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Jakarta Post

News Analysis: Handpicked defense minister: Between strategy and keen interest

  • Imanuddin Razak

    The Jakarta Post

Singapore   /   Tue, November 4, 2014   /  09:25 am

The Cabinet of President Joko '€œJokowi'€ Widodo has drawn severe criticism from the general public in regards to the new Cabinet members'€™ capacity and track records. Among those under the microscope is Defense Minister Ryamizard Ryacudu.

The eventual appointment of Ryamizard, a 1974 graduate of the Army Academy and a retired four-star general, has been strongly criticized as going against the post-1998 reformist and democratic tradition of the last three Indonesian presidents who had appointed civilians for the defense minister portfolio '€” a tradition intended to demonstrate civilian supremacy over the military. Ryamizard'€™s appointment, according to some rights activists, showed the new president'€™s lack of commitment to human rights, especially in conflict areas.

Ryamizard'€™s professional background as an Army general is also in sharp contrast to President Jokowi'€™s '€œmaritime-oriented'€ national development strategy, which will concentrate on the exploration and exploitation of maritime resources as well as the development of naval forces, in view of the country'€™s archipelagic geography, which sees water account for two-thirds of its territory. It is feared that Ryamizard'€™s Army background would lead to Army-biased policies and significantly reduce development programs for the other two branches of the armed forces '€” the Navy and the Air Force.

Throughout his military career, particularly during his terms at the top of the Army leadership, Ryamizard was criticized for his controversial and frequently harsh statements on some military- and security-related issues. To be frank, his statements oftentimes benefited journalists seeking bold and newsworthy quotes for their news reports.

The general has, for example, branded the Army'€™s Special Forces (Kopassus) soldiers convicted of killing Papuan independence fighter Theys Hiyo Eluay in 2002 as '€œheroes'€ and even accused rights groups of contributing nothing to the country. He always argued that he made such statements in his capacity as a member of the state security apparatus and in view of the state-people relationship, in which the state is responsible for protecting its people and the country'€™s territorial integrity.

Ryamizard is also known for revealing his nationalistic identity and sentiment, a feat frequently deemed by his critics as overrated. As an example, on some occasions, he was reported to have expressed his preference for Indonesia-trained officers rather than those trained overseas.

Despite these performance-related capacity issues and controversies, Ryamizard is considered as being among the generals with '€œless association'€ with rights abuses. The United States has at least jumped to his defense, clearing him of direct connection with past atrocities.

'€œWe are certainly aware of the allegations of human rights violations committed by the Indonesian Army while the general [Ryamizard] served as Army chief of staff,'€ US State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki told a recent media conference.

'€œWe are not, however, aware of any allegation that ties the defense minister explicitly to a specific human rights violation,'€ Psaki said, while apparently referring to Ryamizard'€™s position in November 2001, when Theys was murdered.

At the time, Ryamizard was chief of the Army'€™s Strategic Reserves Command (Kostrad) and was promoted to the post of Army chief a year later. It was during his tenure as Army commander that extensive operations to crush Free Aceh Movement (GAM) rebels were launched.

Aside from his relatively limited association with rights abuses, the appointment of Ryamizard as defense minister apparently can not be separated from his long family tradition of close relations with the family of Megawati Soekarnoputri, the country'€™s fourth president and chairwoman of the Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle (PDI-P) who is also mentor of President Jokowi.

Ryamizard'€™s father, the late Brig. Gen. Ryacudu, was a loyalist of Indonesia'€™s founding president Sukarno, also Megawati'€™s father. Rya-mizard was also the Army chief when Megawati was president. It was Megawati who nominated him for the post of Indonesian Military (TNI) chief at the end of her term of presidency in 2004, although Megawati'€™s successor, Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, appointed a senior general, Endriartono Sutarto of the Army Academy Class of 1971, for the top military post.

The choice of Ryamizard was also a matter of political strategy. It is a fact that he was the Army Academy classmate of Prabowo Subianto, the rival candidate to Jokowi in the July 9 presidential election.

Such a choice was not without careful and thorough consideration especially after the Great Indonesia Coalition, which supports the Jokowi administration, suffered successive defeats in all structural positions within the national legislature '€” the People'€™s Consultative Assembly (MPR) and the House of Representatives '€” to the Red-and-White Coalition led by Prabowo. It is largely expected that Ryamizard could counterbalance the influence of Prabowo, within the Indonesian military specifically and within Indonesian politics in general.

Last but not least, the decision to appoint Ryamizard for the ministerial post lies beyond the common principle of putting '€œthe right man in the right place'€. It apparently puts the emphasis more on a person that the President (or perhaps his mentor) can trust, particularly in critical and emergency situations.

As the 1945 Constitution states, the defense minister is part of the triumvirate, alongside the foreign minister and the home minister, that temporarily holds power if both the president and vice president are incapable of performing their state tasks. Only after 30 days would the MPR hold a plenary session to elect a new president.

 Ryamizard is perhaps not the best candidate for the post of defense minister. But, at least he is the one who is most trusted by the PDI-P, the leading political party in Jokowi'€™s government.

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