Soldiers at an Indonesian special forces training facility in Bandung, West Java. Photo by Dispenau for Antara.

As President Joko Widodo’s administration comes to an end, the government is once again considering revising the Indonesian National Military (TNI) Law. The same discussions appeared at the end of President Joko Widodo’s first term and have become a regular news headline.

However, this time the government looks set to press ahead with controversial revisions. The current draft suggests the government plans to make changes to two articles in the TNI Law. The first builds on changes to the Civil Service Law made last year that allows civilian posts to be occupied by active military personnel.  The second increases the military retirement age.

These developments have led to fresh questions about the government’s commitment to pursuing its security sector reform agenda. The dual civil-military function of TNI was a hallmark of Soeharto’s authoritarian rule throughout the New Order period. For this reason, the development of military politics in Indonesia – through the deliberate involvement of the military in the allocation and exercise of power – is considered by many to be a threat to democracy and civil society.

The current draft revision

In the latest draft, the government expands the number of civilian posts that can be occupied by active military personnel. The draft article remains vague – it does not specifically define what positions can be filled by active TNI personnel and is made worse by the excessive authority given to the President to make these decisions. Article 47 of the draft gives the president the discretion to appoint active military personnel to a number of civilian positions.

In addition, the government plans to extend the retirement age of TNI personnel from 58 to 60 for officers and 53 to 58 for enlisted personnel. The revisions may also pave the way for some TNI personnel to serve until the age of 65, and the TNI commander and chief of staff to have their service period extended for two terms.

Two justifications for the revision of the retirement age of TNI personnel have been presented to the public. The first is the need for the TNI retirement age to match the retirement age of national police personnel. The second claims the current retirement age is too low and an inefficient use of skilled personnel.

Both are weak justifications given the current surplus of middle and high-ranking officers within TNI. This suggests the main problem is actually TNI management itself. Poor management and workforce planning have meant a large number of TNI personnel currently have ‘non-jobs’, that is, do not have a functional role. Increasing the retirement age will only exacerbate these pressures over the long run.

The TNI personnel surplus is a longstanding structural problem. The government has tried to accommodate excess personnel in a number of ways, including establishing the Defence University, creating new roles and growing the TNI’s organisational structure by adding new military regional commands – one for each province in Indonesia.

Rolling out the red carpet for TNI

So why is the Indonesian government so hell-bent on expanding the scale and authority of the TNI?

The revision stems, at least in part, from the military’s outsized influence and popularity in Indonesia.

In the Indonesian context, military personnel are seen as versatile problem solvers. For people who grew up under Soeharto’s New Order, TNI’s involvement in socio-political life was presented as a necessity and a natural fact of life. At first, TNI had a limited role in non-military activities, however, due to the pressures of internal crises throughout the New Order, TNI gradually expanded its role and became more influential in national politics.

This fatalistic acceptance of the military’s involvement in domestic affairs continues unconsciously today.

Despite its very chequered past, especially in regards to human rights, TNI has maintained consistently high levels of public trust since the beginning of President Joko Widodo’s administration. These high levels stem from perceptions of the military as a prestigious and disciplined institution.

This contrasts strongly against the public’s disappointment in other civilian institutions and political figures.

Dual function is a threat to democracy

But while many Indonesians may be happy to see the military take on a bigger role, proponents of democracy do not agree. They are adamant the creeping role of the military in civilian life urgently needs to be limited.

Military participation in civilian affairs can have serious consequences for how institutions are managed and perform. Studies from the US have shown the appointment of retired military personnel to civilian posts can weaken civilian control over the military.  Civilian appointments in the US have coincided with a decline in the transparency of military activities in recent years.

This is why many democracies have strict rules about placing military personnel into civilian positions. An example from the US is the Under Secretary of Defense for Policy (USDP), the principal advisor to the Secretary (minister) and Deputy Secretary of Defense. This position can only be filled by a civilian.  Military personnel must be retired from active duty for a minimum of seven years before they become eligible for any of these positions.

Indonesia needs to address the root cause of TNI’s workforce planning challenges

The Indonesian government must authorise an in-depth independent review before making potentially harmful revisions to the TNI law. This should involve a review of internal processes and data and wide-spread consultation to ascertain the root causes of TNI’s workforce planning challenges.

Dual function and retirement age reforms are not the answer. If the government is committed to pursuing a security sector reform agenda, its efforts would be better directed to addressing more pressing issues, like how to stem the rising influence of the military in Indonesian politics.

In the end, what Indonesia ultimately needs is demilitarisation, and a government that is focused on improving the professionalism of TNI and its personnel.


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