Indonesia Won’t Slide Back Into Military Rule, Security Minister Says

Indonesia will not allow the country’s armed forces to make a political comeback and undermine civilian rule, the country’s security minister said on Wednesday, amid growing fears that Indonesia’s nascent democracy was backsliding toward its authoritarian past.


JAKARTA, Indonesia — Indonesia will not allow the country’s armed forces to make a political comeback and undermine civilian rule, the country’s security minister said on Wednesday, amid growing fears that Indonesia’s nascent democracy was backsliding toward its authoritarian past.

The assertion by Luhut B. Pandjaitan, the coordinating minister for political, legal and security affairs, came as Human Rights Watch released a report on Wednesday saying that elements of the military, national police and government continued to undermine orders from Indonesia’s president, Joko Widodo, by restricting access to the restive eastern region of Papua to foreign journalists.

Despite his pledges of continued civilian supremacy as part of the country’s democratic transition, which began in 1999, Mr. Joko’s security forces, particularly the army and the national police, have been actively expanding their power bases, according to analysts, and unilaterally carrying out operations and crackdowns that Indonesian legal and human rights activists have derided as violating the law.

Mr. Luhut, a retired four-star general, said at a luncheon with foreign journalists that the armed forces had been stripped of dual political and security powers more than a decade ago and that there would be no going back.

“We have no plan to do so,” Mr. Luhut said. “We said: ‘You cannot play this role anymore. You have to only do military operations.’ ”

He added, “I don’t see any military involvement in civilian activities.”

Others are not so sure. Mr. Joko, who took office in October 2014, is the first Indonesian president not to have come from his country’s political elite or to have been an army general.

Analysts say that is part of the problem.

A recent report by the Institute for Policy Analysis of Conflict, based in the Indonesian capital, Jakarta, said that both the armed forces and the national police “seem to be testing the political waters to see how far they can push their authority in the face of a weak president with little experience in security affairs,” especially the military.

Last month, military and police personnel on the resort island of Bali demanded that the organizers of a popular regional literary festival cancel scheduled programs, book unveilings and a documentary screening related to the killings of an estimated 500,000 or more people during state-sponsored purges of suspected Communists and their sympathizers in 1965-66.

The purges were overseen by General Suharto, who went on to become Indonesia’s president and to preside over an authoritarian, military-backed government for 32 years.

In the years after Mr. Suharto’s forced resignation in 1998, the country’s democratically elected Parliament began stripping the military of its vast powers, including eliminating its reserved legislative seats, and compelling it to sell off its business interests and to focus solely on national defense and external threats.

Yet before and since Mr. Joko took office last year, the military has managed to become increasingly involved in civilian affairs and internal security issues, including demanding a role in police counterterrorism operations against Muslim terrorist groups operating in Indonesia, taking part in government development projects in rural parts of the country and increasing its military command.

During Mr. Suharto’s rule, the armed forces, known as the T.N.I., adopted a territorial command structure in which soldiers were based in every region, all the way down to the village level, usurping the powers of local governments.

Recent public statements by senior Indonesian security officials have also caused unease.

In March, Gen. Gatot Nurmantyo, the army chief of staff at the time, told a group of students that the country was facing a “proxy war” in which certain groups in the country could be used to attack the state — which analysts interpreted as meaning that the military might need to regain its internal security role.

General Gatot is now commander in chief of Indonesia’s armed forces.

In August, the defense minister, Ryamizard Ryacudu, a retired army general, announced plans to enlist and train 100 million civilian military reservists who could be deployed to defend the country — another reference to internal security threats that needed to be addressed by the armed forces, according to analysts.

“The T.N.I. is trying to play a bigger role” that was greatly diminished after Mr. Suharto’s resignation in 1998, said Sidney Jones, the director of the Institute for Policy Analysis of Conflict.

In recent months, senior military and police officials have publicly questioned and in some cases ignored Mr. Joko’s instructions regarding security. In May, he announced the lifting of decades-old restrictions on foreign journalists wanting to report in Papua and West Papua Provinces, which make up the country’s poorest region despite having among Indonesia’s richest mineral resources.

Indonesian security forces have continually cracked down on a small-scale separatist movement in the Papua region for decades, on civilian groups calling for a referendum on independence, and on general public dissent against Jakarta. In December 2014, security forces shot dead five people protesting the beating of a young boy by soldiers.

In its report released on Wednesday, Human Rights Watch stated that elements of the Indonesian government and security apparatus continued to hinder access to the Papua region by foreign journalists despite Mr. Joko’s instructions.

The organization said that the national police had continued to require foreign journalists to obtain a permission letter from its security and intelligence agency, under the guise of following a law related to the monitoring of foreigners traveling in Indonesia.

Foreign journalists are also required to send a notification letter to the Indonesian Ministry of Foreign Affairs stating the purpose of their visit to Papua, the dates of travel and the locations they would visit, according to Human Rights Watch.

“There are elements of the government and T.N.I. that are hostile to foreign access to Papua,” said Phelim Kine, deputy director of Human Rights Watch’s Asia division, during a news briefing.

Mr. Luhut, the security minister, said he would take action if he were given evidence that government or security officials were obstructing foreign journalists from going to the Papua region.

“Come back to me, and if it’s necessary, we will fire them,” he said.