Lessons from Indonesia: Key takeaways for Pakistan for reducing military interventionism

So long as political elites are engaged in conflict with one another and actively seeking to pull the military to their own side, security sector reforms will never be possible.
Published May 22, 2023

Events that unfolded on May 9 have radically altered the political dynamics in Pakistan, creating an institutional blowback that is perhaps the most serious challenge faced by the Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf (PTI) since its inception.

The daily coverage in Pakistan has focused on transient events — who has left the party, whose homes have been raided, and who has Imran appealed to for support from the international community.

And while the focus on these events is important in its own way, this coverage misses the forest for the trees, for Pakistan needs a robust debate on security sector reforms. Without these reforms, the country’s rapid descent towards authoritarianism, with security and law enforcement agencies armed with modern tools of surveillance, will only accelerate.

This focus on transient events also makes Pakistanis believe that whatever is happening today in their country is unprecedented. This belief leads many to argue that because Pakistan’s issues are so unique, the country cannot draw from decades of global case studies and literature to chart a better, more democratic path forward. But of course this belief is flawed, for countries from Chile to Indonesia have had much more authoritarian regimes and their elites have found a way to reform the system from within.

Transitioning to a democracy

Given its diversity, size of population, and role as a key ally of the United States, Indonesia is an excellent case study on the ways in which this security sector reform can succeed. There has been a lot of research on Indonesia’s security sector reforms, with Marcus Mietzner’s The Politics of Military Reform in Post-Suharto Indonesia: Elite Conflict, Nationalism, and Institutional Resistance, providing a really good overview of key events and lessons learned.

The country’s reform journey began in the aftermath of the Asian Financial Crisis in 1998 — the shockwaves from the crisis led to President Haji Mohammad Suharto’s downfall, leading to a transition of power in the country. At the time, there were elements within the Indonesian military that wanted Suharto to stay in power and declare martial law, but the commander of the armed forces, General Wiranto, and Chief of Staff of Socio-Political Affairs Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono played a key role in getting the dictator to resign.

The New Order regime, as it was known in Indonesia, was over and Suharto rejected the pressure from hardline officers to declare a state of emergency, choosing to begin a process by which power would be transferred to a post-Suharto administration. Four decades of authoritarian rule ended in May 1998, but this did not mean that the New Order’s influence and privilege in the system was brought to an end.

For the next year and a half — from May 1998 to October 1999 — immense progress was made to push for security sector reforms in the country. While this progress was critical, substantial opportunities were also missed. However, press freedom and civil liberties were expanded, and the ability of the military to exert corporate and political power was severely curtailed.

But the new administration was in many ways mutually dependent on the armed forces. It relied on the military to maintain stability and to also keep officers opposed to ongoing military reforms in check. At the same time, President Bacharuddin Jusuf Habibie held sway over the military as he held constitutional powers to appoint senior military leaders and provide the resources the institution needed.

As a result, Habibie made certain compromises with the military, allowing it to make its own choices with regards to the reform targets it had to achieve. Key elements of this reform were:

  • The armed forces would not be at the forefront of national affairs;
  • It did not directly occupy political positions, instead opting to influencing politics indirectly;
  • Acknowledged that it had to share the burden with other national forces.

Some reformist officers were unhappy with these steps, believing that they did not go far enough. But the military was depoliticised and the steady reduction of its representation from the legislature was a key step. A senior officer later said that “the main target of our reform programme was to get out of politics” at the time. Growing societal pressure, however, did not lead to a major pushback against many core institutional interests of the military in this first phase, meaning that the military continued to remain entrenched across Indonesian society.

The 1999 elections changed the nature of the game, weakening Habibie’s position in the political system. As a result, within a year of the end of authoritarian rule, Indonesia’s political elites were “lobbying the armed forces for their political support”. Moving forward, conflict between civilian elites became a major barrier to continuation of security sector reforms, giving more space to the military in the political system.

Habibie lost the election and Abdurrahman Wahid emerged as the country’s fourth president, with the military’s shifting support playing a critical role in the latter’s victory. Before his victory, Wahid had said that “you still can’t become president in Indonesia without the military”. This did not mean that Wahid did not try to push for security sector reforms. In fact, he tried to push “the most courageous military reform project in many decades”.

