Political maneuvering by Indonesian Military (TNI) Commander Gen. Gatot Nurmantyo is endangering democracy. If it is not straightened out, Gatot’s behavior could reverse what we achieved almost 20 years ago through reformasi: civilian supremacy over military might.
Gatot’s controversial statement about an illegal order for 5,000 weapons by a government institution outside the military is but the tip of the iceberg. He has long been suspected of exceeding the limits of his duties and powers as the TNI Commander. At the beginning of the year, for instance, he unilaterally stopped the collaboration between the TNI and the Australian military. His reason for doing so was a report he received from Indonesian military officers in Australia on teaching materials considered to be disrespectful of Pancasila.
His action in halting the Indonesia-Australia collaboration is clearly not part of any Commander’s duties. Before taking such a decision, he ought to first inform President Joko Widodo about the issues involved. Gatot’s action in not doing so before making the decision is a form of insubordination.
Several months after that, he again exceeded the limits of his authority. His speech at a recent informal gathering with retired TNI officers just increased the military’s tensions with the Police and State Intelligence Agency. Feeling a finger being pointed at them, both institutions reacted vehemently. They claimed their weapons orders followed correct standard procedures.
The TNI Commander’s action in revealing this intelligence information was clearly out of place, especially if there were any political motives behind him doing so. In both cases-halting international military collaboration and commenting on an ‘illegal’ import of weapons-Gatot blatantly shows his defiance against civilian supremacy.
The position of TNI Commander is a key strategic one. It is the highest position anyone can occupy in the military command structure, having primary control over the execution of military operations. Because of that, a commander should rise above politics and be fair in his acting and thinking.
In a number of political events, however, Gatot has not maintained that neutrality. The four-star general, for instance, appeared in the midst of the ‘212’ demonstrations at the end of last year wearing a white peci (fez). That formed an impression in the minds of the demonstrators that Gatot is ‘one of us’ within the government. Defending himself, he argued that wearing the white peci was his strategy to embrace the mob. Speculation then surfaced: did Gatot want to be perceived as a military officer close to Muslims? It is easy to be suspicious that he is positioning himself for an upcoming political contest.
Political ambitions are legitimate. However, it is not right to conduct maneuvering to boost popularity and political electability while one is still the TNI Commander. It would be more elegant if Gatot resigned before attempting to realize any political ambition. He should learn from Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, a general who later became president for two terms (2004-2014). Ahead of the campaign period, and influenced by his conflict with then-President Megawati Soekarnoputri, Yudhoyono resigned from his ministerial position to pursue his political ambitions to become president. That is far more dignified than abusing one’s position for political goals.
From the start of reformasi, the military has really ‘returned to the barracks.’ Law No. 34/2004 on the TNI stresses the military’s position as front-line guards to defend the nation, and not law enforcers such as the Corruption Eradication Commission, National Police, and the Attorney General’s Office all are. Article 7 clause 3 of the TNI Law also states: in order to carry out any military operations other than for war, the TNI must first have the approval to do so through a political decision by the State, in this case the President. If he respects and understands these regulations and laws, Gatot ought to exercise self-restraint. By doing so, political unrest will be avoided.
The ball is now in President Joko Widodo’s court. The government cannot be halting and hesitant in overcoming problems, especially when General Gatot Nurmantyo’s excesses are most clear and evident. Last week Jokowi did summon him and reminded him not to create unrest. However, so far the Commander has not been strongly reprimanded or penalized in any way. Possibly the President is putting together his own strategy: to penalize or dismiss Gatot could make him appear to be a victim, something that could boost his electability ahead of the 2019 general elections. It is, however, inappropriate to handle issues of principle through the lens of electoral politics.
In a democratic nation, what Gatot has done cannot be tolerated. Any armed forces commander busily involving himself in politics should not be kept within the government.