View point: Poso a proving ground for TNI to reclaim security initiative

Many might have watched the arrival of more than 3,200 fully armed Indonesian Military (TNI) soldiers in the Central Sulawesi regency of Poso recently with a distinct sense of d j vu. They may fear Poso, dubbed the most volatile region following sporadic acts of terrorism over the past decade, will see a repeat of the nightmarish story that Aceh people have forgiven but will never forget. Back in 1989 troops were sent to Aceh to crush separatist rebels there after the Soeharto government declared the westernmost province a military operation territory (DOM).

A larger-scale war on Acehnese separatism was initiated in 2003 when the post-New Order government of then president Megawati Soekarnoputri imposed martial law in Aceh. It was during the military onslaught on Aceh s separatist movement that rampant human rights violations occurred without anyone being held responsible. Domestic and international human rights observers persistently shared their concern about crimes against humanity in Aceh with the world community, but atrocities and abuses continued unabated.

Apart from human rights concerns, however, the mission in Poso serves well as a stepping stone for an assertive TNI to play a bigger role in security affairs. Unlike the past military operations in Aceh, this time around the Army, Navy and Air Force personnel streamed into Poso for an exercise aimed at improving the coordinated response to radical movements, which was unprecedented. TNI chief Gen.

Moeldoko said a battalion of the Quick Response Strike Force (PPRC) comprising 700 personnel would stay on in Poso following the war games to assist the National Police hunt down members of the terrorist group the East Indonesia Mujahiddin (MIT) under Santoso, alias Abu Wardah. The military s assistance reportedly bore fruit on Friday as a key figure in the terrorist network, Daeng Koro, alias Sabar Subagyo, was killed in a joint police and military operation. The initiative to hold a joint exercise in Poso is however questionable, especially because of its objectives.

Moeldoko said the exercise was a show of force to deter certain groups, particularly those supporting the Islamic State (IS) movement. Of course he was referring to Santoso, who has been waging a low-key guerilla war to form an Islamic state in Indonesia. Indeed TNI troops fired rockets and launched air strikes on Mount Biru, where the terror group is believed to have been hiding and conducting military training, during the joint exercise.

The war game zones also included Tangkura village in Poso Pesisir Selatan district and Tambarana village in the neighboring district of Poso Pesisir Utara, where members of the terrorist group have been operating. No doubt the military exercise in Poso TNI will impress the citizens of Indonesia and the world with its commitment to the fight against terrorism. The TNI, in spite of its globally acclaimed counterterrorism capability, has played second fiddle in the country s fight against terrorism, as the 2003 law on antiterrorism mandates the police the leading role.

A US military operation did manage to kill Osama bin Laden, leader of the al-Qaeda terrorist group responsible for the phenomenal attacks on the US in 2001, albeit at a huge cost. The group remains alive and dangerous and in fact has recruited more young people prepared for future attacks and helped insurgency movements in several Middle East countries. The TNI is apparently sending a message to the National Police to give the military a fair share of the fight against terrorism.

Since the first Bali bombings in 2002 Indonesia has been under a constant threat from terrorism. There has been no major attack since the double hotel bombings in Jakarta in 2009, but numerous arrests across the country prove Indonesia remains a fertile ground for acts of terrorism. Specifically in Poso, a small town that was once torn by sectarian conflict between Muslims and Christians, the terror group under Santoso has roamed and found a shelter.

For many years Santoso has remained at large despite the police operations to catch him dead or alive, although former counterterrorism agency head Ansyaad Mbai believes the group has been significantly reduced to only about 20. Santoso is known to have mingled with, and to some extent won sympathy from, local people, which partly explains why the police have found it hard to catch him. The difficult terrain of the jungles where Santoso and his followers have been hiding is another explanation.

The number-one fugitive s arrest with assistance from the military would earn the TNI much coveted credit, perhaps at the expense of the police and its elite counterterrorism squad Densus 88. The public would perceive the TNI s role in the fight against terrorism as pivotal, if not imperative. To a certain degree the military regained some of its security power when the House of Representatives unanimously endorsed in 2012 a bill on the handling of social conflicts, which allows the TNI to take measures only after informing regional leaders.

The 2004 law on the TNI requires the military to seek the President s consent for deployment of troops for non-war purposes. The TNI was also instrumental in preventing a clash between supporters of rival candidates when the General Elections Commission declared Joko Jokowi Widodo and Jusuf Kalla the winning ticket in the presidential election last year. It is only about time that the TNI became actively involved in the fight against terrorism now that the government and the House are moving to revise the 2003 law on antiterrorism, which comes on the heel of the IS threat.

Slowly but surely more people will believe the TNI deserves an important role in security affairs, which has eluded the military since its internal reforms 15 years ago.

The author is a staff writer at The Jakarta Post.

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