Right conditions for reform

He got some space to launch this programme because the military had suffered a defeat in East Timor, creating external pressure for reforms as well. Wahid’s own reputation as a reformer provided him with the moral authority to push for these reforms; he also had a deep understanding of how the military exerted influence in the system. The first step for Wahid was to reduce the military’s influence within the presidential palace and Ratih Hardjono, his secretary, “spent much of her first working days removing military tapping devices from the presidential residence and office”.

A navy officer was appointed commander of the armed forces — the navy was believed to be more open to civilian rule and reforms than the army. A civilian academic was appointed minister of defence, and the military’s security agency that conducted political surveillance was disbanded. He also folded up the socio-political officers within the interior ministry, which was another way in which the military exerted political influence. Several army generals from the old regime were replaced, with reformist-oriented generals promoted within the institution.

These reforms also caused fracturing within the military, leading to conflicts between traditional and reform-oriented officers. Wahid was going after the core elements of the armed forces’ political and economic power and seemed to have the will and capacity to succeed in his endeavours.

But the project reversed course in short order, with some scholars arguing that these reforms were sabotaged by the military itself. Others argued that it was the president who made some concessions, allowing the military to regain influence and power. During this period, Wahid also lost popularity, meaning that he lost the political capital needed to sustain his reform efforts. As he became unpopular, Wahid tried to maintain a grip on power, threatening to impose a state of emergency. The military suggested that it would not support such actions, positioning itself as a “democratically aware and responsible defence force”.

The military’s defiance of the president was viewed as protection of the country’s democratic institutions, while at the same time, Wahid was seen as a dictator by many in the country. Wahid’s fall from power ended the first era of security sector reforms in Indonesia. This did not mean that Indonesia’s reform journey ended — in a slow but steady way, the country continued to reform its institutions, at times taking a few steps back as well. Today, Indonesia is a democratic country and while it may still be in need of reforms, significant progress has been made in curtailing the military’s influence.

Key lessons for Pakistan

The Indonesian experience described above is relevant for Pakistan in the sense that it shows how other countries have struggled with democratic transition and security sector reforms. The most important takeaway from this experience is that conflict within the civilian elite has a direct bearing on the military’s own ability to exert influence on and dominate the political system. So long as political elites are engaged in conflict with one another and actively seeking to pull the military to their own side, security sector reforms will never be possible.

Secondly, it shows that the military continues to maintain influence and power even as the process of reforms gathers momentum, meaning that civilian rulers must be very careful in ensuring continuity at a sustained pace. As a result, political stability and cooperation is key, and a bare minimum of consensus across institutions, including from within the military, is necessary to maintain a stable trajectory of reforms.

Another key lesson is that allowing the military to dictate its own agenda and pace for reforms leads to suboptimal progress, especially in institutions where a significant proportion of officers are not reform-minded. Allowing the military to choose its own set of reforms makes it likely for the core elements of power to be left untouched, meaning that if and when civilians fracture, the military is once again able to assert itself as a powerbroker in the system.

Finally, civilian rulers need to improve their own standing and institutional legitimacy in states that need security sector reforms. Without ensuring a noticeable improvement in citizens’ lives, civilians will be unable to create the political space to push for tough reforms. This is especially important in countries like Pakistan where ordinary civilians, especially those belonging to the urban middle classes, view previous eras of dictatorship as the good old days. These perspectives create an opening in the public discourse for the military and its political role, thereby undermining meaningful institutional reforms.

With Pakistan facing the most serious crisis to its national cohesion since 1971, it is important for reform-minded citizens, especially the ruling civilian and military elites, to study the experience of countries like Indonesia. By drawing the right lessons from states that are a bit further ahead in their reform journey, Pakistan’s ruling elites can set a reforms agenda that achieves success while avoiding the mistakes others have made. But for so long as leaders refuse to go beyond the belief that only a single man — or a few men — are responsible for the country’s descent towards increased authoritarianism, true reforms are unlikely to materialise in the near future.

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