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The dual function (Dwi fungsi) role of Armed Forces of the Republic of Indonesia (ABRI) is well known if often misunderstood.This role is part of a Total People's Defence doctrine where the ABRI views itself as "preserving and strengthening national resilience." That is to deter aggression by threat of intransigent residence. It arose out of Indonesia turbulent struggle to establish a nation. Nationalists faced external interference, along with internal disunity, fractures within the military and vacillating political leadership. Indonesia was also a very poor country, whose per capita GNP was half that of India in 1967. (Although it has long since surpassed India). So they could not afford adequate arms to defended their country by conventional warfare. The ABRI responded by adopting a guardianship role, or a military authoritarianism according some critics.

Social and Political concerns

Indonesian covers a large land and sea area, with an ethically diverse population. Most of its large population live in small towns and villages. It ranges from densely populated Java, to mountains and small islands. The country includes seafaring communities who have traded with world for many centuries, to Irian Jaya where first contact is within living memory. It's armed forces has been one of the few nation wide institutions. Current perceptions are that the most serious threat to Indonesia comes not from internal revolt, but social unrest brought about by rapid economic change. This includes urban crime, political activism and labour unrest.

The country has a very young population, with an annual youth cohort is about 4.2 million, which is proportionately a third more than Australia. All of whom require jobs, training or education. Young people migrating to major cities such as Jakarta and Medan is seen as a major problem. Many are seeking work and greater opportunities. Indonesia's the principal social welfare policy is to encourage young people to remain in their rural communities, so they have the support of their own families. There are a range of programs to improve the living conditions of rural young people. The "Sanadoya" youth movement includes small teams of trained young people working at village level organising work camps, education programs and self-employment schemes. There is strong emphasis on social and spiritual values in these programs.

Armed Forces of the Republic of Indonesia (ABRI)

At a national level military leaders have formal role in government, including allotted seats in the parliament and presidential electoral college (People's Consultative Congress). Military leaders exert significant political power and often hold senior cabinet positions. The military is involved in civil administration down to village level. For example the Armed forces assistant for Communications has the dual role of Director-General, post and telecommunications. And BABINSA (Village NCO) who works with the chiefs of a cluster of villages.

They also have associations with many state business enterprises and private companies. These business are believed to be a significant source of extra-budgetary resources for the ABRI. Senior ABRI leaders have long been required to master civilian skills such as economics and management if they are to advance. They also pride themselves in constructive engagement with intellectuals, who are invited to military institutes of higher learning and with military officers attending civilian forums.

Sub District (KORAMIL) Garrisons

In towns throughout Indonesia there are military garrisons. Many of which have only a few hundred soldiers. These small garrisons comprise about two-thirds of the ABRI strength and have a number of functions. In time of national emergency, they would provide a cadre for guerilla force to resist any invader. They also provided an organised force to help deal with natural disasters. Local garrisons receive training in agricultural and engineering skills and only devote only a few days each month to military training. This is partly because of their emphasis on socio-political role. It was also because military training is expensive. The ABRI is not lavishly funded and local unit have low priorities. They have few heavy weapons or communications equipment. Although there are conventionally organised battalions at Territorial (Kodam) and Kostrad (Strategic Reserve) including field artillery, cavalry and engineer units.

Commanders of local garrisons play a important civic leadership role; advising the local authorities, and making available their men for local development projects. They also help maintain public order and monitor any social unrest. The Indonesian government operates a very centralised administration. Permission for even minor activities are often refereed back to Jakarta. Military officers serve as government representatives for a range of matters. Although this illustrates a significant obstacle to economic development. Many of these functions should be delegated to local authorities.

The ARBI plays a key role in rural development amongst young people. They works with community groups and help young people at the local level with organising things like work camps, education programs and self-employment schemes. It also supports a network of base centres and training institutes to provide leadership and organisation for rural young people so that they can better help their own community. This role will require greater sophistication as communities have growing access to outside media like STAR TV. Soldiers patrol their local area, visiting outlying areas under the 'ABRI MASUK DESA' (ABRI entering the village) program. They are some of the few government representative to visit remote areas. They promote agricultural improvement, public health and such things as maintaining roads, repairing schools, and organising local self-help projects. Eg, building mosques and community centres. This is also considered to have a deterrent effect against any social agitation.

Corruption and Human Rights

Dwi fungsi has meant there are few constitution controls on the ABRI. This has permitted abuses of their wide ranging powers. Allegations of human rights abuses and corruption are often not satisfactorily resolved. ABRI personnel have acted arbitrarily or have achieved financial gain through the performance of their duties. There have been repeated calls to ABRI personal to avoid conspicuous consumption and to maintain the image of well respected freedom fighters who remain men of the people. In recent years there have been moves to separate private and public activities. There have also been the introduction of civil checks such as a human rights commission.


The role of the ABRI is considerable different from that common to the Australian Defence Force. This reflect a different heritage and circumstance. Australia's military grew out of an auxiliary to the professional British forces; Indonesia from disparate freedom fighters forging a nation. There is little doubt that the ABRI will continue to be involved at all levels of public affairs. However, it is questionable that the ABRI is capable or appropriate of responding to newly emerging social problems. The ABRI will have to leave its paternalistic attitudes and learn to operate in partnership with civilian agencies and local communities. The maintenance of popular confidence, particularly at the village level will be the ABRI's greatest challenge in the near future.

Originally Published in Defender, Journal of the Australia Defence Association,  Spring 1996

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