Indonesia's militaristic underbelly


JAKARTA, Indonesia — Imam Supnadi was at home celebrating his son's birthday when three of his neighbors, all of them bleeding badly from gunshot wounds, came crashing through the front door. He knew instantly what had happened.

"I was shocked," he said. "I just couldn't believe they did this to us. I mean, we are only simple villagers, we are weak."

The three people, along with a few dozen others, had been protesting the occupation of their land by the Indonesian military in East Java in May 2007 when they clashed with a group of patrolling marines. The marines opened fire, killing four and wounding 13.

The Indonesian marines faced a military tribunal for the shootings, but were ultimately given light sentences. And the land dispute remains unresolved. The military says it owns the land and intends to build a training facility, but has so far only leased the property to a fruit plantation company, among others.

"More than a year later and still, when some of the people here see a soldier, they panic," said Supnadi, who is the chief of his village. "The military was simply giving out food last week and some people ran away when they saw the uniforms. They are traumatized."

Despite 10 years of military reform, the East Java incident illustrates just how entrenched military abuse, impunity and its web of business affiliations remain here. Last year in Bogor, a city just outside Jakarta, a local resident was shot dead and two others severely beaten by Air Force personnel, also after a fight broke out over land. No one was charged with a crime.

In an effort to discourage such criminal exemption for military personnel, legislators in coming weeks are expected to vote on a bill that would require soldiers or officers accused of ordinary crimes to be tried by a civilian court rather than a military tribunal, where they often receive special treatment.

It is that special treatment that too often leads to abuses against the civilian population, according to a recent report by Kontras, a leading Indonesian human rights group.

"In many cases, military tribunals are used as a mechanism to calm public protest without any guarantee for the delivery of justice. Thus impunity and military violence endures," the report said.

And the problem, according to the report, exists from the top down.

Senior military officers have so far enjoyed unofficial immunity for alleged human rights abuses in the past. For instance, no military leaders who were thought to be acting outside the authority of the central government have been prosecuted for the bloody 1999 crackdown on the independence movement in East Timor, formerly an Indonesian province.

So far, the military has resisted changes to its justice system and has lobbied against the bill in parliament.

By all accounts, however, the military is no longer the same organization presided over by Indonesian's longtime authoritarian ruler, Suharto, who often used it to crush dissent throughout this sprawling and diverse archipelago.

Almost immediately after Suharto's ouster in 1998, the new civilian leadership set out to strip the military of its vast power, removing it from legislative bodies and business enterprises and eliminating its "dual-function" role, a doctrine promoted by Suharto that called on the military to act as both an external defense force and an internal enforcer of government policies.

Today, its reach and influence are a fraction of what they once were: Not a single member of the military serves in Parliament and it has extricated itself from hundreds of outside business activities, which can lead to land disputes like the one in East Java.

But revamping Indonesia's military is a ongoing process and some analysts are worried that a strained budget could stall the process or even reverse it.

"Though a lot of progress has been made, a lot must still be done," said Andi Widjajanto, a military analyst with a private think tank called the Institute of Defense and Security Studies. "And it must be done in spite of budgetary problems."

Indonesia's defense budget decreased slightly from 2008 to 2009 and is only one-third of the nearly $11 billion originally requested by the Department of Defense. Juwono Sudarsono, the defense minister, said the military would be unable to modernize its airforce, which he said is a major priority, with the reduced budget.

The small budget also means less income for already poorly paid soldiers, a situation that could tempt them to hang on to private business relationships or possibly enter into illegal ones like logging and gambling, Widjajanto said.

Most soldiers make less than $200 a month and come from poor backgrounds. A government report released in October revealed a thousand or more businesses, cooperations and foundations that the military has still not divested.

"The low salaries will hinder ongoing reforms,'' Widjajanto said. ''If they aren't increased substantially it will decrease standards of professionalism and morale. It should be the first priority of the government to increase soldier welfare."

For Supnadi and his neighbors, whatever the solution is, they hope it comes soon. "It's not fair, but I don't feel hopeless. We will continue to fight. I just wish the government would work harder on our behalf," he said.