Feb 26, 2024 Last Updated 12:52 AM, Feb 22, 2024

Security Disorders

Douglas Kammen

Indonesia is presently faced with large-scale conflicts in the regions of Aceh, West Papua, Ambon, and Central Sulawesi. The basic remedy of successive governments in the post-Suharto period has been to send more troops to these regions. There has been a steady and dramatic rise in the number of troops deployed since 1998. These additional troops have not ended the conflicts. In fact, they have set in motion a dangerous dynamic in which the military finds itself incapable of doing anything but sending more and more troops.

The Indonesian army is organised on the basis of a territorial structure. Paralleling the civilian bureaucracy, this structure extends from the twelve regional military commands down to the village-level babinsa. It serves as the army's instrument for policing society. Troops within the structure are intended to be strongly rooted to their area and are thus referred to as 'organic' troops. If a violent conflict within a region becomes too large for them to handle, the military high command in Jakarta dispatches what are called 'non-organic' troops from other territorial commands or combat troops from the army's Strategic Reserves (Kostrad) and Special Forces (Kopassus)

In responding to the armed movements for independence in Aceh and West Papua and the Christian-Muslim violence in Ambon, Central Kalimantan, and Central Sulawesi, the military has relied on the deployment of 'non-organic' and Kostrad troops. Indeed, the military seems to have no other strategy.


Since the fall of President Suharto in 1998 the military has sharply increased the number of troops deployed from all service branches (the army, air force, navy, and police). I will consider only army deployments in this essay since they constitute the vast bulk of the troops.

In 1998, in addition to the territorial units already in conflict zones, the army deployed at least 28 additional battalions to East Timor, Aceh and Papua. Non-organic troops were predominant in East Timor and Aceh while Kostrad troops were predominant in Papua.

In 1999, deployment increased to at least 29 battalions. While the number of troops in East Timor remained roughly the same as the previous year, it dropped in both Aceh and Papua and increased in Ambon in response to the outbreak of communal violence there.

In 2000, troop deployment further increased to at least 40 battalions. That increase took place despite the commitment of President Wahid, who took office in October 1999, to find negotiated solutions to separatism and ethnic-religious conflict. Those 40 battalions represented nearly one third of total Army troop strength. Remarkably, the Moluccan islands received the greatest number (15 non-organic and 4 Kostrad battalions), followed by Aceh (7 non-organic battalions), Papua (7 Kostrad battalions), West Timor (2 non-organic and 4 Kostrad battalions), and Poso (3 non-organic battalions).

The following year, 2001, at least 57 battalions were deployed to handle regional violence. This included a sharp increase in Aceh (8 non-organic and 6 Kostrad battalions), a modest increase in West Timor (5 non-organic and 3 Kostrad battalions), a significant decrease in Papua (2 non-organic and 3 Kostrad battalions), a larger increase in Ambon (21 non-organic battalions but only 1 Kostrad battalion), as well as stable numbers in Poso (3 non-organic battalions) and new deployments to Central Kalimantan (3 non-organic and 2 Kostrad battalions).

With improvements in Poso, Central Kalimantan, and Papua, the total number of battalions deployed in 2002 has dropped to 44. This includes 14 non-organic and 3 Kostrad battalions in Ambon and 13 non-organic and 8 Kostrad battalions in Aceh, and lower levels in West Timor and Papua.

In viewing the army's deployments, it is clear that the military's strategy to handle regional conflicts has been to throw more and more troops at them. In the four years from 1998 to 2001, the number of non-territorial battalions sent to conflict areas jumped from 28 to 57. Counting territorial troops as well as non-organic and Kostrad battalions, more than half of the Army's battalions are now bogged down in Aceh, Papua, Ambon, and along the border with East Timor. Still other units are on alert for the return of the Islamic organisation Laskar Jihad from Ambon to East Java and the safeguarding of Bali in the wake of the 12 October bombing. Other battalions have been confined to barracks because of disciplinary infractions. Escalation is reaching its limits.

