Does Indonesia really need
compulsory military service?

Rizal Sukma, Jakarta

It's been a while since we've heard about the government's plan to introduce obligatory military service for citizens aged between 18 and 45 when required.

There are some simple questions to be asked about it, such as: Give the huge unemployment problem, when there are so many people who are willing to pay a bribe to become a soldier, do we really need compulsory service?

The Defense Ministry has once again announced that by early next year it will send the bill on ""Auxiliary Component"" (Komponen Cadangan) to the House of Representatives for approval.

The bill, when it becomes a law, will provide a legal basis for the government to recruit and train civilian citizens and mobilize them for combat purposes. These civilians, whenever required, would then serve as combatants against military threats together with the Indonesian Armed Forces (TNI). The bill stipulates that those who refuse to serve will be jailed for one to two years.

This renewed move by the Defense Ministry needs our full attention. The bill, if approved by the parliament, will have several implications not only for civilian-military relations but also Indonesian politics in general. Therefore, there are several important questions that need to be answered before the bill is sent to the House.

First, the government -- the Defense Ministry -- needs to provide solid arguments for why the bill is needed now. It is true that the provision for such military service is provided in the 2002 State Defense Law. However, the law does not specify when the provision needs to be put into practice. Therefore, the issue of timing is still open to debate: why now?

Second, related to the first, the government should explain the purposes of forming such a force. The 2002 law says that it is to be formed to enlarge and strengthen the core component, namely the TNI. However, it does not specify the purposes it should serve. The problem, therefore, emerged when an official at the Defense Ministry clearly stated that the soldiers would serve as combatants against a military threat, including in combating threats posed by a separatist movements (Kompas, Nov. 2, 2007).

The law clearly stipulates that the deployment of the ""auxiliary component"" can only be done after the president issues an order for mobilization. The question then is: Do we need mobilization in order to overcome the threat of separatism? This is dangerous thinking indeed. The case of Aceh has demonstrated that such a threat cannot be neutralized through military means.

Dealing with separatism requires multiple approaches. The case of Aceh demonstrated that political settlement through negotiation -- instead of the mobilization of civilians as combatants -- works better. Deploying civilians in such conflicts (regardless of their training through compulsory military service) would complicate the problem. They would become vulnerable targets for separatist rebels when they are not on duty.

Third, does the state have the required financial resources to form such a force? The answer to this question is categorically ""no"". State revenue is limited. That is why the state has not been able to provide an adequate defense budget to meet the basic defense needs of the country.

Fourth, even if the state does have such financial resources, is it wise to spend them on the training of civilians to become combatants? Again, the answer is a resounding ""no"". The limited resources should be used to professionalize, strengthen and modernize the TNI. We have heard many complaints from the minister of defense himself about the lack of money for such purposes. So it would be wise for the minister to drop the bill.

Fifth, there is no guarantee yet that the law on the Auxiliary Component would not be abused. It is not unlikely that it could be used to silence critics -- especially from within civil society -- by obliging them to undergo compulsory military training. This has been the main concern among activists.

Therefore, it is reasonable to argue that the bill is not a priority yet. The bill can be sent to the House for approval only after Indonesia becomes a consolidated democracy. For the time being, it is better if the Defense Ministry concentrates on the imperative of meeting the basic needs of the TNI.

First, it needs to ""fill the gap"" between military tasks and defense capability as envisioned in the Defense White Paper.

Second, it should use its limited budget to further professionalize the TNI.

Third, it should focus on improving the discipline of TNI personnel through improving education and training.

Fourth, the resources, if we do have them, are better spent improving the welfare of soldiers.

If the ministry can focus on these issues, then it might not think that the TNI needs to be enlarged and strengthened by turning civilian citizens into combatants. Instead, the TNI would be proud as a professional armed force capable of defending the nation and its people through modern fighting capability based on technology and modern strategies, not through the mobilization of civilians for a people's war.

The writer is the deputy executive director of the Centre for Strategic and International Studies.

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