The Bela Negara program aims to recruit 100 million militant cadres over the next 10 years. Photo by Ministry of Defence.

The Bela Negara program aims to recruit 100 million citizens over the next 10 years. Photo by Ministry of Defence.


State Defence Day (Hari Bela Negara) commemorates the Indonesian response to the Dutch attack on Indonesia’s Republican government in Yogyakarta on 19 December 1948. Although former President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono established the event, Joko Widodo’s administration has shown even greater enthusiasm for State Defence, with Defence Minister Ryamizard Ryacudu leading the charge.


Ryamizard’s ministry has established the Bela Negara program, which aims to inspire a love for the homeland and protect it from “extreme ideologies” and “influences”, such as communism, radicalism, and homosexuality. Ryamizard argues that the program has its basis in Articles 27(3) and 30(1) of the 1945 Constitution, which state that citizens have “the right and duty to participate in defending the nation”. But is Bela Negara really about strengthening nationalism, or is it just another attempt to introduce compulsory military service, which the army has unsuccessfully tried to do for years?


The ministry has pushed similar concepts back as far as 2003, when it tried to have compulsory military service included in the 2004 Law on the Indonesian Military (TNI). It again proposed military service in a bill on defence force reserves in 2006. Yet the ministry failed to answer the basic question of why Indonesia needed such a program. The 2003 Defence White Paper – which supposedly informed the bill – emphasised that the chances of Indonesia facing military aggression from another country were slim.


A fierce civil society campaign against the bill saw it dropped by the national legislature. The next white paper, released by the Defence Ministry in 2008, made only brief mention of Bela Negara, but included plans to form a reserve battalion in each district and municipality by 2029.


Although these efforts were not successful, the Ministry of Defence revisited the issue of defence force reserves, and Bela Negara, in its 2015 White Paper, released to the public in May 2016. For the first time, the ministry was honest in stating that its reserves would be mobilised in the face of any military threat. It said the reserve program would only begin after a specific law on defence reserves is passed. But in the meantime it has Bela Negara.


Bela Negara aims to recruit 100 million militant cadres across the nation over the next 10 years. It will consist of two components: a general program for citizens who have not had prior training, and a special refresher or advanced program for people who have already been trained, to allow them to reach national defence standard. The program will be compulsory for all Indonesians under 50 years old. In October last year, Ryamizard officially launched Bela Negara in Jakarta, and this was followed by activities in 47 districts and cities, in 11 military districts (kodim). The training program involved paramilitary activities like marching, instructions on how to use a weapon, and ideology lessons. According to the media, several civil servant participants have died during training.


Lay observers could be excused for assuming the program was a form of military service. But in a defensive press release, the Defence Ministry denied that Bela Negara was a form of militarisation. Ryamizard has repeatedly argued that the program is about “national character building” in the face of multidimensional threats that endanger state sovereignty, integrity, and safety. But even if it is not a formal military service program, there is no doubt that it aims to cultivate a military mindset.


Involving civilians in defence matters through the Bela Negara program is consistent with Indonesian national defence doctrine, the Total People’s Defence and Security System (Sistem Pertahanan Keamanan Rakyat Semesta). This is enshrined in the Constitution, and was born out of Indonesia’s experiences during the war of independence. It describes the potential of all citizens to be involved in fighting the enemy and as such blurs the lines between the military and the people in armed resistance. This unity between the army and the people (kemanunggalan) against Dutch aggression is a concept that the military continues to maintain to this day.


Rather than simply promoting nationalistic values, Bela Negara also appears designed to strengthen Indonesia’s national defence forces, in particular the army. Participants are encouraged to accept militarism and blindly follow orders from military superiors. This subordination will be embedded in the civilian population, and the military will have a proxy army at its fingertips. This is not a new approach. Throughout Indonesian history, the military has recruited, trained and supported civilian groups to do its dirty work. Proxy armies of civilians or state-sponsored militia were commonly used during internal armed conflicts, and were the source of many human rights violations. The military used proxies during the Indonesian occupation of East Timor and the period of martial law in Aceh, for example, with disastrous consequences in both cases.


There is a significant risk that the selection of Bela Negara participants will give rise to future human rights violations. Ryamizard has offered Bela Negara as the solution to the “reawakening” of communism and commented that communists who were killed in 1965 deserved to die. Following the recent national symposium on the 1965 violence, Bela Negara participants and conservative Islamic groups marched together to the Presidential Palace to condemn the resurgence of communism. Indonesia observed the unusual sight of former army generals collaborating with hard-line Islamic groups notorious for their rejection of core principles of the state ideology, Pancasila. In Bali, meanwhile, Reuters reported that Kodam IX/Udayana was providing training to local thugs and gangsters. The coordinating minister for political, legal and security affairs, Luhut Panjaitan, responded by saying that training gangsters was a step too far.


Over the past few months, the military has been highly effective in whipping up fear of nebulous and shapeless threats, which has helped to gain further support for militarisation. Ryamizard and Military Chief Gatot Nurmantyo often use the term “proxy war” to describe threats posed to the Indonesian population by foreign ideologies and social change, for example, the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender “movement”. This echoes the language used by the military under the New Order. Although many civilians may not recognise it, the military uses this language to enter the political arena, stepping in to offer “solutions” to social problems.


Although we have not seen a return to the dual function (dwifungsi) of the military as practiced during the Soeharto years, the military is making its presence more felt in other areas. Under President Joko Widodo there has been much more room for the military to enter activities unrelated to military duties, such as non-commissioned officers (babinsa) helping in rice cultivation, and formal agreements being made between some ministries and the military. Even cabinet ministers have appeared in militaristic uniforms, complete with berets and commander batons, despite being civilians who have nothing to do with defence policy.


The Bela Negara program is more about military politics rather than any effort to establish a national defence system. The Constitution might describe the right of citizens to participate in national defence, but it also describes many other fundamental rights that the military seems happy to ignore. The program has reportedly consumed Rp 45 billion (about $4.5 million) of the state budget. This money would be much better spent on improving the professionalism of the Indonesian military or purchasing more modern equipment or weapons.


In fact, it was technology, not brute force, that allowed the Republic to survive the attack on Yogyakarta that is now remembered as State Defence Day. Before surrendering to the Dutch, senior Indonesian leaders sent a telegram to a minister in Sumatra, asking him to establish the Emergency Government of the Republic of Indonesia (PDRI). The PDRI defended Indonesian independence and countered Dutch propaganda that Republic was no more. It is a lesson that the Defence Ministry would do well to remember.



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