COVID-19 and Indonesia’s reliance on the military

Previously, I mentioned two individuals at the helm of handling the Covid-19 pandemic in Indonesia: Doni Monardo, the head of the Covid-19 Task Force, and Achmad Yurianto, as the official spokesperson. Doni Monardo is an active-duty military officer, while Achmad Yurianto used to be a military doctor. In a sense, military experience seems to be a common thread.

When you look closely at the people involved in handling Covid-19 in Indonesia, you may be surprised that many are active-duty military officers. Examples abound. The head of the special Covid-19 hospital at the Athlete’s Village, Wisma Kemayoran, is Major General Eko Margiyono. Another recently-opened special Covid-19 hospital on Galang Island in Riau will be supervised by Major General M.S. Fadilah, commander of the Bukit Barisan I Military Command. In addition to supervising hospitals, military personnel are quite actively involved in fighting against Covid-19. They flew to China to pick up medical supplies. They have teamed up with ACT, a non-profit humanitarian organization, to distribute food aid in the Greater Jakarta area. At the same time, the military is at the forefront in distributing protective gear for medical personnel. At the village level, NCOs known as Babinsa, are actively coordinating with volunteers. On a side note, if you go to the official Military Information Center Twitter account (@Puspen_TNI), you will find a daily feed of images or videos of soldiers telling you to stay home, wear a mask, and wash your hands. 

At first glance, it might seem weird to see soldiers being involved in what is essentially a public health emergency. Shouldn’t doctors or virologists or scientists be at the forefront when an epidemic strikes? This anomaly was captured in a recent Jakarta Post editorial, urging the president to “listen to scientists” instead of putting them on the bench. An earlier article by Margareth Aritonang [paywall] in the Jakarta Post also covers Jokowi’s “upward trust” in generals in dealing with the pandemic, hinting at back-door deals with prominent military figures.

So, why is the military taking centre stage in Indonesia’s response to Covid-19? This is not the case in Singapore, for example, where the SAF played a huge assisting role, both material and psychological. But the SAF did not lead a Covid-19 response team. Instead, the task force, which was assembled to deal with the 2003 SARS outbreak, was led by the Ministry of Health [pre-print, open access].

Why use the military?

Long story short, there are two reasons: legal and institutional. 

There is a legal basis (two, in fact) for using the military in peacetime. I refer to the TNI Law (Law no. 34/2004, which governs the functions of the TNI in both wartime and peacetime) and a Ministry of Defence Regulation, no. 22/2017, which specifies the protocols of using the TNI in response to infectious diseases. These legal products allow for the use of the TNI in the Covid-19 response.

In Art. 7 of the TNI Law, it is stipulated that the TNI may be used for military operations other than war (MOOTW). There are fourteen categories of MOOTW, but points (9) to (13) are somehow relevant to the pandemic. In these points, the military is allowed to assist regional governments, assist the National Police in upholding public order, and assist in disaster relief and search-and-rescue.

Notice that in the TNI Law, the verb “assist” is often used. This implies that the TNI would theoretically need a plea for help from a specific agency, say the Ministry of Health, before being involved. This is further clarified in Art. 20, clause 2, where the TNI may be used for MOOTW based on more specific operational laws. 

You might have also noticed that the word “epidemic” or “outbreak” or “infectious diseases” are not present in the TNI Law. This is where the Ministry of Defence Regulation no. 22/2017 comes in. This regulation practically gives the Ministry of Defence the power to create a Pandemic Response Task Force, which then commences operations necessary to respond to the pandemic. These operations include isolating, decontaminating, evacuating, and treating “victims” of the pandemic. In Art. 22-28, the chain of command is outlined.

Okay, so there is a legal basis. But, shouldn’t a response team ideally be led by doctors or the Health Minister? This is where things get a bit tricky. If I were to summarize: compared to other institutions in Indonesia, especially civilian, the military (or just “TNI”) is perhaps the most developed in terms of logistics and capacity, thus making them the go-to guys if you want to get things done.

