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Sigi attack prompts another tug of war over counterterrorism policy


In November 2020, the East Indonesia Mujahideen (MIT) killed four residents of Lembantongoa village in Sigi district, Central Sulawesi. The attack re-sparked debate on the role of the Indonesian military (TNI) in efforts to combat terrorism.

A presidential regulation (perpres) defining the rules of engagement for TNI should have been passed one year after the ratification of Law No. 5 of 2018 (which revised the 2003 Law on Eradication of Criminal Acts of Terrorism). But two-and-a-half years later, there is still little sign of the perpes being finalised.

One of the main reasons for the delay is the seemingly endless tug of war between, on the one hand, those concerned about the TNI’s involvement in counterterrorism, and, on the other, those willing to provide the military with a limited role in fighting terrorism, for example, because of its skills in jungle warfare.

Civil society versus TNI

Civil society organisations have been the most vocal opponents of the TNI’s involvement in counterterrorism. KontraS (The Commission for Missing Persons and Victims of Violence), for example, called on the administration of President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo to withdraw the draft perpres. Its chief concerns related to clauses about the oversized role for the military and sources of funding for its activities.

The draft perpres stipulates that the TNI will be granted roles in prevention, enforcement, and rehabilitation. This would create overlapping responsibilities with other agencies and undermine the effectiveness of counterterrorism efforts.

On funding, the draft stipulates that TNI would be able to use funds from regional budgets (APBD). This would place an additional financial burden on local governments. It would also conflict with Law No. 34 of 2004 on the TNI, which states that the military should only be able to use funds from the national budget (APBN).

KontraS further warned that given the process of military reform was unfinished, allowing the TNI to conduct counterterrorism operations could see it act with increased impunity, at the expense of human rights.

TNI rebutted these allegations. Brigadier General Edy Imran of TNI’s Legal Department (Babinkum TNI) said that the draft perpres did not seek to expand the role of TNI, noting that the Constitution already gives the TNI responsibility for defending national unity and sovereignty. However, he accepted the criticisms about budgeting, adding that he personally disagreed with the proposal on sources of funding. In fact, the idea to use regional budget funds did not come from TNI, but the Ministry of Finance.

TNI has been using its media channels, such as a podcast uploaded to Spotify and videos on YouTube, to defend its human rights record. TNI’s Media Center (Puspen TNI) interviewed the commanders of special forces from each service on the role of TNI in counterterrorism. All commanders said that TNI provides its personnel with extensive training on international humanitarian law, and each of its members is equipped with a pocketbook on protecting human rights in military operations. But given the TNI’s appalling record of addressing rights violations by its members, civil society remains, understandably, deeply sceptical.

Lobbying credible voices

The draft perpres also stimulated debate in the House of Representatives (DPR). Arsul Sani, a member of Commission III, which has responsibility for legal affairs and human rights, expressed concern over the muddling of military warfare and criminal justice approaches in the draft regulation. He criticised the current draft for determining TNI involvement based on the types of cases instead of the level of threat.

Meanwhile, members of Commission I, which oversees defence, foreign affairs, information, and intelligence, pushed the government to expedite the ratification of the perpres. Retired Major General T.B. Hasanuddin said that the Sigi attack highlighted the need to engage all elements of the state in terrorism eradication, including TNI.

The conflicting statements by these two commissions might reflect their respective affiliations in the DPR. Commission I is a close partner of TNI, while Commission III tends to be affiliated with the Indonesian National Police (Polri). TNI and Polri compete for power and influence, and both have been lobbying legislators to advance their respective interests in counterterrorism efforts.

Legal experts have also had a lot to say. Professor Hikmahanto Juwana – who has served as a legal advisor for various government agencies – said that local terrorist groups aimed to change the national ideology of Indonesia, so their actions should not be considered simply criminal acts. Defining terrorism as a threat to sovereignty, as Juwana argues, could grant TNI a greater role in counterterrorism because, as mentioned, defending national sovereignty is constitutional duty of the armed forces.

But not all legal experts concur with Hikmahanto’s views. Zainal Arifin Mochtar, a lecturer at Gadjah Mada University (UGM) and part of the civil society coalition that has opposed the draft regulation, was critical of the “overstretched role” for TNI and the blurring of responsibilities between TNI and Polri.

Finding common ground

The debate has remained the same over the past few years, with strong voices for and against TNI involvement. Unfortunately, there have been very few deeper discussions on how to ensure TNI can be both effective and accountable in counterterrorism operations.

It is unlikely that either side will be willing to compromise. TNI will continue to defend the current proposal, arguing that it is its duty to protect the nation from any kind of threat. Civil society will continue to remain firmly opposed to any increased role for TNI, wary of a return to the “dual function” that characterized the military under the New Order.

At this point, TNI’s involvement in counterterrorism operations is inevitable. But it is essential that the conditions under which it is involved are tightly defined and regulated and efforts made to improve members’ capacities.

In the past, policymakers have tended to find common ground only when an attack happens. Law No. 5 of 2018, for example, was passed soon after the 2018 East Java bombings. The revision process took two years – efforts to revise the 2003 Terrorism Law were initiated after the Thamrin Attack in 2016.

Does Indonesia really have to wait for another major incident to occur for the debate over the perpres to be resolved?

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