No defense ministry and defense force in all of South East Asia has been subjected to more international scrutiny about its role in the life of the country than the Indonesian Defence Force (Tentara Nasional Indonesia). Since President Soeharto, a retired general, stepped down in May, 1998, the TNI reform process has been periodically in the forefront of news coverage by national and international media, none more so than the of the ”military businesses” owned, operated by or linked to any one of the tri-services, Army, Navy and Air Force.
Most domestic and foreign analysts, particularly NGOs, incessantly find fault with almost anything and everything the TNI (especially the army) did, is doing and will do in the future. The anti-military tone is partly in the nature of most NGOs anywhere, and is deeply rooted in the liberal western lexicon of “civilian supremacy” or “civilian control” and the predictable language of “transparency and accountability. Much of the reporting of the TNI__most recently revealed in the June 2006 Human Rights Watch Report entitled “Too High a Price: The Human rights Costs of the Indonesian Military’s Economic Activities” is coloured in the HRW report, the phraseology of which draws upon events that took place in Indonesia before May 1998.
As expected, HRW’s report starts with the predictable “front-loading” of its title report, as if all of Indonesia’s military businesses were always systematically linked to human rights abuses. Words such as “mafia-like behaviour” are laced through the report’s pages with nary a single reference to the realities that in most instances throughout Indonesia’s earlier history in the mid-1950s down through mid 2006, many of the cooperatives and foundations (not all of them outright businesses such as the title of the report ominously insinuates) helped support TNI tactical units in providing in-kind support to low-income soldiers, help provide education to poor families and, in many instances outside of Java, provide soldiers as teachers of Bahasa Indonesia and arithmetic, the building of irrigation and water supply, bridges and schools.
From the outset the Indonesian Defense Force has never had a decent budget to provide a security and defence service as part of the provision of a public good to enable an environment wherein development, stability and civil liberties can flourish. Since the mid-1950s, no Indonesian government has been able to provide the police and the defence force with an adequate budget to provide that public service.
The HRW June 2006 report is understandably unsympathetic to such realities, given that its framework and paradigm rests on the assumption of standards of “professionalism and transparency” taken for granted in developed countries. HRW Asia was also mindful that in the wake of the TNI’s exemplary role in the rescue and rehabilitation efforts of the post Tsunami in Aceh in 2004-2005 and the recent earthquake in Central Java, the TNI’s image at home and abroad had soared. The lifting of the US restriction of spare parts to the TNI also took the wind of the anti-Indonesian lobby in the US and Western Europe.
All in all, the content and tenor of the HRW 2006 report is both predictable and disappointing. When I served in London as ambassador, I had many meetings with NGOs and human rights activists (including HRW Asia) about the TNI, its role in the reform of political life in Indonesia. Including the divestment of the TNI’s businesses. The language and lexicon of most of the groups I met came right through a time warp of 1990-1998. They simply could not and would not accept the notion that the TNI was the pioneer of political reform, and none more so when under Lieut.General S.B. Yudhoyono during his tenure as TNI chief of territorial affairs in 1997-1998. Human rights groups also would not acknowledge the UN Human Rights Summit formulation in June 1993 that human rights constituted “civil, political, economic, social cultural rights in an integrated, inseparable and balanced manner”.
But then HRW thrives on focusing civil and political rights infringements because their bread and butter heavily relies on emphasising those infringements that are much more appealing, dramatic and headline grabbing. Besides, who would want to read about the TNI’s successes in separating sectarian groups from killing one another in Sulawesi or Ambon. What Congressman in the US or parliamentarian in Europe would care about a TNI soldiers toils in helping villagers build irrigation, shelters and wooden bridges in the boondocks of Borneo. No editor in the newsrooms of satellite TV or print media in the liberal press would dream of providing a favourable paragraph or two about the TNI. The TNI will remain whipping boy for many NGOs and western media for a long time to come.