The Jakarta Post
President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo’s reliance on influential military figures in handling the COVID-19 pandemic is becoming more and more apparent as he risks sparking a competition by asking more of them to join the government’s fast-response team.
Jokowi quietly recruited Defense Minister Prabowo Subianto last week to speed up efforts to contain the novel coronavirus, asking him to procure medical and personal safety equipment from China by using the Indonesian Military (TNI) to fast-track the delivery.
The President had previously excluded Prabowo from the COVID-19 task force led by National Disaster Mitigation Agency (BNPB) head Doni Monardo, an active Army general, but later included him in the lineup in a presidential decree he signed on March 20, after meeting with the former Army’s Special Forces (Kopassus) commander privately four days prior.
After Prabowo joined up, he instructed TNI Commander Air Chief Marshal Hadi Tjahjanto to fast-track the delivery of medical kits. The provisions arrived on Monday, with more coming soon.
In a letter to the TNI chief dated March 18, Prabowo said the provisions would be “used by the Defense Ministry and the TNI’s medical teams to contain the spread of [COVID-19]”.
He also cited meetings with the deputy defense minister and the presidential chief of staff, as well as information from China-owned PT Indonesia Morowali Industrial Park.
Prabowo’s addition to Jokowi’s fast-response team has extended the list of senior military figures Doni has to work with to ensure efforts to combat the outbreak were well coordinated.
They already include Coordinating Maritime Affairs and Investments Minister Luhut Binsar Panjaitan, Religious Affairs Minister Fachrul Rozi and Presidential Chief of Staff Moeldoko — all Army veterans.
Doni, also a former Kopassus leader, must also contend with officials deemed his junior, particularly TNI chief Hadi and Health Minister Terawan Agus Putranto, a military doctor.
Appointing security actors over public health experts to address a national-scale public health crisis has convinced observers that Jokowi had few other choices than to rely on a security approach to back his economic priorities, largely because of the government’s late response to the pandemic.
However, some analysts pointed to the potentially direr consequences that come from nudging the military back into the limelight.
“I could see that the problem has been ‘securitized’ from the very beginning, as Health Minister Terawan, who is from the military, was not being transparent. Even the President later admitted that the government had intentionally withheld information to prevent panic,” said security researcher Evan Laksamana from the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
The appointment of a figure like Doni, who is seen to have the competencies, leadership skills and network within the military to lead the COVID-19 task force, indicates that the government needs a fast responder to address an already dire security situation, Evan said.
However, the expanded team would only be able to work more effectively under two conditions.
First, the government must involve more public health experts and epidemiologists instead of security actors. Secondly, Jokowi must show strong leadership and take full control, which would enable Doni to lead and uphold transparency as he works with the other military figures.
“Rivalry among military figures in the team will pose a challenge in efforts to uphold transparency as they will likely compete against each other to secure information,” Evan said.
Evan suggested that military figures who prioritized the security angle would have a tendency to regard information that should be made public as intelligence information and would therefore race to secure such information. This would then be reported to the President through a self-serving filter designed to advance their own interests or to serve security interests, rather than prioritizing public health.
Having clung to power or revolved around it for most of the nation’s history, former military figures are able to tap into the ample resources of a well-established network of influence.
In the case of the COVID-19 task force, Doni must contend with retired Army generals who still have vital access to resources, including information.
But this is seen by experts as a risk worth taking; to have these military figures play off one another in what some have called a “star wars” as they rush to contain the virus effectively.
If it is not well managed, however, critics believe this approach could wipe out all the progress that a democratically elected civilian government has achieved after overcoming a long spell of military-backed authoritarianism.
“For me, all of the retired generals involved are just using their official positions to secure a [way to leverage their bargaining power],” said Haris Azhar, the executive director of the Lokataru Legal and Human Rights Foundation, in a separate interview on Wednesday.
“I am worried that they will ask for something in return later on.”
Haris has held suspicions about the emergency status declared by the BNPB in January, a document for which was “leaked” instead of communicated to the public.
“Why did Prabowo join just very recently? What did all of those retired generals do before BNPB’s announcement?” he said.
Haris said he was sure that state intelligence has been gathering information on the COVID-19 outbreak and assessing the risk of widespread transmission since it first emerged in China. But the government would not have responded so late if the information had been managed effectively.
“It’s impossible that the military intelligence body, BAIS, or state intelligence agency BIN did not obtain any information about something like the COVID-19 phenomenon. This leads me to consider another possibility: that end-users have ignored the intelligence reports,” he said.
“For me, this indicates that there is competition among end-users, including retired military officials involved in the team.”
BNPB declared a “particular state of disaster emergency” for a month beginning Jan. 28, but the decree itself was leaked to the public earlier this month amid calls from the public and from the World Health Organization for transparency in the reporting of infections and fatalities.
As of Wednesday afternoon, Indonesia has recorded 790 positive cases, 58 deaths and 31 recoveries.