Fear and loathing helps the military march further into civilian affairs, writes Terry Russell. Here’s how they have done it.
Fear. It’s one of the most powerful tools in politics, and the fear of foreigners is one of the most powerful fears. We have seen how masterfully Donald Trump exploited this, but know less about how masterfully the Indonesian military exercises this tool.
The Indonesian military has exploited the fear of foreigners by proclaiming that many of Indonesia’s social ills are due to the influence of foreign proxies. This campaign has provided two distinct political advantages and can be divided into two phases. In the first phase, in 2014 General Gatot Nurmantyo personally commenced a campaign that helped him rise to Chief of the Armed Forces in July 2015. In the second phase, Indonesia’s Defence Minister Ryamizard Ryacudu broadened Nurmantyo’s crusade in order to quieten political resistance while increasing military intervention in civilian life in Indonesia.
Phase one of the proxy war fear campaign
During the 2014-2015 campaign Nurmantyo argued that Indonesia was threatened by a Proxy War. As the army’s second-in-command, he travelled from province to province, warning local students that foreign powers were seeking to further their own ends via Indonesian NGOs, mass organisations, and social interest groups. Nurmantyo claimed that foreigners were behind East Timor’s separation from Indonesia, and could be behind the rampant circulation of drugs among Indonesian youth and demonstrations against palm oil companies. He also warned that Indonesian students who took up scholarships in foreign countries could unwittingly become agents for foreign interests and that foreign interests might seek to buy and control Indonesia’s mass media. He even speculated that the media, influenced by foreigners, could be engineering ‘conflict between the military and police or between political parties’.
Nurmantyo’s campaign may have been motivated by ambitions to increase military intervention in civilian life in Indonesia, or by a genuine concern about foreign proxies. However there is some evidence it was also motivated by personal political aspirations.
Prior to Nurmantyo’s campaign, he was not the front runner for the position of Armed Forces Chief. In the post-Suharto era, the position of Armed Forces Chief normally rotated between the army, the airforce and the navy, and an airforce candidate was due to take over in mid-2015. Less normal was an Indonesian military commander travelling from province to province to conduct a fear campaign. In fact, at least one retired lieutenant general reportedly complained in April 2015 that Nurmantyo was trying “to promote his own ideas to the public” and suggested that he “should be pulled into line by either the TNI commander or the president.”
In July 2015, after conducting a travelling show more befitting of a politician than a military commander, Nurmantyo was not reprimanded, but instead appointed as Indonesia’s Armed Forces Chief. One of the reasons given for his promotion was because he had successfully raised awareness in Indonesia about the threat of proxy war.
Phase two of the proxy war fear campaign
Phase two of the proxy war campaign began when Nurmantyo’s ‘proxy war’ concept was endorsed by the Minister of Defence, Ryamizard Ryacudu. Whether this had any influence over President Jokowi’s decision to promote Nurmantyo is unclear. However, the proxy war concept strengthened Ryacudu’s hand politically. Ryacudu was in the midst of a highly expansionist year, with his military signing MoUs to guard public and private infrastructure, work more closely with farmers, and assist police with law enforcement. Talks were also underway to insert military personnel into the ministries of transportation and fisheries, and even into the Corruption and Eradication Commission. The proxy war campaign helped make civilians more amenable to Ryacudu’s program to expand the role of Indonesia’s military in civilian life. Those that opposed military expansion could be muzzled by fear of being labelled foreign proxies.
While newly inaugurated Armed Forces Chief Nurmantyo continued to publicly espouse his proxy war theory, Defense Minister Ryacudu in August 2015 announced plans to provide military training to 100 million Indonesians by 2025 in order to build their militaristic spirit. By the end of 2015, Ryacudu was more openly spreading fear, warning of foreign infiltration in areas as diverse as ideology, politics, the economy, social issues, culture, law and security. Virtually all areas of life were open to suspicion.
2016 has seen no abatement in the military’s fear campaign. In February, Ryacudu warned that the emergence of the gay and lesbian rights movement was a form of proxy war because, “another state might have occupied the minds of the nation without anyone realising it.” In March, the Commander of the Indonesian Army Command and Staff College expanded the list of foreign proxies, warning that foreign governments could be behind social problems as wide-ranging as provocative news media, student brawls, conflicts between groups, promiscuity and the spread of pornography.
By May, the military was stoking fears of a communist party revival and linking this to foreigners. At the same time, Ryacudu was pushing ahead with his program to provide military training to millions of Indonesians in what the program leader explained was “a direct response to the threats we face from proxy wars.” In September, Nurmantyo said that terrorist groups in Indonesia were not only a threat but also part of a proxy war because the groups were receiving funding from Australia, Malaysia, Brunei and the Philippines. Separately, he announced that he had organised a Pact to Defend Against Media Proxy War, signed by eleven organisations, including the Indonesian Teachers’ Union, the Publishers Union, and a major Islamic movement, Nahdlatul Ulama.
