JAKARTA – Buffed Indonesian Army Chief of Staff General Andika Perkasa, whose military career didn’t seem to suffer from the unprecedented eight years he spent furthering his education in the United States, is like no other general who has held that position. He pumps iron.
Perkasa, 55, prefers skin-tight uniforms and even Batman costumes to show off a muscular frame that has spent a lot of time in the gym, where he works out regularly with Balinese body-builder Ade Rai, one of Indonesia’s more iconic figures.
Some of Perkasa’s seniors complain that the past-time has distracted him from running Indonesia’s 300,000-man army. Certainly, he now has the additional and more urgent task of dealing with a coronavirus outbreak at the Army’s Officer Candidate School in Bandung, south of Jakarta.
Officials say a 1,262-strong cluster enveloping the academy’s 2,000 staff and cadets was responsible for West Java’s sharp spike in new cases for two consecutive days, and a record national tally of 2,657 new infections on July 8, far more than any previous 24-hour period.
A senior government official said West Java Governor Ridwan Kamil, a close ally of President Joko Widodo, was quick to complain about the outbreak. “He was upset because he had succeeded in creating a lot of green zones,” said the source referring to Covid-19 low-risk areas. “He was very optimistic.”
Only 17 academy patients have required hospitalization, but the cluster outbreak was serious enough to send Perkasa hurrying to Bandung, no doubt mindful of the fact that Health Minister Terawan Agus Putranto, 55, and Covid-19 Task Force chief Doni Monardo, 57, are both serving three-star generals.
Putranto, on the verge of being sacked at one point for allegedly giving misleading misinformation and trying to play down the seriousness of the health crisis, has recently been assigned to East Java, the hardest virus hit of Indonesia’s 34 provinces.
Despite being themost populous province, West Java ranks only fifth (5,077) behind East Java (16,658), Jakarta (14,517), South Sulawesi (6,973) and Central Java (5,473) with the highest number of reported infections and just 18th in fatalities.
Perkasa’s subsequent visit to West Java’s Siliwangi regional command marked the first time he had been seen wearing a mask since he exercised with the president in the grounds of the Bogor palace, 70 kilometers south of Jakarta where Widodo has his office.
His wife, however, caused a stir at the army academy — and in Jakarta’s fashion circles — by wearing a high-tech, 22 million rupiah (US$1,530) plastic mask, which exposed most of her face.
Perkasa has the pedigree and the position that would normally stamp him as a successor to current armed forces commander Air Chief Marshal Hadi Tjahjanto, 56, who retires next year. But fate and other non-Covid-19 factors may conspire against it.
The son-in-law of former intelligence chief Gen Abdullah Mahmud Hendropriyono, Perkasa’s career began in the special forces and later extended to the head of the Presidential Security Force, the West Kalimantan regional command and the Education and Training Command.
Although Widodo has described him as the ”complete package,” his experience is different from that of his predecessors because of the time he spent gaining masters degrees at Vermont’s Norwich University and the US National War College.
Returning to Indonesia in 2013, he rose from colonel to three-star general in the space of five years – a feat that has only been matched by Prabowo Subianto, Suharto’s then son in law, who scaled the same swift promotional ladder during the 1990s before it all came crashing down around him.
When Tjahjanto retires next year, sources in the defense and diplomatic communities say for all his powerful backers, Perkasa may miss out to Navy Chief of Staff Admiral Yugo Margono, 54, under a revived system of rotating the TNI post among the three services.
During the last change of command in 2018, Tjahjanto replaced General Gatot Nurmantyo, who had been appointed out of turn three years earlier because Widodo needed a strong army figure behind him in an open conflict with the police leadership.
As it was, Nurmantyo proved to be a controversial appointment by forging links with Islamist groups, making clear his presidential ambitions and at one point severing military ties with Australia without informing the president. He was eventually eased out of the job well ahead of his March 2019 retirement date.
This time around, however, an admiral as armed forces chief would fit well with the current geopolitical situation, with China applying pressure on its maritime neighbors at a time when they are preoccupied with the Covid-19 pandemic.
Before taking over the top navy spot last May, Margono had served as Western Fleet commander and head of joint operations in the Natuna Sea, where Chinese warships and fishing vessels have regularly intruded into Indonesian waters.
Indonesia now has four frigates patrolling on a regular basis around the Natuna archipelago, with air cover provided by a squadron of air force F-16 fighters based in Pekanbaru, South Sumatra, 850 kilometers to the southwest.
Meanwhile, Perkasa is keeping up his weight-lifting regimen, recently showing up in a Batman suit to exercise with cadets at the Indonesian Military Academy in Magelang, Central Java, where he graduated as a second lieutenant in 1987.
Perkasa, 55, was introduced to weight training after his marriage in 1992 when he went to live with his in-laws, who had a home gym. “After that I started exercising regularly, but not every day,” he told an interviewer. “I was still a junior, but the more senior I got, the better I could manage my exercise plan.”
Doesn’t he get bored lifting weights every day, the reporter wanted to know? “Actually, every time I wake up, I look for a reason not to exercise,” he said. “But because it’s a need, if I don’t exercise I would have to start from scratch. I lose strength, my body aches. I don’t want to go through that again. I force myself to do it.”