May 28, 2024 Last Updated 8:34 AM, May 27, 2024

In the name of food security

Published: Jan 09, 2017
The army’s over-immersion in civilian affairs is being encouraged by its role in food security projects

Emirza Adi Syailendra

‘Achieving food security is a matter of survival’, says the Babinsa while sipping his black Acehnese coffee, ‘and we are really focused on achieving it.’ ‘We’ in this case refers to the Indonesian armed forces (Tentara Nasional Indonesia, or TNI). The Babinsa (Bintara Pembina Desa) are non-commissioned officers with a supervisory role in their villages and as part of Indonesia’s effort to increase local food production this Babinsa is in charge of delivering seeds from Lhokseumawe to the people in his village in North Aceh. ‘Without TNI supervision, the delivery process is prone to corruption’, he says.

Sitting in a small coffee shop in Gampong Geudumbak, he continues: ‘I help them at all stages, from identifying land to cultivation to harvesting. Under my supervision, within just a year, my village has already opened 150 hectares of soybean and corn fields.’ Asked why the TNI, and not civilians, needs to supervise these activities, the Babinsa’s attitude is revealing. ‘You know’, he says, ‘Acehnese are lazy. They would rather hangout in a coffee shop every morning than work in the fields. So forcing them to work in the field is for their own good. The TNI is like a parent, and we need to educate our kids [the people].’

Sentiments like these are reminiscent of the authoritarian New Order period (1966–1998) when the Indonesian military, through its infamous dwifungsi (dual function) doctrine, was deeply involved in President Suharto’s development agenda. The Babinsa’s words indicate that this kind of paternalistic attitude never really disappeared. And so it should not come as a surprise that Indonesian soldiers today are once again assisting civilian agencies in implementing national development policies. Based on a number of memoranda of understanding between the government and the military, soldiers are not only helping the police in counterterrorism operations but also securing airports, educating inmates and, in one of the most advanced programs to date, performing key tasks in the government’s efforts to achieve self-sufficiency in food production. 

The TNI’s immersion into civilian affairs highlights that elite attitudes towards civil–military dynamics in Indonesia have barely changed since the end of the authoritarian New Order period. Civilian leaders continue to solicit help from the TNI in the belief that civilian agencies cannot be relied upon to fulfil these tasks satisfactorily. At the same time, the military leadership continues to harbour aspirations of being socially embedded at the grassroots level.  

A proactive agent of change 

The renewed drive for cooperation between the central government and the military in civilian nation-building projects began in the final years of the Yudhoyono presidency but it has gained particular prominence under current president, Joko Widodo, or Jokowi, who regards the military not only as a reliable political ally but also as an effective enforcer of government policy. Reflecting this stance, Jokowi altered the military’s role from mere supporter to proactive agent of change in the so-called ‘TNI-AD Mendukung Ketahanan Pangan’ (Army Supporting Food Security) program. Indeed, Jokowi and the TNI leadership appear to have found a convergence of views on many strategic issues including the importance of giving the military a role in Indonesia’s quest to achieve self-sufficiency in food production. 

The president, for his part, has posited food security as part of his election manifesto and a matter of urgency to defend Indonesia’s sovereignty and dignity. Therefore, special measures including the involvement of the military are, in the president’s view, justified. In an address to military regional commands (Komando Daerah Militer or Kodam) in December 2014, Jokowi stated that the government would seek cooperation from the military in implementing its nation-building agenda, especially its quest to achieve food security for Indonesia.

The TNI, meanwhile, has argued that failure to become self-sufficient in food production is as dangerous as physical war to the nation’s survival. For TNI chief Gatot Nurmantyo, who sees Indonesia in the midst of a ‘proxy war’ against foreign ideas and influences, food security can be a counterpoint to foreign intrusion into Indonesia. Dependency on particular countries for food, so the argument goes, can lead to a weakening of Indonesia’s strategic autonomy. Moreover, Nurmantyo believes that the Indonesian military should foray into non-military engagements such as food security programs in order to foster social resilience. 

For critics of the military’s renewed involvement in civilian tasks, such rhetoric evokes memories of New Order propaganda which placed food security high on the development agenda. Back in 1984, Indonesia was able to produce 25.8 million tons of rice and was regarded by the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) as a success story. In 1996, however, Indonesia’s status as a food self-sufficient country was overturned and the country became one of the largest importers of food products. According to the Indonesian Statistics Bureau, from 2003 to 2013 the import value of horticultural products has grown more than fourfold from US$3.34 billion to US$14.90 billion.

