How civilian defence program, Bela Negara, is beefing up Indonesia’s street thugs and promoting the threat of proxy wars. 

The release of the 2015 Indonesian Defence White Paper has codified the Bela Negara (defend the nation) civilian volunteer program making it an explicit part of Indonesia’s defence strategy.

The program aims to recruit 100 million civilians under the age of 50 years from all walks of civilian life over the next 10 years. According to the Defence White Paper, the program is designed to strengthen the values of Indonesia’s citizens including patriotism, nation awareness, belief in the Pancasila as the nation’s ideology,  willingness to sacrifice for the nation, as well as provide the basic capabilities to defend the nation.

According to reports, President Joko ‘Jokowi’ Widodo initiated the program as a way to tackle the issue of unemployed youth in Indonesia, particularly those engaged in antisocial gang behaviour. Media reports regarding the program roll out in Bali suggest that recruitment has targeted Indonesia’s ‘street thugs’ to make them productive members of society through instilling discipline and national values.

A volunteer civilian defence program, however, is not an adequate long-term social policy response that provides the necessary financial support to keep these thugs off the street beyond the initial Bela Negara boot camp training.

At the very least, the program will improve their ‘street thug’ effectiveness through self-defence and weapons training. They will likely take their new-found skills to the street where they make a living from petty crime, narcotics, and racketeering.

At the very best, it will allow the Indonesian Army to further extend its influence into Indonesia’s streets by forming an institutionalised link with many of the street level criminal networks that have largely been the domain of the Indonesian police.

Indonesia’s street thugs have long served as a valuable source of street-level intelligence and remained one of the last reliable sources of low-level corruption revenue for Indonesian police on the beat. A policy that adopts Indonesia’s street thugs into the military environment will provide the opportunity to build meaningful relationships with senior influential military members.

Military connections will make these street thugs virtually untouchable by local police increasing their power in the local community. Such a policy response may institutionalise criminal activity instead of reducing it. The inclusion of street thugs within the military institution will also redirect the low-level corruption cash flow into the hands of the Indonesian military possibly refuelling tensions between the police and the military.

From within the Indonesian military, the volunteer program has been justified as one of the ways to address the proxy war threat that has been part of the defence rhetoric of the head of Indonesia’s military General Gatot Nurmantyo and Defence Minister General (Retired) Ryamizard Ryacudu.

The proxy war argument implies that Indonesia faces a number of non-military threats from foreign entities that aim to control Indonesia’s resources through strategically-placed domestic collaborators such as non-government organisations, multinationals, academics, media, social interest groups, and other individuals.

General Nurmantyo, has outlined the proxy war threat to include secessionist movements, inter-group conflicts, and mass demonstrations that are organised, supported, and assisted by foreign entities. The broad definition of the threat has proven to apply to a wide range of issues that run counter to the conservative, nationalistic views within the Indonesian military such as the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender community (LGBT), Islamic radicalisation, and encroaching foreign culture.

The proxy war narrative has been a way to conflate international and domestic threats to strengthen the Indonesian Army’s role in internal security. The Bela Negara policy response has also been a way to reaffirm the role of the Indonesian Army as the state’s overarching protector at a time when government defence policy pivots towards Jokowi’s global maritime fulcrum initiative.

The Indonesian Army remains vulnerable as defence policy pivots towards a naval presence that risks budget cuts to a force that already suffers from constrained official funding. The Indonesian Army makes up a large proportion of its budget from a network of legal and illegal businesses across the archipelago, despite government policies aimed at reforming such practices.

The biggest problem of the Bela Negara program is not the short-term implications outlined above, but when the program moves beyond the hundreds currently being trained over the longer term. The million-dollar question is what role the volunteer civil force will play beyond Jokowi’s civilian-led government?

Human rights groups have raised concerns about the policy viewing it as a renewal of notorious civilian militias such as Pasukan Keamanan (PAM SWAKARSA). The government used these militias as a civilian security arm against Indonesian students during the 1998 reformasi demonstrations that led to Indonesia’s democracy.

Under current policy, a similar event would be labelled a proxy war and warrant the deployment of a much better trained Bela Negara.

Bradley Wood is a Master of Strategic Studies student at the Strategic and Defence Studies Centre in the ANU Coral Bell School of Asia Pacific Affairs. He tweets @bradleywoodAU and his main research interest focuses on Indonesia. His previous work can be found on his Academia profile.