One step too far for Gen. Nurmantyo?

The recent surprise decision by Armed Forces (TNI) chief Gen. Gatot Nurmantyo to unilaterally suspend defense cooperation with the Australian military over alleged offensive training materials at a Perth military base caught many observers and officials in Indonesia off guard, not least of all the State Palace.

The episode is the latest in a long list of incidents which have raised concerns over the actions and ambitions of Nurmantyo since he was installed as head of the military in 2015.

The Army general has continuously raised eyebrows over his penchant for publicly discussing issues and perceived threats to Indonesia which have little to do with the military affairs of the world’s third-largest democracy.

The military chief regularly alleges during public events that unnamed foreign countries and their proxies are scheming to invade or emasculate Indonesia for its natural resources such as food, water and energy supplies.

One of his favorite targets is the Australian military and its allies, which he portrays as a threat to the sovereignty of Indonesia. This paranoid tone saw him claim late last year that the stationing of several thousand US troops at a military base in Darwin could pose a threat to Indonesia. Nurmantyo claimed that the deployment had a hidden agenda as Australia is a continental country which does not need the assistance of US troops.

Some of Nurmantyo’s actions and statements as TNI chief also appear to have crossed a line into outright defiance, including efforts to prevent foreign participation in the resource sector, sources told Concord Review last year.

President Joko Widodo largely tolerated the controversial actions of his top military leader, but that appears to have changed with his apparent one-sided decision to suspend military cooperation with Canberra, a move sources say the president was not informed of beforehand.

While Nurmantyo was lauded as a pair of safe and competent hands when he was inaugurated as TNI chief in July 2015, he has clearly become a liability for the administration, not least for failing to address the offensive training material issue in an amicable manner and through appropriate non-public military-to-military channels.

Officials close to the president are reportedly concerned that Nurmantyo is laying the groundwork for an expansion of the military’s role in civilian affairs and a possible run at the presidency in 2019 following his scheduled retirement in the first quarter of 2018, when he turns 58, the official retirement age for senior officers.

At this stage, it does not appear that Nurmantyo will last that long and there has been talk that the groundwork is being laid to replace him, possibly in favor of the senior officer who has just been promoted chief of staff of the Air Force, Air Marshal Hadi Tjahjanto.


TNI takes offense
The recent kerfuffle began when a TNI spokesman on January 4 announced the suspension of military cooperation with the Australian Defense Force (ADF), reportedly due to offensive training materials.

TNI spokesman Maj. Gen. Wuryanto told Concord Review at the time that the military was indefinitely suspending cooperation with the ADF due to “technical difficulties. It is only a suspension (to the cooperation), not a termination,” Wuryanto said.

Cooperation including military exercises, education and exchange programs was put on hold following a directive issued by TNI chief Gen. Gatot Nurmantyo on December 29, he said. According to the Kompas daily, the military sent a letter to the ADF advising it of the break in cooperation programs on December 9.

The decision followed a report of an Indonesian language instructor who discovered material insulting to Indonesia’s state ideology of Pancasila and Papuan separatism at an Australian military training facility in Perth during an exchange program.

“There are other things that contributed to the suspension. It is not only about that one report,” Wuryanto said, adding the military was continuing to communicate with its Australian counterpart.

In response to the suspension, Australia Defense Minister Marise Payne said the Australian military was investigating the offensive teaching materials. “The Australian Army has looked into the concerns that were raised and the investigation into the incident is being finalized,” Payne said on January 6.

Some interaction between the defense organizations of the two countries had been postponed but cooperation in other areas was not suspended, Payne added.

On the same day, Indonesian officials moved to calm the controversy, suggesting that Nurmantyo overstepped his bounds in the matter.

Coordinating Minister for Politics, Security and Legal Affairs Wiranto clarified that the suspension of military cooperation “only concerns language classes. The suspension will be lifted once the issue (related to the insulting material) is resolved by the Australian authorities,” Wiranto said, adding the fresh tension does not affect bilateral ties between the two countries. Defense Minister Ryamizard Ryacudu also dismissed the incident as a minor irritant.

