DUNCAN GRAHAM. Old soldiers don’t die – they just imagine

Historians and older Westerners know well what followed the 1933 events in Germany known as ‘the burning of the books.’ Few Indonesians are aware that the forceful Student Union campaign against literature which didn’t promote the ‘German spirit’, fomented fascism. They should because it’s happening in their young democracy and threatening its future.

Right-wing elements of the Indonesian military are on a mission to recapture the political power lost early this century under the Reformasi movement. 

They’re using several tactics; the latest is to cleanse the nation of writings which soldiers deem to be promoting Communism or don’t conform to the official line of what happened on 30 September 1965.

That night six generals and a lieutenant were murdered in Jakarta, allegedly by members of the Communist Party (PKI). A dreadful bloodletting followed with an estimated half million real or suspected party members slaughtered.

The upheaval felled founding President Soekarno and propelled General Soeharto into the Presidential Palace where he stayed for 32 years wielding absolute power by crushing all opposition. 

He also ruled through patronage, giving army cronies ambassadorships, company directorships, governorships and other perks. At one stage 75 seats of the Parliament’s then 360 were held by appointed members of the military. 

The Dwifungsi (two functions) policy entrenched the armed forces’ role in society, even giving low-ranks the right to barge through queues and demand instant service.

Soeharto quit in 1998 after student protests against his rule and corruption. Indonesia then went through its version of the Arab Spring, introducing democracy, direct election of the President, and freeing the press. 

The police became a separate civilian department charged with maintaining internal order. Previously it had been a branch of the army. 

There are now around 500,000 men and a few women in the armed forces, plus 400,000 reservists. The police also have about half-a million. Conscription is in the law but volunteers easily fill the ranks.

Before Reformasi the military saw itself as the exclusive custodian of the nation’s values, which it determined. Remnants of that age refuse to accept the world has spun into a new orbit and their place is the barracks. Key among them is the paranoid former Armed Forces Commander, General Gatot Nurmantyo.

He reckons Indonesia is threatened by ‘proxy wars’ involving foreign states, particularly the US and Australia. In his nightmare the allies are planning to invade West Papua. He reasons that’s why marines are rotated through Darwin under the 2014 Force Posture Agreement. 

Nurmantyo is also notorious for reportedly saying: ‘Our (Indonesia’s) democracy at the moment is populist and led by forces through means of a vote. The many are not necessarily right.’

In 2017 he suspended all military cooperation with Australia. His action, which appears to have been unilateral, came after a hyper-nationalist officer training at the Australian Special Forces base in Perth claimed lecturers were insulting the Republic. The scrub fire had to be hosed down at ministerial level.

Before Nurmantyo, 58, retired last year he was being tipped as a candidate for the presidency. That didn’t happen but he continues to get coverage with weird statements about conspiracies and returning Reds. They’re not under beds (the masses use mattresses on the floor), so they’re plotting in unnamed restaurants and dark rooms.

He’s backing another former general, Prabowo Subianto who’s standing against incumbent Joko ‘Jokowi’ Widodo; the official commander-in-chief has no military background. 

The book seizings appear to be illegal; in 2010 the Constitutional Court overthrew the censorship laws of Soeharto’s New Order government. 

The raids have only been condemned by civil rights groups and individuals brave enough to shrug off charges that they’re fellow travelers. Widodo, who has also joined the chorus of vigilantes, has been silent.

The print enemies sought by soldiers are few and hard to find. Occasionally there’s a wrinkled translation of Karl Marx, plus some speculative tracts by pseudonymous scribes. The most credible alternatives to the army’s version of history are coming from overseas scholars, written in English and rarely seen.

Last year Australian academic Dr Jess Melvin published her research founded on original army documents. Not for her the excuse that the massacres were spontaneous uprisings of pious Muslims outraged by godless Marxists.

The conclusions in her book The Army and the Indonesian Genocide are definitive: 

The military organised the mass killings and supplied the weapons. Soldiers arrested suspects and then gave them to armed mobs to torture and murder. 

The devil makes work for idle hands; the army now has little to do other than chase armed separatists in West Papua and help out in natural disasters; these strike regularly and brutally through earthquakes, tsunamis, landslips and floods. A few officers go overseas on peacekeeping, but the rest tend to be perpetually exercising – ready for the threats.

This month the respected newsweekly Tempo reported that the military wants changes to a 2004 law restricting retired officers to positions in a limited number of ministries and civil institutions.

Military chief Hadi Tjahjanto was reported saying about 500 middle and high-ranking officers heading for pensions wanted to get involved in civilian life. A curious request in the West, though not in Indonesia where the much-medalled expect sinecures to preserve their prestige.

So what can old soldiers do to ease their post-power pains but hanker for the good ol’ days and dream up menace? Authors are an easy target, though ironically few Indonesians buy books. This is hardly surprising as so many were banned during the Soeharto era.

Australian journalist Duncan Graham lives in East Java.

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