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What Indonesia can learn from Thai military coup JAKARTA - Politics in new democracies like Thailand has always sprung surprises. While Prime Minister Thaksin Sinawatra visited New York for the United Nations General Assembly, Thai army chief Gen. Sonthi Boonyaratglin led a bloodless coup and declared himself the temporary prime minister. It is interesting to observe that the coup did not spark social unrest, as if it were business as usual. On top of that, the tacit endorsement of revered King Bhumibol Adulyadej was a crucial factor behind the smooth process of the coup.

The absence of any significant resistance against the military indicates that the Thai people, especially those in urban areas, may accept the coup as a necessary evil so that the nation can free itself from the protracted political deadlock under Thaksin. Despite his declining legitimacy in the eyes of the opposition groups, Thaksin had survived and strengthened his power. Thaksin is particularly popular in rural areas because of his welfare policies for Thai farmers and other low-income groups in society.

As far as the role of the military in politics is concerned, there are some similarities between Thailand and Indonesia. First, before embracing democracy the two nations went through a period in which the military played a dominant role in politics. Second, like in many other countries, the army generals in Thailand and Indonesia have perceived themselves as the vanguard of national unity and the savior of the nation in times of political deadlock. Third, the immaturity of the civilian leaders in both countries can be manipulated by the military to justify their return to politics. Finally, both the Thai and Indonesian constitutional systems explicitly promote the principle of civilian supremacy and prohibit the military from intervening in politics.

At present, a military coup in Indonesia is quite unlikely. Such a move would be very unpopular and the current military leadership is extremely loyal to the President. Since his election, President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono has warned the military three times against being tempted to intervene in politics. Memories of what some army generals did during the periods of former presidents B.J. Habibie, Abdurrahman Wahid and Megawati Soekarnoputri may have caused Yudhoyono to keep his guard up.

The first warning came on the 60th anniversary of the Indonesian Military (TNI) on Oct. 5 last year. He repeated the warning when he inaugurated Air Marshal Djoko Suyanto as the new TNI commander in chief on Feb. 13, 2006. The third warning came on Sept. 20, 2006, during the closing ceremony of a meeting of TNI leaders. The third warning is particularly interesting because it was made just one day after the military coup in Thailand.

Thailand's experience provides evidence that having a democratic constitutional system is not an automatic guarantee the military will permanently stay out of politics. From a democratic point of view, the military coup in Thailand set a bad precedent. Who can guarantee that the practice will not recur in the future? When there is a chance and encouraged by certain political circumstances the military could find its way back to politics.

The discovery of weapons and ammunition at the house of the late Brig. Gen. Koesmayadi and other places recently created a lot of speculation about internal rivalry within the TNI. Thus, the situation remains volatile even when things look quiet from the outside. This is not to mention how military figures in the regions take advantage of sectarian conflicts to justify their presence and budget allocations. Although it is very difficult to come up with hard evidence, many people believe that some rogue elements in the military were involved in sectarian conflicts in Central Sulawesi and Maluku.

The military coup in Thailand has prompted political analysts to raise questions about the role of the military in the consolidation of new democracies in Southeast Asia. As far as Indonesia is concerned, there are some notes that are worth considering. First, President Yudhoyono himself is not yet fully convinced that Army generals will not be tempted to take part in political games for personal interests both at the national and regional levels.

Second, Indonesia has not established a definite mechanism for the rotation of the position of TNI commander in chief among the Army, Navy and Air Force. The final say depends on the personal preference of the President. The absence of such a mechanism could create possibilities of internal rivalry, which eventually may lead to a military coup. Gentleman's agreements should be made formal and binding so that future conflicts can be avoided.

Third, based on Thailand's experience, it is not only the constitutional system that actually prevents the army generals from intervening in politics, but also, and more importantly, their self-control and commitment to democracy and civilian supremacy.

Last but not least, the TNI today is at a critical juncture. TNI members are expected to maintain their morale and professionalism as genuine soldiers in the midst of adversities where they no longer enjoy the political and economic privileges their seniors or predecessors used to have. The government should feel obliged to find ways to improve their economic welfare. If not, one way or another, they will find their way back to politics.

Posted in Politics @ 05 October 2006 by Jeroen · 'Blog' RSS feed · permalink

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