Army, police ordered to 'stay neutral'

 Army, police ordered to 'stay neutral'
Indonesian students undergoing military reservist training urging the public to vote in the legislative elections. Recent reports of soldiers intimidating voters indicate just how tough a complete separation of the military from the political process remains.

Soldiers are barred from any involvement in politics in Indonesia, and do not have the right to vote.

But reports that elements of Indonesia's army have intimidated residents in Jakarta and other parts of Indonesia as the presidential election campaign begins have triggered concerns over what many see as a return to the authoritarian ways of the Suharto era.

In an incident widely reported in the Indonesian media on Friday, a man claiming to be an army non-commissioned officer visited a resident in a predominantly Chinese and Christian neighbourhood of the capital, saying he was assigned to survey voters and to persuade them to vote for former special forces commander Prabowo Subianto.

Prabowo campaign spokesman Tantowi Yahya decried such methods, saying: "We have nothing to do with it. It's not part of our strategy."

These reports come days after President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono warned soldiers and policemen, who also cannot vote, to remain neutral ahead of the July 9 election. But they also indicate just how tough a complete separation of the military from the political process remains, 15 years after reforms were enacted after the downfall of strongman Suharto.

The Election Supervisory Board (Bawaslu) and Indonesian Armed Forces (TNI) said they will investigate the reports, and TNI spokesman Major-General Fuad Basya said officers who support either of the presidential candidates will be punished.

Dr Yudhoyono, a former four-star general who helped shape military reform, said this week that he had received and verified information that some parties were seeking to attract high-ranking officers of the TNI and police to back one of the two tickets for the election.

"Moreover, they said there was no need to heed the President because that's a sinking ship, better to find a new ship that's sailing, a shining sun," he told close to 300 senior officers.

If they still wanted to canvass for either ticket, then they could step down and do so, he added sternly, saying the country cannot go back to the days where officers told residents who to vote for.

Observers note that although some 450,000 active TNI officers and 400,000 policemen cannot vote, their family members and neighbours can, and there are concerns they could be coerced to support a candidate.

Both Mr Prabowo and his opponent, Jakarta Governor Joko Widodo, have also roped in retired generals - who maintain networks among serving officers - to help their campaign teams.

Some of those allied against Mr Prabowo include his former superiors who recommended his discharge from service in 1998 for his involvement in the abduction of political activists. But Mr Prabowo has also retained considerable support among his peers and those lower down the ranks.

The soldier who approached residents in Jakarta claimed to be the village guidance officer, or Babinsa, and such officers' role involves gathering data and intelligence to pre-empt conflicts.

But the recent incidents have cast a question on their neutrality, said Mr Haris Azhar, coordinator for human rights group Kontras, which has found similar cases of coercion in Central and East Java.

He told The Straits Times: "It shows how the contest between retired generals has ruptured the separation of the military from politics."

One issue, he added, is that witnesses are often reluctant to speak out.

But Mr Kusnanto Anggoro of the Indonesian Defence University said the recent actions do not seem orchestrated by the campaign teams, but rather by overzealous supporters.

"This is not an intentional, by design, or well-planned strategy, but both sides benefit from the fragmented chain of command," he said.

"The practice on the ground appears to be: Do what you want, at your own risk. We will always deny any involvement, but if you are caught, you will be punished."

This article was first published on June 7, 2014.
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