Is the military’s fear mongering really that bad?
It could be argued that by being vigilant the Indonesian military is just doing its job. But are the threats really so enormous that Indonesian society needs to be whipped into paranoia?
Since 2014, the Indonesian military has urged Indonesians to be suspicious of foreign subterfuge through NGOs, mass organisations, social interest groups, drug traffickers, demonstrators opposing palm oil companies, scholarship winners, gays and lesbians, provocative news media, student brawls, conflicts between groups, promiscuity, the spread of pornography, a communist revival, and terrorists serving foreign interests. That’s a pretty wide-ranging list of proxies. And they could be infiltrating areas as diverse as ideology, politics, the economy, social issues, culture, law and security. It’s hard to think of any other military in the world that is interpreting its role in such a loud, wide-ranging, paranoia-spreading way as the Indonesian armed forces.
It’s true that sometimes, in Indonesia and elsewhere around the globe, foreigners are indeed trying to assert influence via proxies. Indeed, Indonesians have good reason to fear foreign intervention due to their experience of the Asian Financial Crisis in 1997 (which was a significant factor, along with military excesses and foreign pressure, in the separation of East Timor).
Absent from the above list of threats are the two powerful groups who collaborated in the major undermining of Indonesia’s economy in the 1990s –Suharto-era cronies (many of whom still exercise great influence in Indonesia) and the World Bank/IMF.
Former World Bank Chief Economist Joseph Stiglitz noted that many American firms at the 1994 APEC meeting in Jakarta gained agreements “at highly favourable terms (with suggestions of corruption greasing the wheels – to the disadvantage of the people of Indonesia)”[see Globalisation and its Discontents, p 71]. He argued that Indonesia’s economy ultimately collapsed in 1997-98 because Suharto’s government had collaborated with the World Bank to rapidly ‘liberalise’ Indonesia’s banking sector, creating easy access to loans but making Indonesia highly vulnerable to foreign currency speculators.
Yet instead of urging vigilance against military excesses and back-room deals between international financiers and local cronies, the Indonesian military’s fear campaign targets NGOs and social interest groups – both of which are a key cog in any nation’s defence against military excesses — and non-transparent deals. Nurmantyo seems to be taking aim at small fish while ignoring the bigger.
Of course the Indonesian military is not alone in exploiting a weakness universal in all human beings. It’s the same weakness that is being exploited by Donald Trump, persuading millions of Americans that foreigners are to blame for economic problems in the United States. Earlier this year, Pauline Hansen in Australia and Nigel Farage in Britain gained political mileage out of stoking fear of foreigners.
Going back further, Australian Prime Minister John Howard seized on unsubstantiated claims of children being thrown overboard by illegal immigrants to sow fear of foreigners and gain last-minute political mileage in the 2001 Australian election. And Pentagon insiders like former US Secretary of State Colin Powell and former head of the US Federal Reserve Alan Greenspan have all but admitted that US President George W Bush used fabricated claims of Iraqi weapons of mass destruction to sow fear of Iraq’s dictator president and gain political support for his oil-driven invasion of Iraq.
The Indonesian military’s fear mongering will probably not be as globally disruptive as Bush’s manoeuvring over Iraq, nor as globally televised as Trump’s election campaign. However not even Bush or Trump could match the breadth of fear that has been whipped up in Indonesia.
The Indonesian military faces a tough task maintaining peace in a vast, ethnically diverse archipelago of over 250 million people, where roughly half the population still lives on less than US$ 2 per day. It should be appreciated for its role in maintaining relative peace in Indonesia since conflict in Aceh was resolved in 2005.
The military should also be appreciated for its calm role on 4 November 2016, when demonstrators took to the streets of Jakarta, calling for the execution of the city’s Governor, ‘Ahok’. Instead of seeking political mileage by blaming the demonstrations on foreign proxies, Ryacudu called upon Ahok’s critics to allow tensions to be resolved through the country’s law courts. Some of the demonstrators, possibly emboldened by the military’s fear mongering, screamed messages of hate against local Chinese (Ahok is of Chinese descent), but the military was not blaming any particular group for the tensions.
The military’s noisy proxy war campaign is marketed as a strategy to defend the nation but its astounding breadth and omnipresence make it look more like a strategy to increase the military’s role in civilian affairs. In 2017, will the military revert back to their own calm steadfastness in the 2005-2013 period? Will they acknowledge that most of Indonesia’s tensions are home-grown; that very few actually require the involvement of the military? Orwill Nurmantyo and Ryacudu, following the success of Donald Trump’s xenophobia campaign and their own xenophobia campaign in 2016, subject Indonesians to another year of proxyphobia?
Dr Terry Russell worked as a teacher and aid practitioner in Indonesia for 15 years. He is currently based in Australia, working in the international aid sector (with an organisation that has no involvement in Indonesia).