The US's men in Jakarta

June 17, 1998

By Allan Nairn

This is part two of Allan Nairn's account of the US intelligence forces' complicity in the repression of the Indonesian democracy movement. Part one was published in Green Left Weekly issue number 320.

As the Suharto dictatorship collapsed on May 21, the Indonesian armed forces (ABRI) scrambled to safeguard their police state. Rather than have Suharto quit as a scheduled mass protest surged through the streets, the ABRI commander, General Wiranto, threatened the students with a "Tiananmen", and then persuaded Suharto to resign quietly.

The ABRI leaders were frightened. They knew that if millions took to the streets and the army lost control, the question would become not just Suharto's rule but their own political survival. As it happened, ABRI dodged the bullet: Suharto left, and so did the students, pushed out of the parliament building they had held for five days.

Afterwards, Wiranto, consulting non-stop with the US embassy, moved to cover some of ABRI's bloody tracks. He demoted Lieutenant General Prabowo, Suharto's hated son-in-law, blaming him for all ABRI offences of recent months.

The US government, through the Washington Post, announced on May 23 that it had discovered that Prabowo was behind recent "disappearances" of Indonesian activists. Two days earlier, on May 21, the Nation had released an article [part one of this series] that named the ABRI units involved in the abductions — some of them under Prabowo's control, but all of them under Wiranto's.

In the Post piece, US officials professed shock and "anger" at Prabowo, and said the embassy had been working "to gain the activists' release".

This was in contrast to the actual US position. As one embassy official described it at the height of the disappearances: "Prabowo is our fair-haired boy; he's the one who can do no wrong".

In fact, Prabowo's units that participated in the disappearances — particularly KOPASSUS Group 4, which US officials singled out for blame in the Post — were, from the start of the abductions, in close and friendly liaison with US intelligence. The night after Prabowo was replaced, Colonel Chaiwaran, the Group 4 commander, confirmed to me that he deals with Colonel Charles McFetridge, the Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) attaché at the US embassy.

Although Chaiwaran denied it to me, other ABRI people say he has said that Group 4's men have been trained by US intelligence — a claim that US officials privately confirm. Last year, during the run-up to the staged elections, KOPASSUS, with US support, was expanded from 3000 to 4800 combat troops. According to an article by Colonel John Haseman, formerly DIA attaché in Jakarta, this was done "with an eye on potential domestic instability".

The Pentagon built up KOPASSUS with more than 24 JCET [Joint Combined Exchange and Training] exercises and backed Prabowo's plan to obtain US helicopters. The US openly lauded Prabowo after a 1996 hostage rescue raid in West Papua in which, a knowledgeable official says, his men murdered eight civilians after alighting in a helicopter falsely (and illegally) marked with the Red Cross sign.

Although Prabowo's personal relish for atrocity is legendary, high-level US officials paraded him this year as the political crisis gathered steam. In January, US defence secretary William Cohen praised the "very impressive ... discipline" of KOPASSUS.

Assistant secretary of state Stanley Roth took Prabowo along twice when he went to prison meetings with Xanana Gusmao. Prabowo has done his most extensive killings in East Timor.

No less consistent has been US support for Prabowo's professional rival, General Wiranto, whose units were also JCET trained and who has been hailed as "a man of integrity and a true Indonesian patriot" by Admiral Joseph Prueher, chief of the US Pacific Command.

On March 4, Prueher told congress that the US military was on alert for "early signs of instability" in east Asia, including "labour disputes". Five days later, the ABRI intelligence unit, BIA, which is under Wiranto's daily control, picked up nine labour activists who had called for an increase in the minimum wage.

One US official told me some of the activists were tortured and noted that in previous weeks BIA had staged a series of break-ins and ransackings at the offices of labour, student and women's organisations. He added that in East Timor, BIA was using a new tactic: breaking the hips of prisoners.

On March 8, Lieutenant General Yunus Yosfiah, a key man in the Wiranto faction, told students that ABRI would not "tolerate any campaigns for drastic political reform". (Yosfiah, information minister in the new government, has been implicated in the 1975 murder of five foreign journalists in East Timor.)

The following night, a US official, speaking off the record, told me that ABRI was about to launch a thorough crackdown.

Even as we spoke, Haryanto Taslam, Megawati Sukarnoputri's chief field organiser, had been taken to a torture centre under BIA control. As abductions continued, knowledgeable officials told me that the activists' situation was thoroughly known to the DIA and to the embassy CIA station.

Yet it was not until mid-April, after a crisis caused by public protest, that the US State Department pushed Prabowo for the release of some activists. Even after that, the Pentagon continued to provide new JCET training, and the State Department kept pressing the democracy movement to back a new government formed around ABRI.

Today, as the US has thrown in with Wiranto, ABRI remains wary of the potential for mass upheaval and has started releasing some formally arrested political prisoners. But many dozens remain missing in East Timor, as do at least five of the abducted Indonesian activists (Sonny, Rian, Herman, Bimo Petrus and Suyat).

It is perhaps ominous for some of the missing that when Megawati — searching for Taslam — went to a top ABRI commander, she was told an absurd but chilling tale. Some of the "disappeared", the general claimed, were actually BIA infiltrators who had penetrated the democracy movement and had now returned to base. The implication: their associates should not expect to see them again.

[Abridged from the June 15 issue of the US Nation. Research support was provided by the Investigative Fund of the Nation Institute. For subscription details, write to the Nation at PO Box 37072, Boone, IA 50037, USA.]

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