BY JAMES BALOWSKI
The brutal murder of nearly 200 people in Indonesia's tourist resort of Kuta on the island of Bali on October 12 occurred as the US is attempting to pressure Jakarta into supporting its War on Terror. As part of this effort, Washington and Canberra are also attempting to re-engage with the Indonesian armed forces, the TNI.
At a speech to the first anniversary dinner of the C.E.W. Bean Foundation on September 25, Australian defence minister Robert Hill said that Indonesia remains of enduring strategic importance to Australia.
This strategic importance is based on the existence of what Hill describes as: "... an arc of militant Islamic influence albeit at the margins of society [which] stretches across the region, from Malaysia and Singapore across into the southern Philippines and Indonesia, including Sulawesi and Maluku".
While admitting that "sensitivities were obviously exacerbated by events in East Timor in 1999..." (referring to the campaign of violence unleashed by anti-independence militia, funded and backed at the highest levels of the TNI leadership which resulted in Washington and Canberra severing military ties in 1998), Hill went on to say:
"Like Indonesia's other institutions, the role of the Indonesian military forces TNI is evolving in a fluid and difficult environment as they move away from the 'dual function' they had under the New Order [of former President Suharto].
"But TNI will remain a fundamentally important institution in Indonesia. Its handling of difficult internal security problems across the archipelago will have a crucial bearing on stability. As a secular organisation it will remain key to the government's efforts to promote tolerance and harmony between Indonesia's many different faiths. This is particularly important in the context of current concerns about the potential attractiveness of radical forms of Islam in the region.
"The current TNI leadership seems committed to developing a more professional Indonesian military, and we are keen to assist this process. It would be a mistake to overestimate the amount of influence Australia can have over this process of evolution, which after all is a matter for Indonesia. But TNI's continuing importance in Indonesia and Indonesia's importance to Australia mean we have an undoubted stake in the outcome."
Resuming ties with TNI
Emboldened by the climate of fear created by the Bali bombing, Hill went further last week, saying that Australia is now considering resuming military links with Indonesia's notorious special forces, Kopassus. "We are aware of the role that Kopassus has in relation to counter-terrorism responsibilities in Indonesia, and therefore it might well be in Australian interests to redevelop the relationship", Hill told the Australian parliament on October 16.
In the past, Washington and Canberra have repeatedly said that if military ties were to be restored, this would not include Kopassus and the Mobile Brigade (Brimob) which have been at the forefront of suppressing peaceful democratic and separatists' movements.
In response to the Bean Foundation speech, Australian Financial Review correspondent Tim Dodd wrote on September 2: "Now let us see if we can follow this logic through. According to Defence Minister Robert Hill, in the new uncertain international environment Australians may have to rely on the Indonesian army to protect them from terrorists.
"And this Indonesian army is the same outfit whose special forces, the Kopassus, are suspected by many of being involved in the murder of three teachers in an armed ambush near the Freeport mine in Indonesia's Papua province last month [on August 31]. The killings, in which two of the dead and many of the wounded were American, are the most serious incidents which could be classified as terrorism that Americans have experienced in Indonesia for many years."
Although Dodd acknowledged that "We do not know whether or not the army was involved in the killings" he went on to write: "But the most telling point against Kopassus is that no seasoned observer of Papuan affairs has ruled out the possibility that this so-called elite unit, or other soldiers for that matter, were involved in the killings.
"The reason why is that the Indonesian army is, at best, an ill-disciplined, poorly trained and badly equipped military force. And at its worst it can only be described as a group of brigands specialising in protection rackets, robbery and corruption ... [it] has shown no ability whatsoever to promote tolerance and harmony. In fact, it is a prime mover in fanning Indonesia's most dangerous ethnic and religious conflicts."
The US has denounced the Bali bombing as a "despicable act of terror" and claimed that the al Qaeda network is behind the attack. So far no group has claimed responsibility and the Indonesian police say they "have no idea" who is behind it.
Many have pointed the finger at the radical Muslim group Jemaah Islamiyah (JI) which allegedly has links with al Qaeda or one of several other radical Islamic groups operating in Indonesia.
