JAKARTA, Indonesia-The KRI Nanggala (402) sank in April last year with the loss of all 53 crew, one of the worst peacetime military disasters involving any of the members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN).
The German designed and built submarine was decades old, having been first built in 1981 before serving for several decades despite its obvious outdated and unsafe design. It is telling that the submarine sank while carrying out a torpedo drill, a crucial capability in case of war.
Why was a submarine of this age and quality kept into service long after it lost its military utility? The answer is simple. Just like several other ASEAN countries, an intricate network of middlemen work hand in glove with certain arms suppliers to ensure outdated and unsafe equipment is kept in service long past their expiration dates.
These middlemen who often have none of the skills and expertise needed to conduct any business in military and defense affairs continue to milk the system, whether through overpriced maintenance contracts or getting top figures in Indonesia’s armed forces compliant through a number of questionable means.
Four years before the KRI Nanggala, the Tufts University, a US-based private research university issued a paper on the state of corruption in Indonesia’s military which has has long been regarded as highly corrupt even after the fall of long-time dictator President Suharto in 1998, and the military’s subsequent withdrawal from the political sphere.
The study, ‘Corruption In The Indonesian Arms Business’ noted that very little detail is provided of the annual defense budget, and systems of monitoring, control, and accountability are weak:
“Brokers and middlemen, frequently the conduit for corrupt payments from suppliers to decision-makers in international arms deals, are active in most procurement processes from a very early stage, creating ample opportunities for decisions to be distorted by corruption, from the setting of initial requirements to the final contract award. Despite this, before 2015 there were virtually no cases of military officers or defense officials being investigated in relation to corruption, and none in relation to arms procurement. Military personnel remain exempt from the civilian justice system, which means that the Corruption Eradication Commission (Komisi Pembarantasan Korupsi, KPK), which has been very active in other spheres since its foundation in 2002, is unable to directly investigate military corruption.”
Separately Transparency International’s Government Defence Anti-Corruption Index for 2015 gave Indonesia a ‘D’ rating, indicating a high corruption risk.
Middlemen continue to wreak havoc
While the Indonesian Navy is in a markedly poor state, this is not exclusive to that branch. Indonesia’s land forces and air force are also facing substantial problems stemming from corruption.
Individuals such as Republikorp founder and chairman Norman Joesoef is part of the large network of business activities, formal, informal, and illegal, providing an off-budget source of income outside civilian control that is particularly susceptible to corruption.
These businesses exist despite a 2004 law requiring all of the military’s economic activities be ended or transferred to the state. The law was never properly implemented giving people like Norman a free hand to openly lobby, bribe and persuade military officials into granting contracts that will only benefit private pockets while leaving the military unprepared against internal and external conflicts.
Unscrupulous businessmen like Norman also keep in service the estimated 305 French built AMX-13 acquired in the 1960s. These long obsolete light tanks are still being used in Indonesia’s counter-insurgency against Papua province against freedom fighters seeking to free themselves of Jakarta’s oppressive rule.
Piles of other obsolete equipment continues to remain in service, with a whole ecosystem of individuals benefiting from a variety of maintenance contracts, leaving Indonesia's military budget of US 8.2 billion disappearing into a black hole.
Draining the swamp
President Joko Widodo has performed well in eradicating corruption in a number of spheres, propelling the country ahead of its neighbours in the Corruption Perception Index (CPI), Transparency International’s annual report.
However he must apply the same courage to his military as well to ensure that Indonesia’s hard earned success in economic development and good transparency will continue and not find itself in the same opaque mess that its military still finds itself in.