Participants in the the Bela Negara - 'defend the nation' recieve a weapon's familiarization course from a military trainer (L) at a training center in Rumpin, Bogor, West Java, Indonesia June 2, 2016. REUTERS/Darren Whiteside

Participants in the the Bela Negara – ‘defend the nation’ recieve a weapon’s familiarization course from a military trainer (L) at a training center in Rumpin, Bogor, West Java, Indonesia June 2, 2016. REUTERS/Darren Whiteside

Indonesia’s army will give “semi-military” weapons training to people including unemployed men and “gangsters” on the island of Bali, a spokesman said on Friday, under a programme that has raised concern about the re-emergence of military influence.

President Joko Widodo’s administration has become increasingly uneasy about the military-run “Bela Negara” or “Defend the Nation” programme aimed at guarding against “foreign influences” like communism, religious extremism and homosexuality.

Over the last few months, the programme has gained momentum, partly in reaction to support from Widodo for an investigation into an anti-communist purge in 1965. The suggestion of an investigation has angered some retired military men, many of whom say the purge was justified.

The training on the resort island of Bali was apparently the first to include street thugs, and was aimed partly at making them “good citizens”, a military spokesman said.

“The introduction to weapons is part of the material so the participants are not bored … and so they can feel what it’s like in the military,” said Hotman Hutahaean, spokesman for Bali’s military command.

“There will be other material … like marching and physical training … so the public can know their rights and obligations, especially gangsters, because they need to be prepared to be good citizens,” he said.

Hutahaean said the training of the “gangsters” would begin in August and he expected about 100 people to enrol altogether. He did not elaborate on what he meant by gangsters but said no one with a criminal record would be accepted.

The proposal has raised questions.

“They are basically empowering young guys with murky backgrounds who will go around playing army,” said defence expert Yohanes Sulaiman.

“Arming civilians or even training them this way is not a good idea unless you organise them properly and have laws and regulations to control it.”

The defence ministry launched the “Bela Negara” programme last year to counter what it calls an erosion of nationalistic values. The aim is to mould millions of civil servants, doctors, students and others into a civilian defence corps.

But many Indonesian view “Bela Negara” as an attempt by the military, which ruled for decades, to claw back some of the influence it lost after it was forced out of politics when strongman Suharto was ousted in 1998.

About 1.8 million people nationwide have signed up for the voluntary programme and some classes are underway.

Officials insist weapons training will be limited to teaching how to assemble guns and familiarising participants with weapons through photographs.

Source : Reporting by Kanupriya Kapoor in JAKARTA and Reuters stringer in DENPASAR; Editing by Robert Birsel