Democracy and Military Oversight in Crisis: The Failed Civilianisation of Indonesia’s Ministry of Defence

Published date01 April 2023
Date01 April 2023
Subject MatterResearch Articles
Research Article
Democracy and Military
Oversight in Crisis:
The Failed Civilianisation
of Indonesia’s Ministry
of Defence
Marcus Mietzner1
In 1998, Indonesia endeavoured to civilianise its defence department after decades
of military-dominated rule. This civilianisation project was widely seen as a crucial
element of democratisation itself. But the initiative ended in disillusionment:
by 2014, the ministry was again placed under a conservative former general,
and in 2019, it came under the control of Prabowo Subianto, an ambitious
ex-military leader with strong ties to the pre-1998 autocratic regime. As a result,
the reform drive in the ministry came to a halt, and civilians were marginalised
again. This article argues that several factors account for this reform failure: first,
the ministry’s long subordination to the military prior to 1998; second, the lack
of will and power on the part of civilian ministers between 1999 and 2014 to
pursue meaningful reforms; and third, a larger roll-back of democratic reforms
beginning in the 2010s. Embedding these latest developments in a larger historical
context, the article demonstrates that the defence ministry has been a barometer
of Indonesia’s fluctuating democratic quality over time.
Indonesia, ministry of defence, democratisation, civil–military relations, armed
In November 2019, Indonesia’s newly appointed Defence Minister Prabowo
Subianto appeared for the first time at a hearing with the parliamentary committee
Journal of Asian Security
and International Affairs
10(1) 7–23, 2023
© The Author(s) 2023
Reprints and permissions:
DOI: 10.1177/23477970231152014
1 Department of Political and Social Change, Coral Bell School of Asia Pacif‌ic Affairs, ANU College of
Asia and the Pacif‌ic, Australian National University, Canberra, Australia
Corresponding author:
Marcus Mietzner, Department of Political and Social Change, Coral Bell School of Asia Pacif‌ic
Affairs, ANU College of Asia and the Pacif‌ic, 130 Garran Rd, Acton - Hedley Bull Building, Australian
National University, Canberra 2600 ACT, Australia.
8 Journal of Asian Security and International Affairs 10(1)
responsible for his portfolio. To the surprise of the legislators, Prabowo refused
to answer questions about the budget, saying that this was a state secret
(Sakina, 2019). Reminded that it was common practice to discuss the budget
in such committee meetings, Prabowo agreed to disclose budget information to
legislators, but not to the media and broader public. For Prabowo, this was only
the first of many collisions with civilian authorities in charge of overseeing the
defence establishment. Prabowo, a retired military officer who cultivated a large
patronage network in the active officer corps and harboured well-known political
ambitions, seemed determined to circumvent already weak civilian oversight
bodies to establish the defence ministry as his personal power base. In January 2020,
Finance Minister Sri Mulyani Indrawati reminded him publicly to coordinate
his spending plans for defence equipment with her and the head of the armed
forces (Azzura, 2020). This unusual reprimand came after Prabowo had travelled
to seven countries (and was planning to visit an eighth) to negotiate deals for
defence purchases. Normally, such purchases had to be integrated into long-term
budget planning, cleared by the military services and approved by the executive
and legislature before being implemented through the defence ministry. Clearly,
Prabowo had no patience for such procedures, and he continued to negotiate with
foreign governments independently even after Sri Mulyani’s reminder.
Prabowo’s entrenchment in the defence ministry (and his dismissal of civilian
oversight mechanisms) marked the preliminary climax of a long process of
de-civilianisation of the department that had begun in the mid-2010s. Between
1999 and 2014, ministers of defence had been civilian politicians, and while they
often presided over a ministerial apparatus made up mostly of active military
officers, their non-military status was seen as a symbol of the (however slow)
civilianisation and democratisation of Indonesia’s defence establishment. In 2014,
however, President Joko Widodo broke with this tradition, handing the ministry
to a conservative retired military officer, Ryamizard Ryacudu. After that, any
pretence that the government tried to empower civilians to lead the defence
ministry was dropped, and full control reverted back to the active officer corps in
the department, with a sympathetic retired general at its helm. Prabowo’s
appointment to the ministry in 2019 accelerated this reversal: while Ryamizard
had been seen as a military and political has-been, Prabowo brought an entirely
new quality to the department’s re-militarisation and politicisation. As the former
son-in-law of former long-time autocrat Suharto (in power from 1966 to 1998), a
senior general himself and two-time presidential candidate (in 2014 and 2019),
Prabowo’s move to the department was accompanied by a clique of active and
retired military officers. One year later, the civilian deputy minister was replaced
by an active military officer. On the conceptual spectrum, Indonesia’s defence
ministry shifted to full military-dominant status, from an earlier position of
moderately strong military dominance (Grant & Milenski, 2019).
The de-civilianisation of the defence department coincided with a notable
process of democratic deconsolidation in Indonesia. While Indonesia’s electoral
democracy remained formally intact, there were—especially since the second
decade of the 21st century—significant declines in the quality of political com-
petitiveness, civil rights and equal access to information (Power & Warburton, 2020).

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