The Pandemic Has Given Armies in Southeast Asia a Boost

In Indonesia and the Philippines, military leaders are managing the coronavirus response—with lasting political repercussions.

Soldiers respond to coronavirus in the Philippines
Soldiers wait to be deployed as part of the government's coronavirus measures in Manila, the Philippines, on March 14. TED ALJIBE/AFP via Getty Images

Some governments in Southeast Asia, slow to respond to the coronavirus pandemic, are now using their militaries to make up for initial inaction. Indonesia and the Philippines in particular have treated the coronavirus not as a public health matter but rather as a security issue—a development that could undermine democracy in a region with a history of autocratic rule.

In both Jakarta and Manila, retired or senior army officers lead the governments’ COVID-19 task forces instead of health experts. The approach contrasts with those of other countries such as Singapore and Vietnam, which placed civilian leaders and health officials in leadership. Both countries were praised for extensive testing, policy coordination, and transparency, though they had mixed results: Vietnam hasn’t recorded a single COVID-19 death, while Singapore now has one of Asia’s highest infection rates. Meanwhile, Myanmar and Thailand also have army leaders in charge, but the military already significantly influences both administrations.

In Indonesia and the Philippines, allowing army officials to manage the crisis suggests that these governments see the coronavirus pandemic as an insurgency to quash—not a crisis that requires long-term health reforms. Civilian control of the military is a relatively recent dynamic in both countries. The militarized response to the pandemic could facilitate a long-term backslide toward authoritarianism.

In Indonesia, the new roles assigned to army brass risk upsetting delicate civil-military relations and increasing the army’s power. Meanwhile, Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte is accused of using the military to introduce more repressive policies. “There is always a risk that mobilizing the military will undermine democracy and the rule of law, and it is up to politicians, activists, and societies to guard against that,” said Prashanth Parameswaran, the director of the Bower Group Asia consultancy group and a fellow at the Wilson Center.

Failing to take preventative action, leaders turned to army officials for help in containing their outbreaks.

Leaders in Indonesia and the Philippines initially underestimated the pandemic’s severity. Failing to take preventative action, they turned to army officials for help in containing their outbreaks. Since March, the number of cases in each country has surged. After weeks of denying undetected infections, Indonesian President Joko Widodo reported the country’s first coronavirus case in early March. By mid-April, confirmed infections approached 6,000, and they now surpass 39,000. In the Philippines, the Department of Health dismissed the idea of mass testing in March, and by early April, it had reported over 3,000 infections. There are now more than 26,000 cases.

In Indonesia, the coronavirus fast-response team is led by active Army Lt. Gen. Doni Monardo, the head of the National Disaster Mitigation Agency. The unit is tasked with contact-tracing, surveillance, and border controls. Three of the six executive positions are held by senior generals including Doni, and only one of the six has a public health background. The military also operates COVID-19 emergency hospitals in Jakarta and on Galang Island. The army isn’t in charge of any civilian policy decision-making, but some experts warn that its high-profile presence on the task force could pave the way for a military resurgence in civilian affairs. The country endured a harsh dictatorship from 1967 to 1998 under former President Suharto, who formed a military-dominated government.

Indonesia’s president, better known as Jokowi, presented himself as a reformist when he came to power in 2014, but he has cultivated close ties with the military. In 2015, he gave the military a greater role in civil administration, and Jokowi’s current cabinet, selected after his reelection last year, has the highest concentration of military personnel in decades. Jokowi is also seeking to give the armed forces a formal counterterrorism role, as presented in a presidential decree last month. In February, the president was criticized for submitting a bill to parliament that would give him increased control over policymaking.

“It appears that the military is trying to claw back civilian power and Jokowi is either enabling them or not standing up to them,” said Zachary Abuza, a professor at the National War College in Washington, where he specializes in Southeast Asian security issues. If that’s the case, the democratic progress that elected civilian governments have achieved over the past two decades could be erased—bringing the country back to a state of military-backed authoritarianism.

A lack of health care reform is another threat to Indonesia. Southeast Asia’s largest economy is struggling with a shortage of trained medical staff and personal protective equipment. And Health Minister Terawan Agus Putranto is seen as anti-science, having suggested that the power of prayer will protect Indonesians from the coronavirus. The country needs leaders with expertise in epidemiology to address the structural issues in the national health care system, said Tangguh Chairil, a national security expert at Bina Nusantara University in Jakarta.

In the Philippines, Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana heads the coronavirus task force, flanked by presidential advisor Carlito Galvez Jr. and Interior Secretary Eduardo Año—all former military leaders. Government critics fear that Duterte could use the military’s role on the response team as an opportunity to declare martial law. “Are we now in a state of undeclared martial rule and a de facto junta is now running the country?” Carlos Zarate, a representative for the leftist party Bayan Muna, said in late March. In April, Duterte ordered police and military units to shoot protesters who breached quarantine rules. At least 120,000 people were arrested, according to the United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights. Philippine Armed Forces spokesperson Edgard Arevalo later said the military was working with police to enforce a “martial law-like lockdown” if needed.

Unlike in Indonesia, the Philippine Armed Forces aren’t seeking to increase their power, and they already enjoy a high degree of public trust. But the military’s record is bloody: It is known to brand critics of the state as communists or terrorists, making them targets of violence. “The [military] is still using red-tagging tactics against vocal left-leaning critics of the government,” said Michael Henry Yusingco, a senior research fellow at Ateneo de Manila University. The army maintains it would uphold human rights in a state of nationwide martial law. In the case of Mindanao island, where martial law was enforced for over two years due to terrorism threats, business largely continued as usual and media worked unhindered, Yusingco said. “But the same scenario might not happen in nationwide martial law,” he added.

If nationwide martial law is put into place, the military may be forced to carry out Duterte’s orders, which could include conflict with domestic terrorist groups, censorship, and assaults on the free press, Abuza said. Meanwhile, Duterte is soon expected to sign a new anti-terrorism act into law, and activists fear a further erosion of democratic norms. Under the bill, a special body of officials appointed by the president could order authorities to arrest people it designates as “terrorists” without a judicial warrant.

Indonesia and the Philippines were cracking down on critics and the free press long before the pandemic.

Jakarta and Manila are now gradually reopening after weeks of lockdown, but their security-heavy strategies could produce lasting political repercussions. “Southeast Asian countries should tread carefully when it comes to vesting more power in their militaries, because some forms of militarization that occur during COVID-19 could prove hard to reverse after the pandemic ends,” Parameswaran, of the Bower Group Asia, said.

It will be up to nonstate actors such as civil rights groups and journalists to call out the government or army on oppressive policies. But that’s no easy feat: Indonesia and the Philippines were cracking down on critics and the free press long before the pandemic. The international community must help by pressuring Jakarta and Manila to uphold democratic norms at times of crisis. Without internal and external opposition, both countries may sink deeper into authoritarianism under the pretext of the coronavirus.

Nyshka Chandran is a freelance journalist covering geopolitics, society, and culture across Asia. Twitter: @nyshkac