MILITARY POLITICS AND DEMOCRATIZATION IN INDONESIA, by Jun Honna. London: RoutedgeCurzon, 2003, 300 pp., $904 (cloth).

With the collapse of a fragile ceasefire in Aceh, the Indonesian government has decided on a military solution to this long-festering problem. The Free Aceh Movement (GAM) has fought a prolonged battle for independence while the Indonesian government is only willing to accommodate limited autonomy and a more favorable revenue-sharing formula for the provinces’ energy exports. Thus efforts to revive the peace process in Tokyo were beset by the very different road maps of the combatants.

While the battles escalate, the interests of the Acehnese suffer: they are caught in the crossfire between guerrilla forces and the Indonesian military. GAM may not be wildly popular among locals and is also guilty of excesses, but is seen by many as the lesser of evils in a highly polarized situation where human rights abuses have been widespread. Some analysts argue that less draconian measures might have opened space for moderates, but now worry that it may be too late for that option.

In the wake of former President Suharto’s ignominious demise in 1998, Indonesia has been plagued by political instability. In the post-Suharto era, the process of democratization has been marred by eruptions of violence all over the archipelago. There is considerable speculation that the military has served as both arsonist and firefighter in some of these outbreaks.

Jun Honna, a frequent commentator on Indonesian politics and member of various Japanese government advisory panels, has extensive contacts in Indonesia’s military and political establishment. This revised version of his recent dissertation is a significant contribution to our understanding about how the most powerful institution in Indonesia functions. Suharto bequeathed a weak civil society, withered democratic institutions and a powerful security establishment. Thus, this excellent analysis of Indonesia’s military politics provides essential background to assess current developments and future prospects.

Based on extensive interviews, internal military documents, press reports and a thorough sifting of sources, Honna unravels the institutional complexities of the military. Rather than an ossified and monolithic institution unified around shared values and goals, Honna depicts a relatively dynamic institution driven by factional fighting more than dogma. His detailed analysis covers the beginnings of the Suharto New Order regime until its demise and carries the story forward to examine how the military is adapting to democratization and attempts to assert civilian supremacy.

Once on the ropes, the military has reasserted itself under hardliners.

One of the fascinating stories Honna tells is how the military leadership worked to sabotage the Abdurrahman Wahid (Gus Dur) administration and cause its downfall in 2001. By refusing to follow his orders to shut down the Parliament, the military resisted civilian control, but argued that in doing so it was acting in national interest and democracy. Gus Dur was on the verge of being impeached and sought to use his position as commander in chief to thwart his political enemies. He miscalculated, however, his support in the military and, like Suharto, left office in disgrace.

Honna concludes that, “the prospects for consolidating democracy and asserting civilian control still remain tenuous as the military has shown itself remarkably resilient in guarding its prerogatives.” He argues that the “clumsy and repeated interventions” by Gus Dur aimed at taming the military backfired, fanning officers’ prejudices about the incompetence and parochial views of civilians.

The resilience of the military is evident in its backsliding on reforms aimed at clipping its political wings and forcing it back into the barracks. While some military factions supported these reforms, hardliners have adroitly manipulated the security situation to undermine reformist officers and reassert the military’s dominant position in the polity.

Instability has been good for the armed forces. Honna writes, “It is the powerful logic of preserving national unity and peace that has enabled the military to neutralize pressures to return to the barracks.” Honna’s research demonstrates that recent developments in civil-military relations were foreshadowed by dynamics in the late Suharto era. At that time the military as an institution sought to distance itself from the president’s personal agenda in order to safeguard its own future, while Suharto deftly sowed divisions and nurtured a divisive factionalism favorable to his interests.

Honna argues that continuity in military politics and in the attitudes of the leadership is at odds with democratization and reform efforts. The military still holds the trump cards, has largely avoided any accountability for human rights violations and retains a decisive political role. The Indonesian case is thus a cautionary tale about the transition from military to civilian rule and from authoritarian inclinations to democratic practices. Faute de mieux, the men in green are still in control.

President Megawati Sukarno has cultivated the military by refraining from the interventions in personnel rotations that were the undoing of Gus Dur. She has maintained the fiction of civilian supremacy by not forcing the issue, knowing that her re-election depends on the military’s support.

The post-1997 economic crisis that toppled Suharto and battered Indonesia has led to hard times for the military. Its official budget only covers an estimated 30 percent of its spending. Business activities previously bridged this gap, but income from these ventures has plummeted. In addition, the post-Suharto police force was separated from the armed forces, generating competition in the field of “security services.”

Foreign multinationals have been reliable sources of informal “tax” revenues. It is believed that the military has refrained from eliminating security threats because it would be bad for business; a certain level of instability helps in negotiating security fees. The Exxon-Mobil complex in Aceh is certainly a rich prize and there are other illicit and lucrative smuggling businesses in the province.

There is little reason to believe that the new government offensive will bring a lasting peace to Aceh and recent experience indicates that the military is the best recruiter for GAM. It remains to be seen how the campaign will affect Indonesia’s foreign relations, given concerns about human rights violations. While Indonesia can expect international support for its refusal to grant independence, and will enjoy a degree of leeway given the global crackdown on terrorism, it will not do itself any favors if troops run amok.

Resumption of U.S. military assistance to the Indonesian armed forces is pending an investigation of the military’s involvement in the killing of two Americans near Freeport’s large mining operation in West Irian. It is alleged that the military staged the killing to look like the work of local separatists, probably to increase security fees. If this is the official finding it will make it difficult to reinstate funding.

Washington, however, finds itself in a difficult situation, urging Jakarta to crack down on terrorist operations while withholding funding for training and assistance programs to support such actions. Ongoing trials of alleged terrorists involved in the Bali bombing and other violent incidents will be closely monitored overseas as a measure of Indonesia’s resolve in the war on terror. The likely conviction of the suspects will help advocates reopen the spigots of U.S. military assistance as long as Aceh does not become a bloodbath.

Honna makes clear that things in Indonesia are not what they seem, especially when assessing the military. Officers remain focused on preserving institutional power and autonomy, conflating this with the national interest. In this context, the failure of the peace talks and the resumption of hostilities constitute a logical outcome. Equally, the military’s budget woes have similarly logical consequences.

“Military Politics” provides an interesting account about the inner workings and machinations of an institution often veiled in secrecy and obscured by simplistic analysis. Policymakers, wonks, meddlers and others of their ilk have much to learn from this promising young scholar.

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