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The structure of military abuse

Published: Jul 30, 2007

Are the military lying when they say a Military Operations Area never existed in Aceh? Yes and no.

Bambang Widjajanto & Douglas Kammen

Since Suharto's fall from power, the political role of the Indonesian military has been an ongoing topic of debate in Indonesia. In recent months these debates have intensified. Pressured over the ongoing violence in Aceh, in November the national parliament questioned several senior officers about the existence of a Military Operations Area and the atrocities committed there during the 1990s. In December, the National Human Rights Commission questioned a host of officers about human rights abuses committed in East Timor both before and after the August referendum. In the face of continuing violence in the Moluccas there have been calls for a declaration of martial law. And in January Jakarta was abuzz with rumours about a military coup.

In the course of these debates about the military's past and present political role, a number of issues have been widely misunderstood, none more so than the so-called Military Operations Areas, known by the acronym DOM. For this reason, it is useful to clarify the status of military operations, the legal status of the 'troubled' (rawan) provinces during the New Order, and now the prospect of martial law as a mechanism for responding to the worrisome tide of new regional violence.


During the 1950s the young republic was threatened by a series of regional rebellions on Java, Sumatra, and Sulawesi. The state sought a legal basis on which to respond, particularly by building on the Dutch-era 'state of war' law, the Regeling op de Staat van Oorlog en van Beleg, commonly known as SOB.

The first such step was taken in 1950 when the SOB was replaced by new government regulations (Perpem No. 7 1950) and emergency laws (UU Darurat No. 8 1950). These, however, were soon considered to be legally inconsistent, and four years later were replaced by a new law on military powers (PP No. 55 1954). In 1957, SOB and its successors were withdrawn and replaced by another new law on 'state of danger' (keadaan bahaya) and 'state of war' (keadaan perang) (UU NO. 74 1957).

These measures were adopted for two reasons. First, in the context of repeated constitutional change, it was deemed necessary to coordinate the legal status of military powers with the constitution. Second, and of greater importance, these legal changes were understood as being necessary for the state to combat regional rebellions. At the same time, of course, regional military commanders exploited these new laws to increase their political authority vis--vis civilian officials and the political parties.

The changes culminated in 1959 when the authorities adopted law No. 23 on the 'state of danger' (keadaan bahaya). This law distinguished between three distinct conditions: civil emergency, military emergency, and state of war. As the supreme commander of the armed forces, the president was empowered with the legal authority to declare any of these emergency conditions in all or part of the country.

The state had been created via legitimate means. During the early years of the republic the use of special military powers was legally suspect. For that reason, new laws were required to accommodate military authority.

For the New Order, however, the opposite was the case. Established through the illegitimate seizure of power and amid anti-communist massacres, new legal measures were never adopted to accommodate increased military authority or operations. While Law No. 23 1959 concerning the 'state of danger' was still in force, Suharto's military regime did not seek a legal basis for its military actions. For the new regime, the issue had become one of legitimating the status of civil and political rule, not that of military force. This was done first via the mysterious Letter of March 11 (Supersemar), then in 1967 by formally appointing Suharto as president of the republic.

After coming to power, the Suharto regime faced (and, more often than not, created) a number of regional rebellions. The first of these involved military operations in Java and West Kalimantan against communist sympathisers. Additional regional troubles were the result of military occupation and forcible 'integration' -- first in Irian Jaya and then in East Timor. Still further regional problems emerged in Aceh, where Jakarta's rapacious attitude towards the province's natural resources fuelled resentment, and soon armed resistance.

The last three of these provinces -- Irian Jaya, East Timor and Aceh -- are commonly referred to as 'daerah rawan,' or troubled provinces. The New Order responded to these rebellions with brutal military operations characterised by the use of torture, rape and murder.


Over the past year there has been extensive discussion about the Military Operations Areas (DOM) long said to apply in these three provinces. Late last year a number of generals, both retired and on active duty, were questioned by parliament about the alleged DOM in Aceh. All firmly denied its existence. NGO and human rights activists were outraged at what they took to be blatant lying.

Popular understanding of what exactly constitutes a DOM varies widely, however. Some view DOM as a military command, others see it as a military operation, and still others believe that it is a legal status. But in contrast to its predecessor, the New Order regime was never concerned about the legal status of military operations or military authority in Irian Jaya, East Timor or Aceh. The military has its own names for combat commands, of which DOM is not one. DOM, in fact, never did exist, in Aceh or anywhere else. For this reason, the generals' responses were technically honest and correct, though deceitful for not providing proper clarification on the status of military operations.

While DOM never existed, the military of course did have combat commands and conduct military operations in a number of provinces. In East Timor the military had what it called the Operations Implementation Command for East Timor (Kolakops Timor Timur), and in Aceh the Red Net Operations Implementation Command (Kolakops Jaring Merah). Under these were one or more combat sectors responsible for local combat operations. Curiously, no Kolakops was ever established in Irian Jaya, though there are to this day several combat sectors.

The experience in East Timor illustrates the changes in the structure of these military commands during the late New Order. In response to the Santa Cruz massacre, in 1993 the Kolakops command in East Timor was formally abolished. This, however, was a purely cosmetic change, for the two combat sectors (A and B) were maintained. Further changes were made in 1995-96 when these combat sectors were taken over by the Special Forces (Kopassus), then under the command of Brig-Gen Prabowo Subianto, and run by special teams. In East Timor this special Kopassus team to run the combat sectors there was called Team Rajawali, while those in Aceh and Irian Jaya were called Tribuana Units.

It is therefore essential to distinguish between Military Operations Areas (DOM) and areas in which there are military operations. The former never existed, while the latter were in fact commonplace, found in Aceh, Lampung, West Kalimantan, East Java, East Timur, Irian Jaya, and most recently the Moluccas. This is not simply a question of semantics. For activists in Indonesia as well as abroad, improper identification of military structures and activities will facilitate evasion and denial on the part of those responsible.

Bambang Widjajanto ( is director of the Indonesian Legal Aid Foundation (YLBHI). Douglas Kammen ( is lecturer in political science at the University of Canterbury, New Zealand.

Inside Indonesia 62: Apr - Jun 2000

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