Australia quietly resumes military aid to Indonesia
It took the July 24 murder of Leonard Manning, a New Zealand United Nations soldier in East Timor, to remind the world that the Indonesian military hasn't changed its spots. But just four days earlier, Indonesia's defence minister Juwono Sudarsono announced that Australia had offered to resume training Indonesian military (TNI) personnel. The announcement may account for Australian foreign affairs minister Alexander Downer's relatively benign comments on Manning's murder; UN Transitional Administration in East Timor officials placed the blame squarely on the Indonesian government and military.
Sudarsono announced the decision to send 12 TNI officers to Australia for training at a reception for the shadow defence minister Steven Martin and the Australian ambassador John McCarthy.
According to an article in Detikworld, a popular Indonesian newspaper which sided with the anti-Suharto protests in 1998, Sudarsono said that the Australian government had sent emissaries to Indonesia to discuss the program and that he didn't know if TNI officers' training would take place before or after the Olympic Games.
Detikworld stated that the ALP had initiated the exercise. Philip Dorling, a spokesperson for the shadow foreign affairs minister Laurie Brereton, described this as "far-fetched" and "a bit like something out of left field", although he did not know what discussions Martin had had while in Jakarta last week.
Martin's office hotly denied the Detikworld report. Asked what Martin would be discussing in meetings with Sudarsono, Indonesian defence secretary General Sugiono, TNI commander Admiral Widodo and Ferry Tingaggoy from the TNI parliamentary faction and other senior figures, Martin's press secretary told Green Left Weekly that Martin would be simply acting as a "statesman". Asked what that meant, she replied, "That's what shadow ministers do, meet people, say hello and shake hands".
Labor's policy on Indonesia, which will be voted on at the party's national conference at the end of July, is not a repeat of the past, Dorling stressed. "We have moved on from a position of defence relations being at the centre of our policy."
However, he added, "That doesn't mean we are closing the door on defence cooperation in the future ... in a democratic Indonesia, that cannot be ruled out." ALP leader Kim Beazley, in a May visit to Jakarta, talked up the need for "cooperative endeavours" between the countries' defence forces.
Dorling also said that Martin had been "fully briefed" on Labor's foreign affairs policy on Indonesia before leaving and that Brereton was yet to be briefed on Martin's trip.
Australia's training of TNI personnel was suspended on September 10 at the height of the bloody rampage by the TNI and its hired thugs in East Timor. Australia's defence minister, John Moore, announced that the government would be reviewing "all aspects" of Australia's defence relations, and some exercises were called off. His move was pre-empted by Indonesia unilaterally pulling out of the security agreement signed with the Paul Keating Labor government in 1995.
Tony Burke, an expert in Australia-Indonesia defence ties, told Green Left Weekly that he would not be surprised if some level of training had continued. This was confirmed by Martin's press secretary who told Green Left that officer training "had been going on for 100 years" and that "it only involves Indonesian officers going to our universities". In other words, the suspension of military ties never included a cessation in military training.
Since the Australian government was forced by last year's mass protests to push for a peace-keeping force in East Timor, it has been looking for ways to ameliorate relations with the Indonesian government and military.
The US has resumed military ties with Indonesia with the Cooperation Afloat Readiness and Training program (CARAT 2000), under way off the coast of Surabaya. Sudarsono is using the crisis in the Maluku islands to push the US to re-establish equipment supplies to Indonesia. (The US had been supplying Indonesia's army, navy and air force with some 70% of its spare parts.)
Even if the Labor Party doesn't want to take the credit for instigating a revival of links with the TNI, it's not surprising that little has been said in Australia about re-establishing military ties with Jakarta. However, Major General Peter Cosgrove's recent comments that Australia's long-term military relationship with Indonesia had been an important consideration in the successful East Timor peace-keeping mission was no doubt part of the softening up exercise.
Max Lane, chairperson of Action in Solidarity with Indonesia and East Timor (ASIET), believes that the government is between a rock and hard place in devising a new policy on Indonesia. "Support for East Timor's occupation is no longer a bargaining chip for the government. Now it is forced to compete with the rest of the region and the more powerful West for special nation status vis-a-vis Indonesia", Lane said.
