Indonesian president breaks tradition in picking new military chief

JAKARTA - Indonesian President Joko Widodo has picked the army chief of staff to lead the military, a presidential palace spokesman said on Wednesday, breaking with a reform-era tradition of rotating the position between the branches of the armed forces.

The head of the air force was expected to take command of the military after the current chief, General Moeldoko, also from the army, retires on Aug. 1.

Widodo's decision to promote General Gatot Nurmantyo is likely to cement the army's traditionally dominant role and inflame long-standing rivalry within the armed forces, analysts say.

"It was supposed to be the air force's turn so they will be unhappy campers because of this decision," said defence analyst Yohanes Suleiman.

"It's a way for the army to make sure they stay relevant as Jokowi beefs up the navy and air force to pursue his maritime goals," he said, referring to the president by his nickname.

The military has a long history of involvement in politics in Indonesia and was only squeezed out of the political arena after the fall in 1998 of authoritarian ruler General Suharto.

Presidential spokesman Teten Masduki defended the choice of military chief, which was submitted to parliament for approval on Tuesday, saying it was not necessary to stick to tradition.

"As commander in chief, the president has the authority to appoint the military head with parliamentary approval," Masduki said in a statement.

"He chose Nurmantyo because of the belief that he can strengthen the military to deal with geopolitical and regional geo-strategic changes."

The decision to allow the army to remain at the helm comes on the heels of contentious moves to allow military personnel to get involved in civilian affairs such as counter-terrorism and anti-narcotics operations.

US ally Indonesia is not directly involved in disputes over rival claims in the South China Sea and has traditionally seen itself as an "honest broker" between China and several Southeast Asian countries.

But as a result of the tension in the region, Indonesia plans to upgrade its military forces in areas of the South China Sea near China's claims.