Former Indonesian Defense Minister Speaks Out, Part One


Categorie: Asia, Sam Abrams, Sam in Indonesia |

Juwono Sudarsono served as Minister for Defense under President Abdurrahman Wahid from 1999 to 2000; ambassador to the United Kingdom under President Megawati Soekarnoputri in 2003 and 2004; and Minister for Defense under President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono from 2004-2009. Sam Abrams spoke to him in Jakarta in January.

Juwono Sudarsono. Viva News photo.


WIB: Can you talk about the intellectual foundations of the Indonesian army?

Sudarsono: I think the underlying theme is that rising from the revolutionary ethos in the ’40s when, as with the Vietnamese and the Algerians, there was a strong affinity to define the role of the army as encompassing both state and society. And total defense in that sense was in a sense influenced by the doctrines of Mao Tse-tung and the Vietnamese revolution and also paralleled the Algerian revolution in the ’50s and ’60s.

I think the essence is the belief in mind being the motivation and pull can overcome matter. But it also defined a sense of the army and the guerilla movement being as a precursor of nation-building, transcending a specific religion as well as provincial identity. Because the People’s Army, the People’s Defense, in the ’40s came absolutely [from the] mainstream [as opposed to] Islamic, Christian, [or] rather secular movements including student brigades in the late ’40s.

I think they established in 1952, [the] modern-day soldier’s oaths, [which] was that the soldiers had to defend the identity of the state, which is [inaudible] and they gave the notion of the army as being in the forefront of nation-building and also of state-building. It was important because there were still debates about what was the basis of state identity in Indonesia.

WIB: In other words, the nation?

Sudarsono : Yes. Was the state identity based on a single religion, Islam, as had been told by some Islamic parties or does it transcend Islam?  But it created a sense of “Indonesian-ness” based on the cultural blend, the amalgamation of all religions, all civilizations. And since there were also Christians, Catholics and Buddhists who participated in the guerilla movement, the army saw itself as a defender of state identity, based on this notion that although we are an Islamic majority country, we are not an Islamic state. Muslim majority, yes, but not Islamic state, that’s important up to today because then, as now, we are the largest Islamic country, but we are not an Islamic state. It’s like the notion of being American, the meat of being American. Immigration nation, bringing them together as a common destiny.

WIB: Thinking about today, how do these foundations relate to Indonesia’s current strategic priorities?

Sudarsono: Right now, first is to defend the notion of Indonesia as basically non-secular but non-religious based, which is something in-between. Officer corps of the army in particular still sees as the main mission to maintain state identity and to preempt any moves moving towards an Islamic state or an outside communist, socialist secular state. We’d probably call it extreme right, extreme left.

There’s a strong emphasis now on the war on poverty, the war on corruption and the war on the iniquities of wealth. Poverty itself does not necessarily lead to violence but the existence of past poverty can create conditions to justify minority groups to act on their behalf in manipulating verses of the Koran.

In my talks with [U.S.] Secretary [of Defense Robert] Gates in 2006 [and] 2007, I explained Indonesian-ness, the goal of the army and the importance that [the] United States provides this assistance on tap, not on talk. Do not insist that we apprehend and attack Islamic groups, but provide us with technical support. It’s better to provide us with tacit, on-tap support, rather than on-top insistence on your part.

WIB: Can you talk a little bit about civilians and strategy?

Sudarsono: Basically the other side of the coin, of preceding military rule, is the expected rule of civil incompetence.  That’s not happening.  That’s my main disappointment in my colleagues, from political parties, from the NGOs, from the civil society including from media. Over the past 10 years, I’ve always called for my colleagues to get real and get started on consolidating political organizations. That has not happened. That’s my main disappointment.

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