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A case against Indonesian military’s ‘proxy war’ obsession

Updated December 28, 2016


DEFENCE Minister Ryamizard Ryacudu (left) and COAS General Gatot Nurmantyo are hyping up the idea that Indonesia is in the middle of ‘proxy wars’.
DEFENCE Minister Ryamizard Ryacudu (left) and COAS General Gatot Nurmantyo are hyping up the idea that Indonesia is in the middle of ‘proxy wars’.

THE Indonesian Military (TNI) has become increasingly obsessed with selling the idea that Indonesia is in the midst of a “proxy war”. COAS General Gatot Nurmantyo has led this charge since 2014, when he travelled around the country to speak about how Indonesia was in the middle of a proxy war. In 2015, Defence Minister Ryamizard Ryacudu joined the bandwagon, claiming that the LGBT movement is a form of proxy warfare that is even worse than a nuclear bomb.

Is a proxy war truly happening in Indonesia? Or is it just an attempt for the military — especially the army — to regain its political relevance? With such fierce campaigning from the military and government officials, it pays to step back and revisit the concept of proxy wars and how they are waged.

In Proxy Warfare, Andrew Mumford defines a proxy war as an “indirect engagement in a conflict by third parties wishing to influence strategic outcome”.

Proxy wars became prolific during the Cold War, when both the United States and Soviet Union realised that they would face mutually assured destruction should any conflict escalate towards a nuclear exchange, so they surreptitiously used the conflicts of smaller states to further their political objectives.

One of those proxy wars was the 1975 Angolan Civil War, where the US, Soviet Union and China with Cuba and Zaire (now Democratic Republic of the Congo) provided their proxies with manpower, funding, arms, ammunition and even propaganda. Another example, executed by the US prior to its involvement in World War II, was the Lend-Lease Bill enacted in March 1941, which provided then president Franklin D Roosevelt the ability to aid European allies with American military equipment against fascist powers.

Some conclusions can be drawn from those historical examples. First, the notion of a proxy war would presuppose that an actual conflict is already occurring and that outside parties seek to use the conflict to advance their own political objectives. Second, proxy wars often involve larger powers, co-opting either lesser powers or non-state actors to advance a political agenda. Third, a proxy war can be waged if conventional war was deemed to be too escalatory and costly, as shown during the Cold War.

NGOs,LGBT as proxy war agents

General Gatot, along with minister Ryamizard, has identified several nodes of “proxies” that serve “invisible forces” seeking to threaten Indonesia’s integrity, such as the media, narcotics, communism, student brawls, NGOs and terrorism.

Their insistence that NGOs can be agents of proxy wars shows a lack of understanding. To qualify as a proxy, one must be interested in advancing the benefactor’s war aim, which may be to impose higher costs or aid in crippling the opposition. Within this understanding, the only viable proxy agent would be terrorism, which is a form of modern proxy warfare waged by violent non-state actors.

Other proxy agents identified by the military are dubious. NGOs are generally against the continuation of violence, which goes against the objectives of war. NGOs are also independent of governments, making them less likely to be proxy agents of foreign powers. In Indonesia’s case, NGOs are often socially oriented, with some even acting as agents to curb social ills, such as poverty and corruption.

Perhaps the most ridiculous form of proxy warfare that has been identified is against LGBT communities. Minister Ryamizard asserts that the emergence of these communities “force Indonesia to deal with states who support the LGBT agenda under the guise of human rights observance”. How does this constitute a form of proxy warfare? There is no indication that, through LGBT communities, foreign interests are trying to create a situation that would be destabilising, let alone threatening.

Furthermore, the statement can be interpreted as the defence minister considering human rights observers as viable threats to Indonesian integrity.

The ambiguity factor also provides the military with a lot of leeway to define anything they deem even slightly threatening as a form of “proxy war”. Once an issue, such as narcotics, is considered a form of proxy war and is potentially destabilising, the military will then be justified to take action against it, using military means if possible. This would entail a greater degree of involvement of the military in civilian affairs and pose dangers to civil liberties.

The first freedom that would be hurt is the freedom of speech and thought. For example, the military arrested civilians suspected to be Communists only because they were wearing T-shirts with a hammer and sickle logo. The military also confiscated books containing Communist teachings, claiming that they were aiding the police in curbing the spread of an illegal ideology.

To be fair, the threat of foreign influence trying to influence events in a country through proxies remains a possible threat to national security. In 1965, the CIA was involved in staging the G30S purge. It was a bloody proxy war motivated by ideology and foreign politics, which unfortunately involved the military. Aid practitioner Terry Russell has eloquently pointed out that in the past, Indonesia’s economy collapsed because Suharto was accepting back room deals with the World Bank to liberalise Indonesia’s banking sector.

While these points illustrate the necessity of the military in safeguarding the country from foreign threats, the current “proxy hype” is a campaign that is more about the military’s lust for political power, rather than rational strategy making. It capitalises on the inherent xenophobia that still plagues both the military and the people. —The Jakarta Post / Indonesia

Published in Dawn December 28th, 2016