"Mass anger last year at the government's refusal to help stop the carnage in East Timor was in large part due to what Howard once candidly described as successive governments' 'wrong policy' on East Timor. Military ties with Indonesia, at any level, was then, and is now, part of that wrong policy."
This view, that Australia should not be giving Indonesia's military the benefit of the doubt, was summed up by the preliminary findings of the Senate committee hearing on East Timor which wound up last October. It stated: "Indonesia's invasion of East Timor in 1975 resulted in the slaughter of tens of thousands of East Timorese and began a military occupation that operated beyond the rule of law. ABRI's frustration at its inability to stop Falintil['s] guerilla campaign for an independent East Timor resulted in a brutal and callous regime of systematic intimidation and gross violations of human rights."
The report went on: "Evidence before the Committee suggested that it was widely accepted that ABRI/TNI established, trained, armed and directed the operations of the militias in East Timor." Now, speculation is growing that the militias is still being trained by the TNI and that some of the trained thugs are joining the extremist Islamic militias contributing to the violence in the Malukus.
But for successive Australian governments, maintaining military ties with Indonesia has always come first. Their spurious argument has been that, given the TNI's influence in government and society, it is better to "engage" with the TNI and try to develop a more "democratic" culture within it.
For decades, Australia has maintained a substantial military aid program to Indonesia, including training military officers, supplying aircraft and parts for the air force, and conducting regular naval, air and land exercises. From 1991, close relations were forged between the TNI's Strategic Reserve (Kostrad) and Special Forces (Kopassus), both of which were commanded by Suharto's son-in-law Prabowo Subianto.
Kopassus is the most highly trained section of the Indonesian army and has been at the forefront of operations in East Timor, Aceh and West Papua. During the May 1988 student-led protests against Suharto, Kopassus troops were seen rappelling a helicopter into a Jakarta university, skills which Burke says were taught by the Australian military.
Since 1994, Australia's Special Air Service and Kopassus have held annual exercises in Java and Western Australia. One such exercise was taking place in WA last September when Moore announced the "suspension" of the military training program, Burke said. Hundreds, if not thousands of TNI officers have been trained in Australia.
Australia's defence cooperation with Indonesia has also been driven by its economic relationship with Indonesia. Now that Australia no longer holds the trump card it once did — support for Indonesia's occupation of East Timor in return for economic favours such as privileged access to Timor oil — a new relationship has to be forged. Competition for special status will take many forms and re-establishing military ties would seem to be one of them.
Another rationale for maintaining close military ties was the alleged need to counter a threat from China. However, the government's recent white paper Defence Force Review 2000 states that Australia faces no armed threat from any country in the region.
Australia currently spends $700 per person on defence annually (about $13 billion). "Some of this would be earmarked for military programs with Indonesia", said Lane, "and as part of the formal 'discussion' period on Australia's defence spending and programs we should demand that the government allocate this money towards much needed social programs instead."
Lane stressed that ordinary Indonesians, especially those in Aceh, the Malukus and West Papua, are crying out for Western governments not to continue to give political legitimacy to the TNI, an institution which denies them their democratic rights. "Security forces are attacking their own people all the time; the recent military attack on a National Peasants Union demonstration for land rights in South Sumatra is another reminder of the TNI's oppressive role.
"We can assist the Indonesian people's campaigns to get the TNI out of politics and to bring the Indonesian generals to justice in an international court by demanding that the Australian government not re-establish military ties", he said.
"While violence, killings and intimidation continue in the West Timor camps, the Maluku islands, Aceh and West Papua, it's obvious that the TNI is beholden to no-one. The TNI must get out of politics and business and dismantle its territorial security apparatus.
"We in Australia need to cement links with and campaign in support of the growing democracy movement in Indonesia. That is our best and only weapon against policies designed to preserve and protect the elites in both countries", Lane concluded.
BY PIP HINMAN