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A Lesson From Timor:  Don't Coddle the Indonesian Military

International Herald Tribune 
Thursday, July 6, 2000

By Karen Orenstein

KUPANG, Indonesia - More than nine months have passed since East Timor's overwhelming vote for independence from Indonesia was followed by an organized campaign of retribution. In the violence after the voting, some 250,000 East Timorese were compelled, most at gunpoint, to move to West Timor and other parts of Indonesia.

As pro-Indonesian forces left, they burned and looted systematically. This campaign of deliberate devastation was planned by nationalist hard-liners in the Indonesian army and police, and carried out in many areas by militia groups that were organized, directed, armed and trained by the Indonesian military.

Around 100,000 people who left East Timor then remain in camps in West Timor. Most want to go home but are afraid to do so. Despite repeated pledges by the Indonesian government to disarm and disband the militias, their leaders, who were responsible for mass murder and rape in East Timor, still control refugee camps in West Timor.

Indonesian military units that were made up mostly of pro-Indonesian East Timorese are still intact in West Timor. They and the militias have access to modern weapons. There are reports that military-style training continues.

Cross-border attacks from West Timor by armed militia members against United Nations peacekeepers in East Timor have recently intensified.

Not a single militia leader has been arrested in West Timor and charged with crimes in East Timor. International and Indonesian aid workers in West Timor are threatened and harassed by militias. Contrary to international norms, the refugee camps themselves remain highly militarized.

Militia leaders, the Indonesian armed forces and the West Timorese press continue to conduct a mass disinformation campaign alleging horrific conditions in East Timor and abuse by international forces.

The Indonesian government refuses to provide funds to pay the pensions of former civil servants and police officers who served under the Indonesian regime should they decide to return home. This is a disincentive to repatriation.

Sporadic food distribution, inadequate health care, widespread tuberculosis and increasing malaria are creating a new humanitarian crisis in the camps. Flash flooding in West Timor some weeks ago, which killed more than 60 refugees and displaced thousands more, worsened conditions.

Despite this deplorable situation, the U.S. government recently eased President Bill Clinton's September suspension of defense ties with Indonesia. The United States has started a phased re-engagement with the Indonesian military.

A military training exercise is planned for the summer. This large-scale operation simulates an amphibious invasion of Indonesian islands. In the past, some Indonesian troops went directly from a similar exercise to East Timor, where they took part in the systematic destruction of the territory.

The U.S. government maintains that the joint exercise planned for this summer is an acknowledgment of change for the better in the Indonesian military. But renewal of Indonesian participation will not encourage reform; rather, it implies tacit acceptance of last year's scorched earth atrocities in East Timor.

Some in the Clinton administration argue that by engaging with the navy, marines, and air force the United States shows support for Indonesian military units with cleaner human rights records than the army's, but this is a dubious distinction. Marines distributed weapons to militia members and themselves participated in last September's destruction. The navy and air force provided ships and planes to forcibly transport tens of thousands of East Timorese from their homes.

If the United States is serious about encouraging reform, it should strengthen development of democracy in Indonesia while continuing to deny the military the legitimacy it has come to expect from the American government.

As leaders of Indonesian civil society and human rights activists have pointed out, the military's fundamental flaw is not a technical one that can be fixed by any amount of training or assistance from abroad. It is a political problem of long-standing and deeply entrenched military control over civil society.

Until the Indonesian military is completely out of politics and faces the full force of the law for any abuses of power that its members commit, no matter how senior they are, the United States should continue to withhold aid.

The writer, who works for the East Timor Action Network in Washington, recently returned from Indonesian West Timor where she was co-leader of a congressional staff delegation on a fact-finding mission to refugee camps. She contributed this comment to the International Herald Tribune.

See ETAN's press release on West Timor delegation.

See ETAN's detailed trip report

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