonesia would not return to Dutch hands, the cadets are taught. The implication is clear; ABRI, not the civilian government, saved the infant republic.

Soon after independence the army was called on to suppress a series of regional revolts which threatened the unitary state. Barely had these revolts been suppressed when another threat to the state in the shape of the Indonesian Communist Party (PKI) loomed. The events of 30 September 1965, which lit the short fuse to the end of President Soekarno’s rule, saw the military once again step in to restore order and save the nation. This view of their own history has endowed the military with a deep suspicion of politicians and dissenting groups.

The birth of the New Order brought ABRI for the first time a leading role in Indonesian political life. As Sundhaussen points out, the army’s entry into formal politics came after twenty years of civil-military tensions (Sundhaussen 1982: 257). Underlying this tension, as senior commanding officers of the period have subsequently described, was a perpetual hesitancy on the part of senior officers to be dragged into running the country. It may have been that opportunities were scarce, or that prior attempts at intervention were unsuccessful. But former army chief of staff T.B. Simatupang argues that there was a distinct aversion to military rule among the military intellectual elite:

During the 1950s there was originally a strong reluctance and a feeling of scepticism and uneasiness among the army leadership when the army had to perform an expanded role in view of the continuing political instability. They were haunted by the spectre of creating what was perceived then as a ‘Latin American situation’ in Indonesia (Simatupang 1989:135).

Suharto and his somewhat less educated, less travelled followers were clearly not imbued with such notions. As Crouch (1978:26) aptly points out, they represented a new class of officer from small towns in Java, less formally educated but with strong claims to prominence because of their role in the struggle against the Dutch. Though much questioned by his detractors, Suharto participated as a local military commander in some of the key actions against Dutch forces in and around Jogyakarta. If he was not, as claimed, a key figure in the campaign, he certainly played a role.

Yet it would be incorrect to assume the New Order core group clustered around Suharto was intent on the crude seizure of power. To this day, Suharto is adamant that his accession to power after the 11 March 1966 Order did not amount to a coup d’état. Rather, he argues in his 1988 ghost-written autobiography, he was pushed along by events beyond his control:

I was pushed in an atmosphere of political conflict to step forward. Some politicians were impatient for a change of leadership to the point of proposing that I assume power just like that. I responded to this proposal at once; ‘If that’s the way things are, I’d better step down. Such a method is not good. Seizing power by military force will not bring about lasting stability. I am not going to bequeath a history indicating that there was once a seizure of power by military might’ (Suharto 1989:185).

This highlights one of ABRI’s persistent concerns under the New Order. For one of the key inputs to civil military relations has been the legitimising of ABRI’s intervention in 1965 in ideological, nationalistic terms. At the outset there seemed to be an awareness that Soekarno’s sudden ouster could set a dangerous precedent, and every effort was made to cloak it in constitutional trappings. Suharto may have assumed executive powers in March 1966, but it was not until 1968 that he was formally appointed president of the republic, and not until 1971 that a general election was held.

Delicate manoeuvres to remove Soekarno – whom many suspected could still command substantial popularity even within the armed forces (Legge 1972:405) – was followed by a reworking of ABRI’s doctrine. At an Army Seminar in 1966, ABRI’s dual political and military function (dwifungsi), which was first proposed in the late 1950s, was sharpened. Earlier definitions of ABRI’s dual role had sought to establish ABRI’s right to participate in national development using the dual function principle formulated in 1958. According to Simatupang (1989:136), it was ‘an attempt to provide a rationale … at the same time laying down limitations to the expanded role’.

The events of 1965 elevated ABRI’s right to assume a non-military role from a choice into an obligation. The seminar declared that ABRI was forced by circumstances to stand by the people, because ‘all the people’s hopes for well-being are focused on the armed forces in general, and the army in particular’. As Jenkins (1984:4) points out, the 1966 seminar acted as timely ideological justification for what in effect the army was already practising.

