Zubaidah Nazeer – Straits Times Indonesia
President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono weighed in on Thursday on ongoing opposition to planned arms purchases, saying it lagged behind its neighbors in military equipment because the country had been preoccupied with economic matters for the past 15 years.
Speaking at the start of a meeting of cabinet ministers on political and security matters, Yudhoyono urged his colleagues to lay out the facts about defense spending clearly in responding to criticisms from legislature and other quarters.
The time for mark-ups and backroom deals in defense and other government spending was over, he said, pledging action against irregularities.
Critics, Yudhoyono noted, might wonder whether Indonesia’s efforts to upgrade its ageing military hardware at a time when its economy is also picking up might trigger an arms race or questions from its neighbors in the region.
“The answer is very simple: What Indonesia has is far behind that which our neighbors have. We only intend to bridge that gap so we can maintain our sovereignty and peace,” he said. “For 15 to 20 years, our military modernization did not proceed as it should have because of economic reasons and other pressing priorities.”
Yudhoyono’s remarks came a week after the legislative commission overseeing defense and foreign affairs grilled Defense Minister Purnomo Yusgiantoro and military chiefs over the army’s plan to buy 100 second-hand Leopard tanks from the Netherlands for $280 million.
The lawmakers asked whether enough was being done for the country’s sea and air defenses, and whether the large German-made tanks — which many Asian countries already have — were really the best buy for the archipelago’s defense needs.
Yudhoyono, a former army general and chief-of-staff before he entered politics, did not go into specifics, but said he had been following the debate closely, and it was only fair for the legislature to discuss the matter at length.
“You cannot stop explaining,” he said. “If communication is lacking, we are at fault.”
Lawmakers had also expressed concern that the purchase would hinder efforts to develop Indonesia’s own defense industry. Some suggested tanks could be developed by local arms manufacturer Pindad.
Yudhoyono said the government’s policy was to use local industries when they had the capability, and admitted some would be unhappy that the time for mark-ups or backroom deals was over. “We have to be accountable for what we spend out of the state budget,” he said.
The Dutch had insisted the Leopards sale would strictly be a government-to-government arrangement, with no middlemen, fees or commissions.
On Thursday, the defense minister also gave an update on the newly inaugurated Indonesian Peace and Security Center in Sentul, West Java, that will be ready by 2014. The center will house a regional counter-terrorism and disaster relief training center, the Indonesia Defense University, as well as a standby force that can respond rapidly to natural disasters and United Nations peacekeeping missions.
Reprinted courtesy of Straits Times Indonesia. To subscribe to Straits Times Indonesia and/or the Jakarta Globe call 021 2553 5055.