Former Suharto-era general Ryamizard Ryacudu, tapped by Indonesian President Joko Widodo for defense minister, could become a conduit to the powerful armed forces for the country’s first leader to rise from outside the aristocracy or the military.
Ryamizard, who spearheaded anti-separatist crackdowns in his time as army chief of staff in the early 2000s, said he’s waiting for instructions from Joko for defending an archipelago that would stretch from New York to Alaska.
“Wait, let me learn first,” Ryamizard told reporters Oct. 26. “I don’t want to speak presumptuously. I’m awaiting the president’s roadmap.”
Joko, known as Jokowi, is a former furniture dealer who entered politics in 2005 and had little experience in security policy in his time as a mid-city mayor and then governor of Jakarta. His selection of Ryamizard, 64, could smooth ties with the armed forces, though it has raised concerns among rights groups and questions about his capacity to modernize a military that for most of Indonesia’s history has been focused on internal threats.
“Ryamizard gives Jokowi a defense minister who is well liked within his own military,” said Ken Conboy, country manager at RMA Indonesia, a Jakarta-based risk management firm. “Ryamizard was a soldier’s soldier, but never really known as a diplomat. So there is perhaps some risk to Jokowi that Ryamizard will be prone to making politically inappropriate statements.”
Ryamizard rose through the ranks during the rule of dictator Suharto in the 1990s and has defended soldiers convicted of killing a Papuan independence leader as “heroes” and said rights groups “contribute nothing to this country.” The son of a regional army commander, he has ties to former President Megawati Soekarnoputri, the daughter of founding President Sukarno and now leader of Jokowi’s Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle, or PDI-P.
Megawati nominated Ryamizard to be commander of the armed forces in her final days in office in 2004, a move that was blocked by her successor as president Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, a former general. His appointment to Jokowi’s 34-member cabinet is a political concession to Megawati, said Andreas Harsono, an Indonesia researcher for Human Rights Watch.
“He comes from the Suharto era where military officers were highly politicized,” he said. “His father was loyal to President Sukarno. He is loyal to President Megawati. I think that is the only explanation.”
Ryamizard will oversee a defense budget that Jokowi has said he wants to increase to 1.5 percent as a share of the economy, which is Southeast Asia’s largest. The president has said he wants to modernize the armed forces, particularly the navy, which is responsible for patrolling the more than 17,000 islands that make up the world’s fourth most-populous nation.
Military spending has increased over the past decade and reached Rp 81.96 trillion ($6.8 billion) in 2013, or 0.9 percent of gross domestic product, according to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute.
“Percentage wise it looks pretty impressive,” said Richard Bitzinger, coordinator of the military transformations program at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore. “But that basically means going from a very low level to not much of a higher level.”
If Indonesia wants to modernize its military it must commit the necessary resources over a sustained period of time and focus that money on the navy and air force rather than ground troops, he said.
“It’s not something you can nickel and dime,” he said. “It’s going to take time. If you’re going to add equipment you’ve got to add personnel. So you need more sailors and you need more pilots and things like that and that takes a long time and that costs money too.”
Jokowi has said he wants to stop smuggling of Indonesia’s natural resources and has suggested building a network of drones to patrol the country. The Malacca Strait, a shipping lane that links the economies of countries such as India, China and Japan, also runs through Indonesia.
At his inauguration on Oct. 20, Jokowi likened himself to a “captain trusted by the people” and said it was time for Indonesia to return to “Jalesveva Jayamahe,” the Indonesian navy motto meaning “in the seas we will triumph.”
“I would think that Ryamizard would be pressed to reflect Jokowi’s maritime emphasis in his defense planning,” Conboy said. “I suppose there could be some concern that he will favor the army when it comes to purchases, rather than the maritime emphasis voiced by Jokowi.”
Indonesia also faces an increasingly assertive China, which has been pushing its territorial claims to most of the nearby South China Sea. While Indonesia is not an official claimant to areas in dispute and has sought to stay out of the spat, officials have said that China’s interpretation of its nine dash-line map — the basis for its claims — is seeping into Indonesia’s exclusive economic zone.
China must not create regional instability, Indonesian military chief Gen. Moeldoko told reporters Oct. 29 in Singapore. The defense force has “hundreds of ships” to secure the country’s maritime lanes within its borders, he said.
“China is a great economic superpower, however we don’t want this great force to create instability in the region,” Moeldoko said. “Just a small disturbance within this maritime zone will give a big impact” and create turbulence in the region.
Still, Ryamizard’s background suggests that he will focus internally, perhaps overlooking potential military threats from outside, said Marcus Mietzner, an associate professor at the Australian National University in Canberra.
“He’s not a strategic thinker,” said Mietzner, author of “Money, Power and Ideology: Political Parties in Post- Authoritarian Indonesia.” “He has deeply conservative instincts, and these are likely to guide him. This means preserving military privileges, less emphasis on transparency in the name of guarding ‘state secrets,’ and no genuine attempts at improving civilian oversight of the armed forces.”
While he may take a tough stance on separatist ambitions in Papua, Ryamizard won’t be responsible for countering the threat from militants, including the potential return of Indonesians who left to fight with Islamic State in the Middle East. That responsibility lies with the police and intelligence agencies.
Gen. Moeldoko said he believed Ryamizard was the right man for the post.
“Based on his huge experience as well as vast academic background, I’m quite sure that General Ryamizard Ryacudu is indeed a proper figure,” he said. “I’m also quite sure that later he’s going to produce some kind of political policies that are indeed quite proper for the military and the state.”
Ryamizard has in the past made comments about meddling by “foreign imperial powers” and his appointment could complicate military cooperation with allies such as Australia and the US, said Kevin O’Rourke, a political analyst and author of “Reformasi: The Struggle for Power in Post-Soeharto Indonesia.”
“A question is whether Ryacudu will involve himself in foreign policy issues, perhaps taking stances that conflict with those of the new foreign minister,” O’Rourke said.
When asked about Ryamizard, State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said the US was aware of “allegations of human rights violations committed by the Indonesian army while the general served as army chief of staff.”
“We are not, however, aware of any allegation that ties the defense minister explicitly to a specific human rights violation,” she told reporters on Oct. 28 in Washington. “Indonesia’s military, like the country as a whole, has reformed in significant ways over the past 16 years in line with Indonesia’s democratic transition.”