However, the possibility of TNI involvement cannot be ruled out. The reasons are two-fold. Firstly, the TNI has a long history of creating, funding and backing right-wing Islamic groups which have been inciting regional and communal violence and are used against pro-democracy groups. Secondly, the TNI directly benefits from maintaining such conflicts, particularly in areas such as northern Aceh, West Papua and the Maluku islands.
A report released last December by the International Crisis Group (ICG) a Belgium-based think tank suggests the TNI created the network now said to be South-East Asia's most serious terrorist threat. The report says that JI was created in the 1970s by the head of Indonesia's military intelligence. The goal was to compromise Muslim opponents of Suharto and to depict them as fundamentalists.
The ICG report says that JI has its roots in the Darul Islam rebellion in Indonesia in the 1950s which sought to transform Indonesia into an Islamic state. Suharto seized power in 1965 after slaughtering as many as one million communists and left-wing sympathisers a campaign supported by right-wing Muslim militias trained by the predecessor of the TNI.
By the 1970s Suharto had become concerned about the opposition groups' growing popularity and set about to discredit it. In a sting operation, Suharto's intelligence chief General Ali Murtopo persuaded former Darul Islam members to reactivate, ostensibly to prevent "communist infiltration". When they did so in 1977, the security forces arrested 185 activists and accused them of seeking to establish a fundamentalist state.
References to JI first surfaced in court documents as the organisation the activists thought they were setting up at Murtopo's behest.
Most of those arrested were released in the 1980s, and some radicalised by their experience in prison organised to fight the Suharto dictatorship. These included Abu Bakar Bashir, a Muslim cleric now accused by Singapore of being JI's ringleader.
ICG country director Sidney Jones says senior TNI officials retained close ties to the group at least through the 1980s. "If you scratch any radical Islamic group in Indonesia, you will find some security forces involvement", Jones told the Associated Press on August 12.
Another of Indonesia's violent Muslim extremist groups, Laskar Jihad which coincidentally was officially disbanded hours before the Bali bombing has been supported by the TNI and high ranking members of government.
In January 2000 for example, parliamentary speaker Amien Rais and vice-president Hamzah Haz were speakers at a rally organised by Laskar Jihad (LJ) members calling for a holy war against Christians in the Maluku islands if the government could not contain the violence.
When the LJ declared that it would leave for Maluku, then-president Abdurahman Wahid explicitly ordered it not to go. But the security forces at the Tanjung Perak port of Surabaya in East Java did nothing to stop members of LJ boarding ships heading for Maluku.
The security forces claimed that the LJ members carried no weapons so there was no justification to prevent their departure. They soon obtained modern automatic weapons presumably from sympathisers in the military and they are believed to have been involved in large-scale attacks on Christian communities which led to heavy casualties.
In a letter sent to US law makers in October, a group of Indonesian human rights organisations urged the US Congress to maintain tough conditions on renewing US training of the TNI. Backed by reports from the State Department, these groups argue that there has been virtually no progress by the TNI on meeting conditions attached to any resumption of training. They note that the TNI continues to use militias in other conflict areas, such as Aceh, Papua, and the Maluku islands to terrorise the local population and human rights activists, and pursue its own political and economic interests.
"Like the US government, we are also concerned about the existence of radical Islamic groups in Indonesia. But only a very small minority of Indonesians are involved with these organisations, which have little to no proven connection to international terrorist networks", the groups wrote.
"Moreover", they continued, "these groups frequently operate with covert and, in some cases, overt support of elements of the military, police and government. The greatest threat Indonesians face, and the greatest obstacle to real democracy, is the military. If the standard definition of 'terrorism' is applied to events in Indonesia, then the true terrorists are the security forces."
Any "stabilising" role the TNI may play in Indonesia will be to suppress popular discontent as the country continues to slide into an economic, political and leadership crisis which will only be worsened by the attack in Bali.
Contrary to Hill's assertion that the TNI is "... a fundamentally important institution ... [which] will have a crucial bearing on stability", recent events highlight the fact that the TNI is little more than a bunch of murderous thugs in uniform.
From Green Left Weekly, October 23, 2002.
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