CILEGON, Indonesia (Reuters) - Indonesia’s armed forces should stay out of politics and ensure their loyalty is only to the state and the government, President Joko Widodo said on Thursday at a parade to mark the 72nd anniversary of the founding of the country’s military.
His remarks came amid growing controversy over the actions and what analysts perceive as the political ambitions of Armed Forces Commander General Gatot Nurmantyo, who promotes the notion that Indonesia is besieged by “proxy wars” involving foreign states and even a renewed communist threat.
“The Indonesian military is a national property that is above all classes, groups (and) which is not fragmented by narrow political interests and does not enter into the practical political arena,” said Widodo, who sat beside Nurmantyo at the parade in the port city of Cilegon.
“Politics and loyalty to the nation and the state means loyalty to fight for the interests of the people, loyalty to maintain the territorial integrity and unitary state of the Republic of Indonesia, and loyalty to the legitimate government,” added Widodo, who, as president, is also commander in chief of the armed forces.
The start of the event, which included troops rappelling from helicopters and exercises involving amphibious vehicles, was delayed because the president’s entourage got stuck in traffic and on a post on his official Facebook page Widodo said he decided to walk the last two kilometres (1.2 miles).
The Indonesian armed forces (TNI) enjoyed a powerful central role in politics and society for three decades under the authoritarian rule of Suharto, the former general who took power after leading a 1965 purge that killed at least 500,000 alleged communists.
Since the country transitioned to democracy in 1998, the TNI has formally withdrawn from political life but retains a strong position in society, and former generals remain prominent in politics.
Some political analysts have said Nurmantyo had clear political ambitions and accused him of helping foment a “red scare” aimed at the reformist Widodo, who has previously falsely been accused of being the descendant of communists.
Last month, Nurmantyo instructed military officers to screen a Suharto-era propaganda film depicting the murder of six generals and the crushing of an alleged communist coup to “prevent what happened in 1965 from recurring”.
The armed forces chief, who is due to retire in March, courted further controversy last month when he falsely claimed 5,000 weapons had been illegally imported “on behalf” of Widodo.
In a briefing with reporters this week, Nurmantyo denied that Widodo had reprimanded him over the weapons issue or that he had meddled in politics, saying the TNI remained “neutral in practical politics”.
“The TNI commander must be involved in politics, however his politics is state politics, and not practical politics,” he said. “As a commander I have to carry out my duties according to the constitution.”
Writing by Ed Davies; Editing by Clarence Fernandez