Such figures highlight the inability of domestic production to cater for the needs of the growing population. During the Yudhoyono years, the contribution of the agricultural sector to the gross domestic product continuously decreased from 15.15 per cent in 2003 to 14.43 per cent in 2013. Jokowi seems determined to turn things around and end Indonesia’s dependence on food imports. At the Jakarta Food Security Summit in February 2015 he set ambitious goals to achieve the status of self-sufficient food production within three to four years. Among other things, his administration is planning to build around 20 dams and to cultivate as much as 1 million hectares of agricultural fields outside Java. And to make it all happen, Jokowi wants the military to lend a helping hand.

Babinsa as enforcers

Following the signing of a memorandum of understanding in 2014, there is now a strong multilevel coordination from the top down to the smallest unit in order to carry out this partnership. Generally, the division of labour is as follows: the Ministry of Agriculture, as the civilian agency, provides funding and technical expertise while the military executes projects by utilising their overarching regional territorial structure. The military’s Kodam performs diverse roles such as identifying idle land, communicating with the locals, liaising with the agriculture department, facilitating training of the locals, monitoring the dissemination of seeds and fertiliser, and harvesting the crops.

A poster in front of the military regional command (Kodam) office, in Banda Aceh, illustrating the expected personal attributes of a Babinsa / Emirza Adi Syailendra.

In order to oversee the various projects related to developing regional food production systems, the Kodam have set up food security posts all over Indonesia. The key executor of the program is the army, with Babinsa as spearheads. Currently, there are more than 50,000 Babinsa enlisted to undertake such activities, with particularly large numbers in areas that are regarded as conflict prone such as Aceh or Sulawesi.

In Aceh, for example, around 5000 Babinsa are now engaged in projects related to food security. Among other responsibilities, they will oversee the establishment of agricultural infrastructure such as the Krueng Kerto dam in North Aceh which is expected to help water rain-fed paddy fields. But their job description also entails tasks that are completely unrelated to food security. As one Babinsa in Aceh told me, he is also asked to gather intelligence on local community dynamics, conduct surveillance of local geography and infrastructure, and profile important local figures. Thus, the TNI’s broadening role in food security programs complements other recent initiatives such as the ‘Bela Negara’ (Defend the country) program which provides military training and ideological indoctrination for ordinary citizens.

Dim prospects for military reform

The TNI perceives such activities as its fundamental traditional duties, mandated by the Total People’s Defense military doctrine and enshrined in jargon like ‘Bersama Rakyat TNI Kuat’ (‘Together with the people the TNI will be strong’). But for human rights activists and military observers, the TNI’s forays into civilian tasks are a cause for concern because they further undermine the already dim prospects for civilian control over the armed forces. Little progress has been made in this regard since the end of the New Order and the Jokowi administration’s recent personnel decisions (Wiranto as coordinating minister for political, legal and security affairs, Ryamizard Ryacudu as defense minister, Gatot Nurmantyo as commander-in-chief of the armed forces) inspire little confidence that this will change.

One example of how the military has systematically rejected civilian control is the legal arena. Despite the enactment of the Military Disciplinary Law in 2014, the legal system is still unable to bring military personnel that have violated criminal law or committed civil offences to trial in the civil courts. Members of the armed forces thus still enjoy practical impunity as even severe human rights abuses are rarely prosecuted by the military courts. Now that the military is expanding its ‘military operations other than war’ through involvement in food security operations, the potential for more human rights violations is growing as soldiers face conflicts with local residents over the acquisition of land for cultivating.

The plight of local farmers from Ramunia in North Sumatra is a case in point. When members of the local military command attempted to use land for the cultivation of crops needed for the government program, they met with resistance from the local community. Soldiers responded with heavy-handed intimidation to secure the land but they were unable to silence the protesters. Since a first clash in March 2015, violence has re-erupted on several occasions, highlighting the repressive means employed by the army to push through its mandate. Throughout 2016, the people of Ramunia held several protests, as the TNI has not paid the full compensation for the land they had forcefully taken from the locals. The army responded with verbal and physical abuse towards the protesters but so far no member of the armed forces has been held accountable for these actions. 

Despite extensive media coverage of the case, the military’s reputation among Indonesians has barely suffered. On the contrary, opinion polls show that many Indonesians still regard the armed forces as one of the most trusted institutions in the country, trailing just behind the KPK (Corruption Eradication Commission). With this public support and the continued backing from President Jokowi for military involvement in non-military tasks, the TNI’s political influence looks set to increase even further in the near future.   

Emirza Adi Syailendra ( is a research analyst at the Indonesia program of the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies at Nanyang Technological University, Singapore.

Inside Indonesia 127: Jan-Mar 2017

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