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Beware of the alarming resurgence of military outlook

There are moments in the cycle of day and night when the two are indistinguishable. Getting up from a nightmare at dawn is one, waking up from a prolonged siesta at dusk is another. It is impossible to know, without other referents, whether it is dawn or dusk.

To take it as a metaphor, there are moments in the life of the nation when we are confused whether what is ahead is light or darkness, the onset of salubriousness or the path to inferno.

Such is the moment we are in now. As expected, despite its crucial importance for the evolution of representative democracy in Indonesia, the April legislative election is quickly brushed aside even before its official result is announced. Now we all are being dragged into the most dizzying horse-trading of coalition building for the presidency and vice-presidency. It is in this twisting and turning that an unmistakable sign of foreboding is lurking.

It is the growing rise or resurgence of the military outlook in Indonesian politics.

The key to understanding this peculiar syndrome is the quenchless ambition of retired Army general Prabowo Subianto of the Gerindra Party to become president. No doubt his intent is well approved by the constitutional rights of every citizen. Nothing poisonous about it; it even gives an appearance of dignity and, to a degree, political innocence.

Even if expected, what's intriguing is that soon enough it sets the presidential race into a peculiar climate. The presidential candidacy of a retired general known for his intelligent shrewdness has compelled his presidential rivals to take heed of the necessity for equivalent forces deemed essential to counterpoise his military outlook.

This is the crux of the phenomenon by which the appearance of an inevitable military presence in the ongoing coalition building needs to be understood. It seems that even the Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle (PDI-P), known for its un-militaristic outlook, is forced to take on board this tactical necessity. This is how the current presidential contest is increasingly captive to the political resurgence of the military.

For those frenziedly embroiled in the day-to-day development of coalition haggling, all this may sound like mere tactics. However, to put it within a broader prospect, this is how the military outlook and idiom is fast being brought back to the center stage of politics.

History never repeats itself, nor do its actors intentionally want to repeat the past. Conversely, it is equally true that history keeps repeating itself through the strange working of unintended consequence. The elements that make up the possibility of such unintended repetitions are there for us to see. It doesn't matter if all the presidential candidates do not want to repeat history, it still comes out that way. What is it that makes this trend alarming? It is here that some ambivalence is reflected in the controversy.

First, for those carried away by the seduction of the military outlook, what is understood is the virtue of military discipline, firmness and organisational order. This is indeed what it should be, at least according to the classical code of military conduct. That this image is a hollow myth was proven in the past. It's true that from what befell us in the past we cannot deduce what will happen in the future. It is within the appearance of the current chaos in the national life that this image has become so alluring.

Second, for those troubled by deep aversion, the military outlook has nothing to do with the ethos of discipline or organisational order but, rather, with warlike, jingoistic and violent conduct. That's why many organisations with genuine concern for human rights have been raising alarm over the current surge of the military outlook. For instance, they are dismayed by the following, found in the Gerindra Manifesto: "Law and humanity are not to be understood as two separate entities, therefore, the Human Rights Court by definition is concocted [over bodig]".

I wish these two views were reconcilable. But in my view, there is something deeper in the creeping return of this military outlook. The key to deciphering it is the way the art of government is a mirror of the Janus-faced nature of us, citizens. Since citizens are not beasts but humans, the art of government reflects the characteristics of humans, not that of a beast - reason, persuasion, argument - hence, the state of civility is a way of living together based on constitution/law.

However, the tragic fact remains ineradicable: A constitution by no means wipes out the violent and beastly tendencies ingrained in citizens-humans. So, the art of government must know how to appeal to the good sides of human nature and at the same time it cannot avoid dealing with humans at their worst. That is why the state is constitutionally also vested with the monopoly of the means of violence - the police for public order, the military for defense.

The implication is chilling. Apart from them, the use of violence is neither legal nor legitimate. It is from this "last-resort logic" that military personnel become skilful in the craft of violence rather than in the ethos of discipline. Of course we are well aware that this monopoly over the means of violence has become for them a source of gross abuse.

What has this to do with the surge of the military outlook? It may show less about the intent of the military to bring the country back to its rule than about our collective despair that works as an invitation for the military outlook to step in. Either way, the current surge of military outlook shows us how a country of the future can be stuck in the past.

(The writer is a lecturer in the Postgraduate Program at the Driyarkara School of Philosophy, Jakarta)


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