Widodo himself said relations between the two countries remained in good shape despite the suspension. “Yet we have to clear out the ongoing issue at the operational level so the matter won’t get any worse,” Widodo said.

The president said he had ordered the TNI chief and Ryacudu to immediately resolve the problem without affecting future military cooperation and joint exercises.

From the somewhat conciliatory tone of Widodo and Wiranto, it seemed that not all officials were on the same page when the TNI spokesman announced the suspension of military cooperation.

Such a drastic and sensitive move should have been publicly announced by Widodo or his defense or foreign affairs minister, suggesting Nurmantyo may have gone rogue on the matter.

It is also possible that the TNI chief failed to fully inform the president and his ministers over his intentions regarding the government’s response to the insulting training material, although the related officials have not mentioned anything in this regard, nor would they be likely inclined to publicly indicate any problems within the highest levels of the military chain of command.

‘Nurmantyo’s reaction through the immediate suspension (of defense cooperation with the Australian military) is indeed an overreaction’

A source close to Indonesian defense officials told Concord Review that at first, resolution of the report related to the offensive material at the Australian training facility was planned to be conducted confidentially. However, the situation changed with the Kompas report citing the TNI spokesman.

“Still, Nurmantyo’s reaction through the immediate suspension is indeed an overreaction and it signifies another interest to position himself firmly as someone who is a nationalist,” stated the source.

Some reports said that the offensive training material was prepared as part of an exercise geared at placing the participants in the mindsets of their adversaries, a common training method among militaries and especially elite forces such as Kopassus.

The issue of the offensive training materials was not the first and is unlikely to be the last row between the militaries of the two countries, which endure an underlying degree of tensions stemming from the Australian military’s involvement in the UN-led stabilization mission after East Timor voted for independence from Indonesia, support for Papuan separatism among some segments of Australian society and a general disquiet over each nations’ intentions.

Australia suspended training with Kopassus over the notorious unit’s alleged role in human rights abuses in East Timor in 1999 as the then Indonesian territory geared up for independence, but training resumed several years later.

In 2013, military exercises with Australia were suspended due to allegations that Australian spies tried to tap the phone of then Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, his wife and senior officials. Cooperation resumed in 2014.


Foreign threats and proxy wars
To close observers of the Indonesian military, the latest controversy is not surprising as Nurmantyo for years has been sounding alarm bells about what he believes will be the main danger facing Indonesia in coming decades: proxy wars aimed at control of the nation’s resources.

In Nurmantyo’s die-hard nationalist worldview, Indonesia can only trust itself, as any other nation is likely to have ulterior motives in its dealings with the government in Jakarta or with the TNI.

It is therefore no surprise that the 56-year-old recently told an audience, as reported by the ABC, that he believed the Australian military was attempting to recruit Indonesian soldiers as double agents, an allegation that was promptly rejected by Payne, the Australian defense minister.

Observers may classify Nurmantyo’s obsession with foreign interference in domestic affairs as an overreaction but the Indonesian public in general – and Islamist hard-liners in particular – appear to be a lot more susceptible to such suggestions.

The official narrative of oppression and exploitation – rooted in centuries of colonial rule – remains very much alive and can be a powerful mechanism to mobilize the masses.

Reuters noted in a recent report that Nurmantyo released a booklet in 2015 in which he accused foreign powers of trying to infiltrate almost all segments of Indonesian society, ranging from the education system and media to Islamic organizations, corporations and political parties.

The TNI chief also views narcotics and a permissive culture in general as foreign ploys to weaken the nation.

But in a country where the threat of communism is still taken seriously in the 21st century, claims about evil foreigners intent on exploiting Indonesia – especially when coming from the leader of the country’s most venerated institution – are unlikely to be dismissed out of hand.

The general has also been keen to prop up his religious image, which will certainly come in handy in case he decides to venture into politics at some point.

At a seminar on efforts to anticipate the terrorist threat in Indonesia in early December, Nurmantyo said that the emergence of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) was not primarily a religious issue, but was mainly triggered by a broader struggle for resources, especially in countries around the equator like Indonesia.

