Muhamad Haripin muhamad.haripin@gmail.comAdhi Priamarizki, and Sigit S. NugrohoView all authors and affiliations



The President of the Republic of Indonesia, Joko Widodo, appointed two former military generals, Ryamizard Ryacudu (2014–2019) and Prabowo Subianto (2019–present), for the first- and second-term defence minister positions consecutively. The appointment of military officers – either retired or active – as defence ministers has been perceived as a recipe for potential democratic setbacks. Current studies on the quasi-civilian defence minister mainly focused on explaining the logic behind such appointments. On the other hand, our study attempts to test the argument about whether the decision to select former military figures to lead the Ministry of Defence undermines civilian control. This article examines: (1) the institutional arrangement of the defence establishment; (2) the composition of the Indonesian Ministry of Defence’s leadership structure; and (3) the leadership activities and key initiatives. The findings are that military officers have indeed dominated the ministry’s organisational structure. Nevertheless, such domination did not automatically translate into the deterioration of civilian supremacy as the institutional arrangement limits those quasi-civilian defence ministers’ manoeuvres.


Historically, the Indonesian National Armed Forces (Angkatan Bersenjata Republik Indonesia/ABRI) had dominated Indonesian politics and played an important role in the authoritarian rule of Suharto’s New Order regime (1966–1998). During his administration, former President Suharto had almost exclusively appointed ABRI high-ranking officers – especially generals who were affiliated with the Indonesian Army – to lead the then Department of Defence and Security (Departemen Pertahanan dan Keamanan/Dephankam). Furthermore, the Indonesian National Armed Forces Commander-in-Chief (Panglima ABRI) also occasionally held the ministerial position (Menteri Pertahanan dan Keamanan/Menhankam), before the separation of the National Police (POLRI) from the military structure in 2000 – following the resignation of President Suharto in mid-May 1998.1 Such dual positions were held by five army generals: Suharto (1968–1971), Maraden Panggabean (1971–1978), Muhammad Jusuf Amir (1978–1983), Edi Sudrajat (1993) and Wiranto (1998–1999).

In the post-authoritarian era, the civilian leadership urged the reorganisation of the Department of Defence to become the leading institution in guiding military reform. This initiative aimed to establish an objective civilian control procedure and to strengthen civilian supremacy over the military. Under Abdurrahman Wahid’s presidency (1999–2001), the government embarked upon major defence reform through the promulgation of Presidential Decision No. 355/M Year 1999. Abdurrahman Wahid modified the designation from Department to Ministry, restricted the Ministry of Defence’s (Kementerian Pertahanan/Kemhan) authority to defence policymaking and confined the Commander-in-Chief’s responsibility to leading the military headquarters.

Apart from one extraordinary case, in which President Wahid appointed General Agum Gumelar as caretaker of the Ministry of Defence from July to August 2001, Indonesia’s post-authoritarian civilian leaders have always entrusted civilian politicians or professionals to lead the Ministry of Defence. However, President Joko Widodo (popularly known as Jokowi), first elected in 2014 and then again in 2019, discontinued this tradition when he appointed Ryamizard Ryacudu and Prabowo Subianto – both well-known to be conservative army generals – to lead the ministry.2 Nonetheless, President Jokowi’s decision to appoint Ryamizard and Prabowo raised a moot point about whether appointing these former military figures into leadership positions within the Ministry of Defence would disrupt Indonesia’s civilian control over the military.

The answer to this debate is at best inconclusive due to several reasons. First, nominating a former military figure as defence minister can be seen as a ‘stop-gap‘ measure to patch civilian leadership’s lack of knowledge and experience about defence-politico issues (Bruneau and Goetze, 2006: 93; Friend, 2020a). Second, even though the literature on Indonesia’s civil–military relations has shown military dominance over the defence establishment, it rarely touches on the impact of appointing these military figures towards overall civilian control. The existing scholarship on Indonesia’s civil–military relations mostly focuses on the political nexus between the civilian and the military leadership (Haripin, 2020Honna, 2003Laksmana, 2019bMietzner, 2009Sebastian and Gindarsah, 2013). In a similar vein, several contemporary inquiries have analysed the Ministry of Defence within the framework of civil–military relations: its relative autonomy and early transformation (Anggoro, 20092007); its subsequent internal reform (Sukadis, 2016); the development of its roles, duties and organisational composition under Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono’s presidency (Gunawan, 2017a2017b); and the recent evaluation of military professionalisation and bureaucratisation under it (Laksmana et al., 2020).

Against this backdrop, this article aims to analyse the impacts of appointing former military elites as Ministers of Defence, dubbed ‘quasi-civilians‘, on Indonesia’s civil–military relations. In particular, we seek to answer the following main question: how does President Joko Widodo’s appointment of Ministers of Defence with military backgrounds affect Indonesia’s civilian control over the military? To address this salient point, we examine three factors that potentially enable former military figures to influence civilian control: (1) the institutional arrangement of the Indonesian defence establishment; (2) the composition of the Ministry of Defence’s leadership structure; (3) the leadership activities and their key initiatives.

Due to ongoing developments and our aim to achieve parsimony, our assessment is limited to the Ministry of Defence under the Joko Widodo government, whose two defence ministers – Ryamizard Ryacudu (2014–2019) and Prabowo Subianto (2019–present) – are former military generals. In analysing the activities of Prabowo Subianto’s defence ministership, we limit our analysis to until December 2020 as the outbreak of COVID-19 has significantly limited our attempt to conduct proper field research.

This article argues that the appointment of retired military officers as defence ministers might not necessarily have undermined civilian supremacy if a clear demarcation between the Ministry of Defence and the military headquarters had been set up. Military domination in leadership positions indeed appeared during these former military officers’ defence minister tenures. Nonetheless, an examination of the activities of those ministers indicated that the domination did not automatically compromise civilian control.

The rest of the article will be divided into three sections. We start the discussion by reviewing the conceptual framework on civil–military relations to identify the problems with the appointment of former or active military figures into the civilian leadership of the defence establishment. The second section assesses whether the Indonesian Ministry of Defence’s leadership appointment has affected the configuration of post-authoritarian civil–military relations by examining the three factors previously mentioned. Finally, our last section concludes the assessment by highlighting the implications of appointing former military figures to the Ministry of Defence, and discusses a potential area of inquiry for further studies.

Declaration of conflicting interests

The author(s) declared no potential conflicts of interest with respect to the research, authorship, and/or publication of this article.


The author(s) received no financial support for the research, authorship, and/or publication of this article


Muhamad Haripin