Indonesian President Joko Widodo (right) inaugurates Air Force Marshal Hadi Tjahjanto as the country's new military chief at the presidential palace in Jakarta on December 8, 2017. Photo: AFP / Gagah Adhaputra

It took Air Chief Marshal Hadi Tjahjanto, the new Indonesian Armed Forces (TNI) commander, just 12 days to impose his authority by reversing his predecessor Gen Gatot Nurmantyo’s mischief-making reshuffle of more than 80 military officers in the final days before he was compelled to step down.

Tjahjanto, 54, gave no reason for the unprecedented step, but with Nurmantyo openly harbouring political ambitions – and still on active service until next March – it was clearly aimed at shoring up President Joko Widodo’s support base.

As one of the youngest officers to hold the military’s top post, Tjahjanto is not due to retire until November 2021, a period which comfortably covers the 2019 legislative and presidential elections, in which Widodo is favored to win a second term.

Parliament approved Tjahjanto’s appointment without a voice of dissent, apparently mindful of the backing he had received from chief political minister Wiranto, Defence Minister Ryamizard Ryacudu and maritime coordinating minister Luhut Panjaitan, all retired generals.

The new commander is likely to restore the neutrality of the armed forces after Nurmantyo openly used his position to forge links with hard-line Islamic groups campaigning against the re-election of ethnic-Chinese governor Basuki Purnama, a Widodo ally, in Jakarta.

The appointments of some of the 32 senior and 53 mid-level officers may still go ahead, but Tjahjanto is expected to weed out those who are perceived to have personal debts of loyalty to Nurmantyo going back to earlier in their careers.

That applies to the former South Sumatra region commander Maj-Gen Sudirman, 54. The senior-most officer in the reshuffle, he was plucked from his post of chief of army operations to head the 25,000-strong Army Strategic Reserve (Kostrad).

Sumatran-born Sudirman, 54, was widely seen as a Nurmantyo protégé and placing him in charge of Indonesia’s main regular combat force, with its two motorized infantry divisions and supporting arms, would have been unacceptable.

Indonesia’s new military chief Air Force Marshal Hadi Tjahjanto (left) shakes hands with his predecessor, General Gatot Nurmantyo, after his swearing-in ceremony at the presidential palace in Jakarta on December 8, 2017. Photo: Gagah / Adhaputra

It is not clear who will now replace current Kostrad commander Lt-Gen Edi Rahmayadi, 56, when the Aceh-born infantry officer quits the army two years before his retirement date to run in next year’s North Sumatra gubernatorial elections.

The low-profile, but capable, army chief of staff Gen Mulyono will probably be retained until his retirement in 2019, but military analysts expect next few faces in other strategic posts, including the Indonesian Special Forces (Kopassus), the Jakarta regional command and military intelligence (BAIS).

Although the top TNI position is meant to be rotated among the three services, the cycle was broken in 2015 because the air force commander was too new and Widodo wanted an army general anyway to counter a then-rebellious police force.

Tjahjanto has had a close relationship with Widodo dating back to when he commanded the airbase in Widodo’s hometown of Solo in Central Java and cemented further when he was brought in as the president’s military secretary in the early days of Widodo’s rule.

He always seemed destined for the top after being promoted to the three-star position of Defence Ministry inspector-general, then swiftly elevated to air force chief just three months later, in January 2017.

Tjahjanto is likely to work hard at improving relations between the military and the police – relations which have never been good but which deteriorated to their lowest point during Nurmantyo’s two-years at the helm.

That is likely to be made easier by the fact that police chief Gen Tito Karnavian is another hand-picked Widodo appointee. He was jumped over the head of several other more senior officers last year.

Fluent in English and French, and with conversational Mandarin and German, Tjahjanto, like many Indonesian air force and navy officers, has a world view that is likely to tamp down overt nationalism and improve the TNI’s external relations.

At a parliamentary hearing just a day before his appointment was confirmed, he discussed changes in the world order, Islamic radicalism, cyber warfare, China’s growing influence and maritime security.

Under any normal circumstances, a country’s leader would have been fully justified in sacking the head of the armed forces if he suspended military ties with a friendly neighbor without informing either him or his administration

Analysts noted the stark contrast with Nurmantyo, an ultra-nationalist whose paranoia extended to bizarre warnings of a new communist threat and a so-called “proxy war” waged by foreign interests aimed at taking over Indonesia.

A 1982 military academy graduate, the Javanese general would have only been a captain when the United States suspended all military co-operation with Indonesia over the 1991 Dili churchyard massacre, a ban that stayed in place until 2005.

As a result, he and a generation of Indonesian officers were deprived of the opportunity to train overseas, an education that perhaps would have widened their horizons and stifled a national tendency to buy into wild conspiracy theories.

He claimed foreigners were jealous of Indonesia’s economic performance and its rich store of natural resources and shared the widely-held suspicion that US Marines training in northern Australia had their eyes on seizing Papua, the country’s easternmost province.

Late last year, he unilaterally suspended military relations with Australia after a junior Indonesian officer sent him perceived derogatory material about East Timor and Papua in Australian training manuals.

Under any normal circumstances, a country’s leader would have been fully justified in sacking the head of the armed forces if he suspended military ties with a friendly neighbor without informing either him or his administration.

But Tjahjanto was only made air force chief last January and Widodo, his patience close to breaking point, must have realized he needed more time in that job as a newly-minted four-star before he could justify bringing him in as Nurmantyo’s replacement.

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