‘The intention is to divide our country’

“ISIS is only using terrorism as a tool,” he said, an argument that goes down well with hard-line Islamist groups keen to portray the actions of groups like ISIS as devoid of religious connotations.

The fact that Nurmantyo wore a white Islamic cap during the December 2 rally in Jakarta by hard-line detractors of Jakarta Governor Basuki Tjahaja Purnama – as opposed to the more traditional black peci worn by the president and other dignitaries who were also there to address the masses – has also been noticed by the public.

On November 23 he explicitly urged the Indonesian people to unite following alleged attempts to create internal strife by foreign entities.

Nurmantyo told reporters at a seminar in Bandung, West Java that he received a report via instant messaging service WhatsApp about an assault on hard-line Islamic Defenders Front (FPI) leader Rizieq Shihab, allegedly by a member of the Army’s Strategic Reserve Command (Kostrad) on November 22.

“After being investigated by intelligence, it turned out that the report was a hoax that was distributed by an online gambling site in Australia and a blog in the US. The intention is to divide our country,” Nurmantyo said.

During the seminar, Nurmantyo repeated his mantra that Indonesia, as one of the countries located along the equator, is prone to become a target of proxy wars by foreign nations. He said such crises are predicted to affect Indonesia by 2043.

“The proxy wars will be over energy and natural resources, economics, food and several other issues,” he said.

Leaders of the countries involved in such crises will wish to colonize Indonesia due its strategic position by creating disturbances. “The easiest way to do this is by controlling the media,” he added.

Such a threat is already taking shape, the military chief said, citing examples of the media that exposed sectarian conflicts in Ambon, Maluku and Poso, Central Sulawesi between 1999 and 2002 which claimed thousands of lives.


FPI support
His insistence on going it alone has certainly won the TNI chief praise from hard-line Muslim groups like the FPI, which has regularly portrayed him in a positive light in recent months, perhaps in an attempt to exploit divisions that are starting to appear within the government.

Some believe that a local military commander in Lebak, Banten in early January was attempting to curry favor with Nurmantyo by organizing a joint training session with members of the FPI.

Pictures of the event went viral after the FPI announced on Twitter on January 7 that the exercise – a pre-training for the National Defenders (Bela Negara) program – was held on January 5.

Siliwangi Regional Military Command (Kodam III) spokesman Col. M.D. Ariyanto said on January 8 that the local military leader had not asked for permission from the commander of Kodam III – Maj. Gen. M. Herindra – to stage the training and that the commander of the Lebak Military District Command (Kodim 603) – Lt. Col. Ubaidillah – was therefore replaced.


Australia paranoia
Nurmantyo has raised concerns that the deployment of 2,500 US Marine Corps personnel to Darwin in northern Australia, just hundreds of kilometers from Indonesian shores, represents a threat to the country.

“It (Darwin) is located around 400 km from Saumlaki Island, Selaru Island and Masela Island in southern Maluku, which contain oil resources under the sea,” he said, again adding that the presence of such natural resources could be the motive for proxy wars by foreign countries.

The plan to station the US Marines in Darwin emerged in 2011 and despite some initial concerns in Jakarta, all related stakeholders later agreed that the presence of the relatively small contingent of US forces posed no threat to Indonesia.

Most policymakers in the Indonesian government – apparently aside from Nurmantyo – also view the presence of the Marines in Darwin as an asset in keeping Chinese ambitions in check in the South China Sea.

A team of Indonesian Navy admirals was in the US last year, reportedly to seek assistance to bolster military capabilities near Natuna in Riau Islands following several confrontations between Indonesian patrol ships and Chinese fishing vessels.

The Indonesian government was also mulling greater maritime cooperation with Australia as a result of the tensions in the South China Sea. It defies logic that the TNI commander seems bent on undermining some of Indonesia’s most pressing defense and security priorities.

