By: Our Correspondent

indonesiaThe deaths in late May of four peasants at the hands of Indonesian marines in a tiny East Java hamlet have put Jakarta under strong pressure to rein in the Indonesian military. The incident has angered human rights groups, legislators and influential Muslim figures, who appear determined to force the military to reform.

In a land where the powerless are frequently at the mercy of the powerful, the shootings, which even the military characterized as a mistake, increasingly look like they could play a role in bring a final end to 40-years of military dominance in Indonesian politics and national life. That includes forcing the military to give up the tangle of business interests that have kept the uniforms enmeshed in commerce.

The current controversy started in when the navy's cooperative, Induk Koperasi Angkatan Laut, which claims ownership of the disputed 539 hectares where the shooting started, sought to force locals from the village of Alas Tlogo off the land, which it says it bought in 1981. The locals, who say the purchase was against their wishes, took the matter to court, which ruled in favor of the navy, although the verdict is currently under appeal. The action turned ugly when troops fired warning shots to disperse protesters, and hit several of them.

At the heart of the shooting is the military’s dual role – security and business – that was put in place by the now-deposed strongman Suharto to preserve the country’s internal and external security and to ensure that government policy followed a path that the military leadership felt was wise. It is a culture that survived, however precariously, the end of Suharto’s 32-year reign and subsequent disasters in East Timor and Aceh, where the military mishandled delicate situations to the detriment of the country.

Despite widespread pressure for reform, the military’s biggest problem is its lack of funding, which often drives it beyond the law. By 2009, the military, known by its Indonesian acronym TNI, must relinquish its business interests under reform legislation. However, government officials have indicated that while profitable military enterprises will be converted to state-owned assets, the TNI will be allowed to retain foundations and cooperatives, which are businesses by another name.

The government provides as little as 15-30 percent of the military budget. The rest comes from the foundations, which operate a vast tapestry of legal and illegal businesses, ranging from poaching and smuggling to running illegal crude oil into the country. The military are grossly underpaid, with a general making only about US$400 monthly. Enlisted men make almost nothing, and their income comes from a wide variety of shakedowns from the ubiquitous roadblocks at the end of the month to outright theft.

The Defense Minister, Juwono Sudarsono, has conceded that military businesses have frequently been identified with large-scale abuses of human rights and pervasive repression. He argues, however, that the implementation of an in-house anti-corruption drive in both the Department of Defense and the TNI has deprived critics of what he terms the decades old ammunition of “an octopus-like” military-business complex and that no further reform is necessary

But the military continues to feel the heat. After the shootings, the Armed Forces commander in chief Air Marshall Djoko Suyanto, went to great lengths to apologize to the families of the victims and promised a full inquiry, but the navy continues to defend the shooting, saying troops followed standard procedures for dealing with violent protesters.

This particular tragedy is unlikely to be swept aside, however. Influential legislators and civilian figures are demanding action. For example, Djoko Susilo, a legislator who sits on the powerful Commission 1 on Defense and Security at the House of Representatives (DPR), believes the time has come to roll back the power of what he called an “arrogant” military, by force of law.

'They use weapons, bought with money from the state budget to kill their own brothers,” he said on the state radio network. Yusron Ihza Mahendra, deputy leader of the Islamic party, the Crescent Star Party (PBB), echoed his comments. Former president Abdurrahman Wahid, who led the National Awakening Party for many years, announced that his party had filed separate civil law suits against the 13 suspects, the Indonesian Navy and the conglomerate PT Rajawali, the owner of the 80 percent of the land in the battlefield area which is not in dispute.

The Commission for Missing Persons and Victims of Violence (Kontras) wants the case heard in a criminal court; reasoning that a military court martial may simply accept the perpetrators’ claims of self defense.

Usman Hamid, a Kontras director who has been instrumental in the push for justice over the 2004 poisoning death of Munir, Indonesia's most famous human rights defender, on a Garuda Indonesia flight to Europe, warns that a court martial would likely only lead to the offenders dismissal from the service, as the military rarely, if ever, punishes its soldiers for human rights violations.