INDONESIA: US strengthens military ties



US military ties with Jakarta have been restricted since the 1990s because of the Indonesian military's (TNI) human rights abuses in East Timor. Now, Washington is using the "war on terrorism" as justification to renew ties. On July 18, the US Senate voted for a foreign aid bill which included US$400,000 for the Indonesian military.

Last year, Indonesia's President Megawati Sukarnoputri was one of the first heads of state to swear allegiance to President George Bush's crusade. In April, US and Indonesian officials held talks on "security issues".

Also in April, the US state department requested that Congress approve US$16 million to train Indonesian police in "counter-terrorism" and to train and equip a new military unit, euphemistically described as a "peacekeeping force" for "troubled areas". Congress approved US$8 million for the police training, but was divided on the latter.

US defence secretary Donald Rumsfeld and deputy defence secretary Paul Wolfowitz, a former ambassador to Jakarta, have been pushing the US Senate to remove the restrictions imposed by the 1999 "Leahy amendment" (renewed and expanded in 2000). This amendment to the Foreign Operations Appropriations Act made military aid to Indonesia contingent on the TNI reforming itself.

These "reforms" include the TNI becoming financially transparent and that it cooperates with efforts to bring TNI officers responsible for the carnage in East Timor to justice. Military aid was also made conditional on internationally recognised human rights organisations being allowed into West Timor, Aceh, West Papua and the Moluccas Islands.

While the amount granted on July 18 was relatively small, the Senate Appropriations Committee's vote opens the door for more direct funding and represents a weakening of the Leahy amendment.


Karen Orenstein from the US-based East Timor Action Network (ETAN) said on July 15: "The 'war on terrorism' must not become an excuse to support state-sponsored military terror on civilians in Indonesia. Military restrictions are the primary leverage the US government has over the TNI. If Congress removes them, the TNI will take this as an endorsement of business-as-usual or even a signal of support for continuing abuses. Nothing will be gained and the people of Indonesia will lose."

Max Lane from Action in Solidarity with Asia and the Pacific told Green Left Weekly that "Western military assistance at any level is political endorsement for the militarised status quo in Indonesia". He believes that a part of the US motivation for resuming military ties with Indonesia is to reward Indonesia for its cooperation in "fighting terrorism". The Megawati government has jailed a few fundamentalist Muslims the US identified as terrorists.

"However, the US is primarily trying to overcome the anti-US sentiment within the TNI, which developed following the US decision to end military training in the early 1990s", Lane added.

Interestingly, the International Crisis Group (ICG), an international think-tank headed up by former Australian foreign minister Gareth Evans, also believes that terrorism is not the main problem facing Indonesia.

ICG spokesperson Heather Hurlburt told US National Public Radio on June 18 that Laskar Jihad, the most organised of the far-right Islamic militia groups, poses little threat. While they are trying to stir up trouble in the Moluccas Islands, she said they do not have "[the] classic sort of links to al-Qaeda operations that cause a global threat".

A more candid view was put by Matthew Daley, US deputy assistant secretary of state for east Asian and Pacific affairs, in June. "In dealing with Indonesia on counter-terrorism, if the focus is September 11, you're missing 90%", Daley said. He argued that the real threat facing Jakarta was "the threat of sectarian violence... We want to provide unequivocal support for the territorial integrity of Indonesia".

Daley argued that US military aid was needed to prepare the TNI to deal with civil unrest. "We're trying to expand the margins of what we can do with the TNI", he said, adding that the US should be "realistic" and recognise that Indonesia will have to use its military rather than its police to deal with internal problems.

Reduced pressure

"The US decision on supplying aid to the TNI will reduce pressure on the TNI to reform and withdraw from politics", Lane told GLW. "The Megawati government has given the TNI more of a free rein to carry out its dirty work in Aceh and West Papua."

Already this year, close to 1000 Acehnese have been killed in clashes with the 60,000 TNI and police stationed there; last year the death toll was 2000, mostly civilians.

No-one has been bought to justice for the assassination of West Papuan independence leader Theys Eluay last November despite evidence of military involvement.

The TNI has ignored a summons from Indonesia's National Human Rights Commission which is investigating the Semanggi and Trisakti student killings of 1998 and 1999. Jakarta is also refusing a request by East Timor's Serious Crimes Investigations Unit for the extradition of East Timorese militia leaders resident in Indonesia.

Megawati has appointed General Mahidin Simbolon, who played a key role in organising the militia thugs in East Timor, to the post of army chief in West Papua. She has also appointed Endriartono Sutarto, a former officer who served in East Timor between September 1998 and November 1999 to the top army job.

Sutarto, who trained in the US and Britain, was head of Suharto's personal guard. Human rights groups say he is likely to have played some part in the abduction, torture and murder of activists, including the murder of prominent labour activist Marsinah in 1993. Sutarto has declared his desire to crush the independence movement in Aceh and is pushing for a state of emergency to be declared there.

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From Green Left Weekly, July 24, 2002.

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