TNI chief Gen. Gatot Nurmantyo, at a welcome ceremony welcoming hosted by US Marine Gen. Joseph F. Dunford Jr., chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, at Conmy Hall on Joint Base Myer-Henderson Hall, Virginia on February 18, 2016. (DoD photo by Army Staff Sgt. Sean K. Harp)
TNI chief Gen. Gatot Nurmantyo at a welcome ceremony welcoming hosted by US Marine Gen. Joseph F. Dunford Jr., chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, at Conmy Hall on Joint Base Myer-Henderson Hall, Virginia on February 18, 2016. (DoD photo by Army Staff Sgt. Sean K. Harp)

He has also said the Five Power Defense Arrangement (FPDA), involving Australia, England, Singapore, Malaysia and New Zealand, a legacy of Commonwealth ties, has created a strong military power which Indonesia should be wary of.

The FPDA is a 45-year-old multi-lateral agreement that mainly stipulates consultations, and no specific commitment to intervene militarily by any of its five Commonwealth members. It is nowadays largely seen as a Cold War leftover and while it could be a threat to Jakarta if it decided to attack one of the member nations, the agreement is mainly used as a basis for cooperation and training and it is not seen as a threat by most countries in the region.

According to Nurmantyo, another threat is near Indonesia’s exclusive economic zone in Natuna Island, Riau Islands which is occasionally violated by Chinese vessels.

“The other threats are that Indonesia is surrounded by countries which were once colonized by England; terrorism; narcotics; and economic risks,” the military chief has said.

Addressing students in November, as reported by the ABC, Nurmantyo raised concerns that a food shortage in China could lead to millions of Chinese refugees coming down the Malay Peninsula to take over Southeast Asia.

Hard-line Muslim groups like the FPI and some labor unions have been stoking fears within the country of Chinese workers taking Indonesian jobs.

Nurmantyo said the Malaysian defense minister told him that he was frightened of the prospect because he would not be able to stop them. “I told him that I am not scared,” Nurmantyo was quoted as saying by the ABC. “If they ever come to my place, they will come by sea. Once they cross the ocean, I will butcher 10 cows in the middle of the ocean. The sharks will definitely gather. After that I will shoot at them, just by using small weapons so the boat will leak, and they all can be eaten by the sharks.”


State Palace reaction
While officials from the State Palace maintain that there is no friction between Nurmantyo and Widodo over the surprise military cooperation suspension, sources quoted in some reports paint a different picture.

Reuters reported that Widodo reproached the TNI chief in a meeting amid concerns the commander was “out of control” after he unilaterally suspended the defense cooperation.

Two unnamed sources briefed on the meeting told Reuters some of Widodo’s aides are also concerned that Nurmantyo is laying the groundwork for an expansion of the military’s role in civilian affairs and may have political ambitions himself.

“Widodo needed to move quickly to demonstrate his authority as the country’s commander-in-chief,” one senior government official said, according to the report. “With Gatot, the feeling is like he’s a little out of control.”

One of the officials said that Widodo and others in the government were caught off guard when local media reported Nurmantyo’s announcement of the suspension of military ties with Australia.

While the general was not formally reprimanded, the official said, Widodo served him a warning during a meeting at a Presidential Palace in Bogor, West Java.

The meeting was confirmed by another senior government aide, who also spoke on condition of anonymity. The senior government official said: “We suspect that Gatot is exploiting this incident for his own political agenda, his own political ambition.”

“He has been making many public appearances and speeches lately,” he said. “Frankly, we think many of them about proxy wars and the threat to Indonesia are absolutely ridiculous,” he said in the Reuters report.

One of the officials who disclosed Widodo’s meeting with Nurmantyo said the military chief’s job was safe, downplaying speculation that the general would be relieved of his duties. “For now, we are confident that he will not betray the president or the civilian government,” he said.

Johan Budi, a presidential spokesman, told Concord Review on January 10 that the president did not reprimand Nurmantyo during the recent cabinet meeting at the Bogor Presidential Palace. He claimed that the meeting was held to set projections for the upcoming year in the economy, infrastructure and other sectors.

