Security Apparatus Rifts Threaten Indonesian Stability
October 7, 1999
The ongoing sectarian violence in Indonesia’s Ambon has claimed over 15 lives since Oct. 3. Reports suggest that the
latest violence was triggered and sustained by factionalism among security forces. Ever widening splits between factions
in the military and police are contributing to the tensions. Since Indonesia relies on the security apparatus to provide
the unifying force necessary to maintain cohesion, especially in this time of political transition, a loss of that unity
could seriously threaten Indonesian stability.
At least 16 people have been killed and over 75 injured since Oct. 3, in the most recent outbreak of Muslim-Christian
violence in Indonesia’s Ambon. Included among the dead was at least one combat engineer shot in the head, reportedly by
either a long-range sniper rifle or an automatic weapon. Maj. Gen. Suaidy Marasabessy, head of the Indonesian Military
(TNI) task force in the Ambon, suggested that military or police had been involved in the shootings. He said in the
Jakarta Post, "All the victims died of gunshots to their heads. Only trained shooters could do that."
The suggestion that the soldiers were shot by other members of the security apparatus is not in itself surprising.
Splits among factions in the military, as well as tensions between the military and the police have been apparent for
some time. In September 1998, army cavalry troops attacked a police barracks in West Kalimantan, leaving at least nine
injuries and three unconfirmed deaths. However, institutional differences haven’t only been revealed by violence.
Prior to April 1999, the TNI and the Police (Polri) were a single entity, the Armed Forces of Indonesia (ABRI).
Following the downfall of former President Suharto, a plan was contrived for the gradual separation of the TNI and
Polri, allowing both to focus on individual security roles. Despite the official distancing, there are signs that the
tensions between the forces remain high.
In East Timor, following the independence referendum but prior to the arrival of the International Force for East Timor
(INTERFET), reports indicated that Polri units were being forced by the TNI to participate in – or at least ignore –
assaults on pro-independence supporters in the province. While it is likely that some elements of Polri were involved
willingly, it is apparent that institutional tensions remain.
In addition to the divisions between the TNI and the Polri, there are splits and factions within the TNI itself. In
Ambon, Christian representatives are calling for all members of the security apparatus to leave, with the exception of
marines, who are part of the TNI. This was in part triggered by allegations that military-backed militia or members of
the Police Elite Mobile Brigade (Brimob) were siding with or even leading the Muslims in their attacks on Christian
homes and buildings. The marines, on the other hand, were siding with the Christians.
The Indonesian marines have traditionally been seen as more sympathetic to the people than either the Polri or the rest
of the TNI. This has also applied to the navy, such as when several retired officers joined together as early backers of
the Indonesian Democratic Struggle Party (PDI-P). The TNI, then, aside from working to redefine its relation with Polri,
is also faced with an ongoing split among its own ranks.
This poses a particular problem for Indonesia. With the government in a state of transition, and no obvious strong
leader for the nation to rally around, the armed forces remain the one institution offering a cross-regional and
cross-cultural stabilizing force. Now even this could be jeopardized, as the military and police have so far been unable
to reconcile their differences and as military factions back different political agendas.
The Indonesian presidential election is two weeks away, and there is still no clear favorite, though Muslim candidate
Abdurrahman Wahid seems the most likely choice. However, PDI-P candidate Megawati Sukarnoputri, who claims to have the
people’s mandate, has suggested that she and her party will walk out of parliament if she isn’t given the presidency.
Further, PDI-P has suggested it will take its case back to the street.
Coupled with the ongoing student demonstrations, the next few weeks promise to test the ability of the military to
remain a cohesive force for the unity of Indonesia. The shootings in Ambon and the potential for split political
allegiance among military factions do not bode well for Indonesia’s future.