On reflection, though, it is important to note that civilian aspirations at the time also helped the army assume control of the government. Civilian intellectuals and professionals bore the brunt of Soekarno’s relentless politicisation of society; his so-called ‘politics as commander’ strategy which forced people to choose sides as the Indonesian Communist Party grew in strength and numbers. The prominent writer and journalist, Goenawan Mohamad recalls :

Recurrent calls for ‘indoktrinasi’ (indoctrination) took place in almost every political circle, with Marxism and Sukarno’s writings being the main components of the teaching. No one, it seemed, was free from them. ‘Revolution’ became a highly hypnotic word: it could immediately make one either combative or submissive (Mohamad 1989:72).

The atmosphere prevalent at the time helped ABRI acquire a political role. First, because before Soekarno’s fall, the military, with encouragement from friendly Western powers, had begun setting up social organisations to counter the spread of Communist influence. One of these, Sekber Golkar, eventually formed the nucleus of the New Order’s principal mass political organisation, Golkar.

Once in power, however, ABRI also found that popular reaction against the politicisation of the Soekarno era aided moves to dismantle civilian political structures, among them most of the political parties of Soekarno’s ‘Old Order’. Quite simply, the civilian elite was willing to see the army assume power in the hope that order and stability would be restored. Such was their desire for stability, many civilians were blind to the implications of army rule for the function of democratic institutions enshrined in the 1945 constitution.

It would also be misleading to assume ABRI had a plan or strategy for the execution of their role in politics. It now seems clear from contemporary diplomatic reports that ABRI was divided over what to do about Soekarno’s headlong tilt towards the Communist fold. Concern about the situation ran up against a reluctance to intervene and actually usurp power, probably because no one was certain whether any attempt to do so would attract solid backing within the military.

Once in power, the military had no clear idea of how to proceed either. Some elements of the armed forces, probably an intellectual minority led by chief of staff General A.H. Nasution, envisaged their political role as only temporary, in line with the original ‘middle way’ formulation of the dual function. He was overruled by Suharto and his group, who seemed to have an informal popular mandate to restore order and stability as quickly as possible and using whatever available means.

For all practical purposes … during the initial period of the New Order, national leadership was identical with army leadership, not as the result of a usurpation of power through a coup d’etat or the like, but simply because the alternative would have been anarchy and chaos (Simatupang 1989:135).

As measure of the confused thinking about the army’s role, it is interesting to note how some of those who participated in the early development of the New Order are capable of reconsidering ABRI’s position.

It was never the philosophy of ABRI to perpetuate the crisis situation that existed in October 1965. The intensity and involvement of ABRI in political life is completely dependent on the political situation of the moment. If we feel it is no longer needed, we have to release all jobs to civilians (interview with General (retd.) Sumitro, 6 February 1988).

If thinking along these lines existed among the ranks of senior ABRI officers when the New Order came to power, it should not be confused with the aims of the core group clustered around Suharto, which proceeded to erect the New Order’s political edifice. In fact, judging from the early disaffection of officers like Nasution, Kemal Idris, H. Dharsono, and others who supported Suharto in his rise to power, there was disenchantment over how the New Order was proceeding right from the beginning. Subsequent interviews with these men reveal a common thread; they felt that civilian functions of the government should have been restored and fostered. Instead, Suharto and his men proceeded slowly but steadily to dismantle the civilian political infrastructure, first by banning the parties which existed in the Soekarno period, and then by gradually introducing stringent legislation controlling the freedom of political expression.

Yet if certain quarters in ABRI felt the New Order was taking the dual function too far, neither was ABRI given a free hand to run the state. Instead, the state became progressively dominated by Suharto and his inner circle. Probably unsure of ABRI loyalties, Suharto deployed tactics of divide and rule which often favoured civilian bureaucratic interests at the expense of ABRI. Thus ABRI began losing power almost as soon as they achieved it. To understand why, the Suharto-ABRI relationship must be looked at in more detail.