Widodo also did not make any statement pointing out any violation by Nurmantyo with regard of his decision to suspend cooperation with Australia, Budi said.

The Indonesian source close to defense matters however said the meeting in Bogor appeared to be a reminder to the TNI chief that the president is the military’s supreme commander by law: “The president could go on with a more drastic measure by dismissing the chief from his post yet the scolding alone should be enough in reminding Nurmantyo about being responsible for his exaggerated actions.”


Change of command
While Widodo and his ministers are so far portraying a solid front to the public in response to Nurmantyo’s actions and behavior, there has been talk that plans are already in the works to replace the TNI chief, possibly soon.

Concord Review learned in early January that Widodo was planning to replace the soon-to-retire Air Force chief Marshal Agus Supriatna with Tjahjanto – as he did on January 18 – and some have suggested the new chief could be in for another promotion to the TNI’s top post in the not-too-distant future.

Tjahjanto previously served as the Inspector General at the Defense Ministry and before that as as the Military Secretary at the State Palace. These posts are said to have allowed Tjahjanto to form a tight relationship with Widodo, and also with the president’s close advisors.

The nomination of an Air Force officer to the top military post would mark a return of sorts to the policy of rotation of the top TNI position between the three forces. Nurmantyo’s appointment in 2015 broke that unofficial policy, consolidating the position of the Army within TNI, at the expense of the air force, which was next in line for the top TNI post.


Laying low
Since the military cooperation controversy with Australia emerged early this month, Nurmantyo has maintained a relatively quiet demeanor, appearing at several public events with the president, largely standing and sitting one step behind Widodo, which portrays the symbolism that the military is fully supporting the president and the government.

It also gives the appearance that no rifts currently exist between the TNI leader and his commander-in-chief. However, Nurmantyo likely understands that his position in the military and his political future are under threat.

Removing a TNI chief from the post before retirement amid a degree of controversy would be interpreted as a slight by the military

If Widodo makes the unusual move of replacing a TNI commander before his official retirement date, it will need to be handled in a delicate manner by all sides.

Removing a TNI chief from the post before retirement amid a degree of controversy would be interpreted as a slight by the military as an institution, which the president needs on his side amid a recent rise in national instability due to religious intolerance and ahead of the next legislative and presidential elections in 2019.

It would also free Nurmantyo to further any political or nationalist agenda he may have – including possibly by joining the anti-Widodo camp of former generals and politicians – without having the restrictions that come with being on active duty.


Nationalist politics
Despite the controversy surrounding the military commander, keeping him on a shorter leash might prove to be more beneficial for national stability and the political fortunes of Widodo.

“If he gets fired, it is likely that Nurmantyo will position himself as a victim in regard of the issue and as part of his future endeavor to look for more support for his political ambition. However, Nurmantyo has to look for another issue besides nationalism to get more support as the group which tends to support that idea is already occupied by another possible candidate, Prabowo Subianto,” a source said.

Indeed, Subianto, chairman of the board of patrons of the Greater Indonesia Movement (Gerindra), a political party he founded in 2008, has again been making waves in recent weeks, as competition could be brewing to become the flag bearer for nationalism ahead of the 2019 general election.

At a meeting with around 8,000 party cadres in Central Jakarta on January 8, Subianto urged the attendees to vote for Anies Baswedan, a former education minister, as the next Jakarta governor with Sandiaga Uno, a businessman, as his running mate.

“If you can make them win, God willing, you will also win Indonesia, which will be self-reliant and cannot be bought and will not bow to any country,” he told the audience.

The former Kopassus general said the Indonesian people have so far been looked down upon and considered dull and easy to be fooled. “The Indonesian nation and its leaders are considered able to be tricked and bought by foreign interests,” he said.

Regardless of the outcome of the TNI chief controversy, it is becoming increasingly clear that fear-mongering in which unnamed bogeymen are seen as being out to undermine the country could increasingly be utilized by those seeking a bigger national profile, especially ahead of the next presidential election in 2019.

A version of this article was first published for clients of Concord Review on January 12, 2017. Free trial subscriptions are available.