A vicious cycle

The experience of the past four years suggests that the military now finds itself caught in a vicious cycle of escalation and deescalation. The logic works something like this. When regional violence increases, the military responds by sending more external troops to the region. But given the competing chains of command, the poor training of troops, the military's own deeply entrenched business interests, and the ambiguous mission assigned to the troops ('restore order'), escalation invariably leads to atrocities. When atrocities occur, civilian and military elites frequently respond by reducing the number of external troops. But this reduction creates a situation conducive to new atrocities either by the military or the local combatants. Then the cycle begins again.

Let us look more closely at this cycle of escalation-atrocity-deescalation-atrocity-reescalation. In Aceh, there was a deescalation in August 1998 when President Habibie ordered the withdrawal of external troops. In the months that followed, the remaining troops committed a series of massacres, perhaps to impress upon the Acehnese that the withdrawal did not signal a weakening of the military's resolve. The Bantaqiah massacre of July 1999, in which soldiers shot and killed 71 civilians, was the most brazen atrocity during this wave of repression. The reescalation was not immediate. President Wahid attempted to prevent the military from reescalating but he was finally forced to back down.

The reescalation in Aceh began with the creation of a new Operations Implementation Command (Komando Pelaksanaan Operasi, abbreviated Kolakops) in early 2001. Deployments of external troops began soaring. The military elite viewed the creation of Kolakops as a necessary means of ensuring that there was a single chain of command to oversee both the territorial military apparatus and external troops. A year later Kolakops was replaced by the Iskandar Muda Regional Military Command.

The same cycle can be seen in Ambon. After the first outbreak of violence in early 1999, the government began sending large numbers of external troops there. To deal with the incoming troops, the military reestablished the Pattimura Regional Military Command in May 1999. Its task was to coordinate the activities of the territorial military units and the increasing number of external troops. After a number of atrocities, the army in 2001 reduced the number of battalions from Kostrad and East Java which were seen to be siding with the Muslim population. But this change in troop deployments did not reduce the conflict. The separatist organisation, the Republik Maluku Selatan (RMS), issued a militant declaration in early 2002 which led to a new massacre of civilians. And so, as was the case in Aceh, the military responded by sending more troops and establishing yet another command, the Restoration of Security Operation Command (Komando Operasi Pemulihan Keamanan).

Strangely, the majority of battalions deployed to Ambon over the past two years have been artillery, engineering, and cavalry battalions, rather than regular infantry battalions. According to sources in Ambon, these battalions have been utilised because the army is short-handed. These units resent being posted as peace-keepers, something for which they were not trained. But that does not mean that they have neglected their own specialisations: sources report that both the Christian and Muslim communities have gained much of their expertise in assembling bombs and weapons from the artillery units on duty in Ambon.

As for Papua, the cycle has not yet run its full course there. While the first several stages have been evident in Papua, the military has thus far not sought to reescalate. Perhaps the generals in Jakarta fear that any attempt to assert centralised military control over Papua would result in increased tensions between the well-entrenched Special Forces and non-organic or Kostrad units.

This trajectory of escalation-atrocity-deescalation-atrocity-reescalation in Aceh, Ambon, and Papua is all too reminiscent of the last decade of Indonesian rule in East Timor. Lacking alternative means for resolving the root causes of conflict, military deescalation invariably leads to new atrocities by either the military or the local insurgents. The subsequent renewal of violence only seems to confirm the view - one held not only by the military but also by many civilian elites - that the military is the only institution capable of containing violence, and hence of preserving Indonesian unity. And thus escalation begins once again.

Civil-military relations

The steady rise in military deployments within Indonesia since May 1998 has led many observers to conclude that the military has new designs on political power. It is undoubtedly true that the military is in a stronger political position today than at any time over the past two decades (including the late Suharto era!), but this does not necessarily mean that the military is scheming to seize state power.

Rather, the dramatic increase in troop deployments reflects the failure of civilian elites to assert their supremacy over the military and to offer non-military solutions to the country's pressing regional problems. The civilian elites have been relying on the military to find solutions to the conflicts in Aceh, Papua, Ambon, and Poso. But passing the buck will not end the violence.

Inside Indonesia 73: Jan - Mar 2003

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