I’ve written before about Nasution’s thoughts on guerrilla warfare in Note #15. Those thoughts are essential to understanding the position of the TNI in Indonesian society. To be very brief, the TNI is first and foremost a “people’s army”. They were born during the Revolutionary period of Indonesian history, and have contributed significantly in Indonesian independence. They were a potent socio-political force, especially during the Suharto administration. Military officers were inserted into many civilian bureaucracies — to the village level — and they played a big role in “maintaining national stability”. This mandate empowered the TNI, particularly the Army, to acquire modern logistical capabilities, such as airlift and transport, in order to cover the entire archipelago. They needed to keep their network of regional commands supplied. These capabilities still remain today, and are often used in times of emergency, such as in search-and-rescue missions and disaster relief.

(A lot has been written about TNI and politics; notable examples include Kingsbury, Sebastian, and Jenkins.)

The Covid-19 pandemic has also exposed the jarring lack of coordination between the ministries, central government, and regional governments. As I have written before, ministries have downplayed the pandemic, with the Health Minister, Terawan Putranto, being the poster boy of denial. Terawan’s negligence caused a major delay in early response to the pandemic, thus affecting the performance of other ministries and bureaucracies. When the Health Minister cannot be relied upon, Joko Widodo decided to bench him and put what he sees as a more competent institution in the lead. Enter the military, with their widespread presence and developed logistics network. 

“Why invest in tedious bureaucratic reform when a quick fix is there?”

You might be thinking now: is the military equipped to deal with a public health emergency? Asking this question is justified. Soldiers are trained to fight enemies of the state, whether they come from inside or outside. Infectious diseases, on the other hand, ought to be handled by scientists in lab coats and medical professionals, not by guys trained to shoot or deal with insurgents or invaders. So, why the military?

The pandemic has exposed many flaws in Joko Widodo’s administration, especially the dismal state of the Indonesian healthcare system, the glaring inequality among regions, and the tendency for the administration to prioritize economic development over public health. As more and more critics begin to slam Joko Widodo’s response (or lack thereof), he has fallen back on the only measure he seems to know how to use: trust the military to get stuff done. Restricting movement? The military’s on it, along with the National Police. Need to distribute medical equipment and guard hospitals? The military’s got it. Wary of hoaxers or “wrong” information leaking to the press? Don’t you worry, the military’s got that. As Tangguh Chairil rightly points out, the way Joko Widodo is handling this crisis resembles a response to an insurgency, rather than a public health emergency.

This (over)reliance on the military apparatus reveals two things. First, it shows Indonesia’s serious lack of learning from previous outbreaks, such as SARS and MERS. Outbreaks of infectious diseases seem to rank very low in Indonesia’s security priorities, which results in the government unwilling to invest in better whole-of-government response mechanisms and instead rely on a heavy security approach. Second, it shows Joko Widodo did a terrible job at selecting his ministers, and thus has to resort to trusting military officers and counterinsurgency tactics when he finally realized his grave error of downplaying the threat of the virus. 

So, what next?

If there are indeed lessons to be drawn from the chaotic response to this pandemic, here are some coming from a frustrated citizen.

First, invest in social security and healthcare, instead of just economic development. The economy can’t function if workers are ill or are walking an economic tightrope where a gust of wind threatens to push them into the pits of destitution.

Second, transparency. Be honest with the people about the real numbers and about mistakes.

Third, listen to experts when they ring the alarm instead of employing an army of social media buzzers to saturate the infosphere with dubious bullshit.

Fourth, it’s time to give more autonomy to the regional governments, as some have tried to save their citizens’ lives, only to be hampered by dilly-dallying at the central level.

Update: An earlier version of this article stated that Achmad Yurianto, the COVID-19 spokesperson, is an active-duty military officer. This is incorrect. Ever since he was employed by the Health Ministry, his status is as a civilian.

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