Subject: SJMN: Indonesia's disgraced military seeks powers

San Jose Mecury News

Posted on Wed, Mar. 19, 2003 Indonesia's disgraced military seeks powers to fight terrorism By Karl Schoenberger Mercury News

JAKARTA, Indonesia - As the United States braces for a terrorist backlash from war, the Indonesian military is exploiting U.S. concern about Islamist militants in Southeast Asia in its bid to regain the power and political clout forfeited after strongman Suharto was deposed five years ago.

The once-dominant military was internationally rebuked for human rights violations in East Timor's struggle for independence and for its ruthlessness during the 35-year reign of Suharto, a close ally of Washington. As a result of democratic reforms, the military saw its responsibilities for internal security taken away and given to a newly independent national police force. Its job was limited to defense.

Now, in the name of fighting terrorism, the army is asking the National Assembly for unprecedented authority to bypass civilian leadership and deploy forces during a national emergency in the world's most populous Muslim country.

U.S. officials are eager to re-establish military contact with Indonesia because the Al-Qaida terrorist network and other Islamist extremist groups are believed to be operating there, drawing recruits from the country's religious schools. In the wake of the terrorist bombings in Bali in October that killed nearly 200 people, the Indonesian military's professionalism and reliability are seen as crucial to fighting international terrorists in the region.

But the military's restlessness is disturbing to Indonesian democracy advocates and foreign critics alike, who claim the armed forces have done little to reform themselves and have not been held accountable for the atrocities soldiers committed in East Timor, Aceh and other restive areas across the sprawling archipelago of more than 13,500 islands.

There have been attempts at prosecution. In August, an Indonesian human rights court acquitted six military and police officials of crimes against humanity in East Timor after the pro-independence vote three years ago. Last month, the United Nations indicted former Indonesian armed-forces chief Wiranto, along with six other senior generals and East Timor's ex-governor, for crimes against humanity.

Soldiers were found to be responsible for the assassination of a political independence leader in Papua, Indonesia's easternmost province, in late 2001. Elite army troops staged a bloody assault on a police camp in northern Sumatra in September to rescue a drug trafficker from detention, killing eight people. Members of the military also are suspects in an ambush in Timika, near a remote U.S.-owned gold-and-copper mine in Papua, which killed two American teachers and a local colleague, and seriously wounded eight other Americans.

``The line between the war on terrorism and social unrest is blurred and difficult to control and dangerous to confuse,'' warned Murir, director of Indonesia Human Rights Watch. That's why, Murir said, the military ``needs to stick with its defense role, and stay out of civil affairs.''

The Timika case is the focus of a contentious debate in Washington over whether the Indonesian military has reformed itself to the point where it should be rewarded with closer ties with the United States. Former President Clinton cut off weapon sales to the military in 1993, and in 1999 Congress stop funding Pentagon training of Indonesian forces.

Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz, who was ambassador to Indonesia under President Reagan, maintains that the disgraced army is an important strategic player in counterterrorism in Asia's Islamic zone that must be accepted as part of the team, warts and all. To that end, President Bush lifted the 1999 training ban in August, but Congress has held up appropriations because of concerns the military remains corrupt.

Congressional critics and human rights activists point to schoolteacher Patsy Spier, whose husband was killed in the Timika ambush. She survived 45 terrifying minutes of gunfire, with nearly 70 pieces of shrapnel embedded in her back and liver.

Police investigators said the evidence implicated soldiers in the ambush, but the army denies any involvement. It blames the killings on separatist rebels, and has launched its own investigation. FBI agents have cooperated in the probe and are monitoring the case, an FBI official said.

``There's no reason why I should be alive after being trapped and shot at for 45 minutes. There were over 100 rounds of spent ammunition found in our car alone,'' Spier said. ``But there must be a reason, and the only one I can think of is to find out who did this to us, and why.''

She has been cooperating with the FBI and lobbying State Department officials and members of Congress to withhold funding for a small but symbolic military training program until the Timika case is resolved.

Many analysts contend the killings had something to do with security arrangements made between the local army garrison and New Orleans-based Freeport-McMoRan Copper & Gold, which operates the world's richest mine in the area of the killings and employed the victims as contract teachers at the school it offers to expatriate employees. Freeport allegedly paid the military as much as $5 million a year for security, according to a report by the BBC, and many observers believe soldiers may have been unhappy about a reduction in payments last year.

Another theory points to what analysts say is a more sinister effort by the military to enhance its credibility in fighting terrorism, and alleges the involvement of a high-ranking commander in the military.

``The Army may have hoped to blame the murders on West Papuan rebels who have been fighting a low-level insurgency for years seeking independence from Indonesia,'' said Sen. Joseph Biden, D-Del., speaking in a floor debate on military assistance in January.

In January, the Senate voted down an amendment to an appropriations bill that would have frozen the $400,000 set aside for the Indonesian military in the International Military Education and Training program.

The argument that improved relations with the Indonesian armed forces were critical to fighting terrorists in the region won the day. Contact Karl Schoenberger at kschoenberger@mercurynews. com or (415) 477-2500.

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