Subject: FPIF - Indonesia’s Arms Appetite
Indonesia's Arms Appetite
Frida Berrigan | February 27, 2008
Editor: John Feffer
Foreign Policy In Focus www.fpif.org
Jakarta wants weapons. Lots of them.
Right after Valentine's Day, Indonesian Air Force officials met with
their U.S. counterparts to discuss "bilateral defense
cooperation." On their wish list were Lockheed Martin's F-16 fighters
and C-130 Hercules tactical transport planes. There will be more defense
talks in April between the two countries as they step up military
The United States and Indonesia "normalized" military relations in
2005, ending a 10-year period during which Jakarta was essentially
barred from receiving most forms of U.S. weapons sales and military aid
and training because of its military's human rights abuses and
corruption. Jakarta is happy to be back in Washington's good graces.
U.S. Defense Secretary dropped by for a visit on Monday, February 25th
Indonesia as a "huge Islamic country, democratic, secular,"
before continuing to say: "I think strengthening our relationship
with Indonesia is very important, not just in a regional context, but I
think in terms of the role that Indonesia may be able to play more
broadly." But its military is carefully courting other weapons
suppliers so it is not again dependent on a single source.
Looking to Moscow
When Russian President Vladimir Putin visited Jakarta in September
2007, weapons were at the top of the agenda. Moscow extended $1 billion in
loans for weapons and in December, Indonesia picked up medium and
short-range missiles, aerial bombs, and other systems. In 2003, Indonesia
bought Russian fighter planes and other hardware as part of a $192 million
package of weapons, and Moscow let their new friend pay most of its tab
with palm oil. Jakarta's military is now hoping for more – including 20
fighter planes, six submarines, air defense systems, helicopters, boats,
and other systems that could add up to about $3 billion.
Washington is watching this new friendship with a wary eye. Throughout
the Cold War, the United States counted on Indonesia as a staunch
anti-communist and friend. General Suharto ruled the archipelago with an
iron fist and an avaricious eye for more than 30 years.
Jakarta's rearmament push comes as Indonesia wrestles with Suharto's
bloody legacy following his death in January at the age of 86. The former
leader was given the burial of a statesman, and his legacy was burnished
to a high gloss. "Though there may be some controversy over his
legacy," eulogized U.S. Ambassador Cameron Hume, "President
Suharto was a historic figure who left a lasting impression on Indonesia
and the region of Southeast Asia." The "controversy"
Transparency International's 2004
assertion that Suharto was the "world's greatest kleptocrat ever"
with a fortune of $35 billion or more stolen from the Indonesian people.
Other controversial issues include
killings. His extermination of between 400,000 and one million
suspected communists as he moved to seize power in 1965 and 1966 stands
out in its brutality. There was also the
invasion of East Timor, the
Cruz Massacre in 1991, and much more. Suharto was labeled "one of the
worst mass murderers of the 20th century," by the
Timor and Indonesia Action Network.
Throughout the Suharto regime and since, Jakarta enjoyed the full
support of the United States.
Most of Indonesia's
weapons came from the United States, their officers graduated from U.S.
academies, and the two militaries conducted joint exercises. Jakarta was
almost completely dependent on Washington for its military strength.
Additionally, Jakarta's generals developed a strong preference for U.S.
weapons. Thus, the congressionally mandated checks on weapons sales and
military aid effectively hamstrung the Indonesian military and sent it a
strong message that it must reform. But pressure from military officials
from both countries and the political exigencies of the war on terrorism
successfully weakened and eventually undermined Washington's willingness
to use its influence to demand that the Indonesian military respect human
rights and eliminate corruption.
Normalization of military ties between the United States and Indonesia
in late 2005 was
accompanied by State Department assurances
that "the United States remains committed to pressing for
accountability for past human rights abuses and U.S. assistance will
continue to be guided by Indonesia's progress on democratic reform and
The guides seem to have lost their map. This year, over the objections
of the State Department, Congress withheld
$2.7 million – a fraction of U.S. foreign military financing – until
the State Department could demonstrate that Indonesia was taking steps to
hold members of the military accountable for human rights violations and
implement "reforms to increase the transparency and accountability of
their operations and financial management." John M. Miller, national
coordinator of ETAN, reacted to this attempt to influence Jakarta by
saying "withholding this small portion of military aid is an
inadequate stick, but it serves to keep up appearances. The Indonesian
government looks like it is trying, but the Indonesian military correctly
interprets it as a token gesture. The military gets what it wants without
concretely change how they do business or losing its impunity."
Meanwhile, Washington nearly tripled Foreign Military Financing (FMF)
for Indonesia. In 2006, FMF totaled $990,000 but jumped to $6.5 million in
2007. The request for 2008 is $15.7 million. ETAN reacted in a statement
at the time: "we see no dramatic change in the Indonesian military's
conduct over the past year to warrant such a generous increase."
But this is just the beginning of what the United States is providing
to Indonesia. Under a little noticed Pentagon program known as "train
and equip authority" or "Section 1206," Washington gave
another Indonesia another $18.4 million in 2006 to procure coastal radar
stations, and improved air and sea surveillance capabilities. In 2007,
"1206" funding totaled $28.7 million and was used to beef up
radar and communications equipment for the Indonesian navy and coast
guard. For 2008, details have not been released, but funding is expected
to be comparable.
Train and Equip program is designed to help armed forces address regional
terrorism problems, while bypassing the normal State Department channels
for aid. In 2006, the Pentagon doled out a total of $200 million to
foreign militaries through this program. Now the Defense Department is
seeking to increase "1206" authority to $750 million and make
the program permanent.
Military aid is not the only thing pouring in. In 2005, the State
Department authorized Jakarta for $51 million in licenses for weaponry,
defense articles, and services. The next year, the State Department issued
licenses for more than $100 million in military hardware including spare
parts for fighters, cargo planes and helicopters, explosives and torpedo
launchers were issued. Not all licenses are exercised, but the list gives
a sense of Indonesia's voracious appetite for weapons.
Why So Many Weapons?
Washington hopes that by bulking up Indonesia's military capacities it
can help the nation counter terrorism and emerge as a regional leader able
to thwart North Korea's nuclear ambitions and deter China's aggressive
military build-up. That's what Secretary Gates means when he talks about
the "role that Indonesia may be able to play more broadly" and
that's why Washington is so threatened by the way Russian President Putin
has reached out to Jakarta.
So, Washington dangles F-16s to make its sweeping vision of Indonesia's
strategic importance a reality. But, in the past, U.S.-origin weapons,
military know-how and aid, were not used to achieve lofty political aims.
They were turned on Indonesian citizens active in the multiple movements
for self-determination and autonomy in far-flung regions like Aceh, Papua,
and Timor. They were used to put down political demonstrations and quell
unrest after economic collapse destroyed the livelihoods of hundreds of
The checks on U.S. military aid are gone, and now the floodgates have
opened. Political and military officials need to watch what Jakarta does
next very carefully. Human rights, broad political participation, secular
democracy, and regional leadership do not spring fully formed from the
belly of an F-16 or the barrel of a gun.
FPIF columnist Frida Berrigan is a senior program associate at the Arms
and Security Project of the New America Foundation.
Back to February menu
World Leaders Contact List
Main Postings Menu