Soldier punished for asking residents about their votes

Soldier punished for asking residents about their votes
File photo showing Indonesian students undergoing a military reservist training campaign in Jakarta on April 7, 2014, urging the public to vote in the April 9 legislative elections.

The Indonesian army has sentenced a corporal to 21 days' detention and suspended him from promotion for 18 months for asking voters in a central Jakarta neighbourhood who they would vote for.

His commander, an infantry captain, received a warning and a bar from promotion for six months, army information head Andika Perkasa said in a press statement yesterday.

However, he added that the corporal had no intention of telling residents how they should vote.

The punishments come three days after media reports said an army officer had allegedly persuaded a resident to vote for former special forces commander Prabowo Subianto as president, raising concerns about the neutrality of the Indonesian Armed Forces (TNI) - whose members cannot vote - ahead of the July 9 presidential election.

The TNI by law cannot be involved in politics, but observers are concerned that officers down the chain of command might abuse their authority to back a particular candidate and coerce others into doing so.

Shortly after the army statement was issued, TNI commander Moeldoko told a press conference that the TNI was fully committed to staying neutral in the election, adding: "I am accountable to God Almighty and the state, this is not just talk."

Election Supervisory Board (Bawaslu) member Nelson Simanjuntak told The Straits Times the punishments were appropriate and sent a strong signal to officers on the ground to stay in line. "Incidents like these give the wrong perception when there is already a high degree of suspicion among the public about the TNI's neutrality," he said.

Brigadier-General Andika said the army chief, General Budiman, had instructed the commander of the military command covering greater Jakarta to investigate the alleged infractions shortly after they were reported by the website of major newspaper Kompas on Thursday.

The news report cited a resident as saying that the soldier deployed as a village guidance officer, or Babinsa, had implied who he should vote for. Such officers are assigned to neighbourhoods to gather data and intelligence to pre-empt conflicts.

Brig-Gen Andika said its investigation found that First Corporal Rusfandi was indeed in the wrong for approaching residents to gather data on their preferences for the election. But the corporal had no intention of intimidating the resident into electing a particular candidate, he said.

"The army leadership never gave instructions to collect data on voter preferences... Corporal Rusfandi's actions were his own initiative and caused by his lack of knowledge of his duties."

The corporal's supervisor, Captain Saliman, was also found at fault for not having briefed the soldier adequately and for not putting a stop to his data collection.

General Moeldoko yesterday invited residents to photograph rogue soldiers who allegedly campaign for either side and to report them.

Mr Prabowo's team said it did not deploy serving officers to canvas for votes, but members of presidential candidate Joko Widodo's campaign team called for a withdrawal of Babinsa officers from neighbourhoods until the July 9 election, citing reports of soldiers intimidating residents in other provinces.

But Gen Moeldoko indicated that this was not likely to happen. "Babinsa are human, not ghosts we should fear," he said.

This article was first published on June 9, 2014.
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