Vol. 12, No. 1
U.S. Re-engages the Indonesian Military: Rights, Democracy Suffer
U.S. Re-engages the Indonesian Military
Rights, Democracy Suffer
By John M. Miller and Ben Terrall
On his return from last November’s Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) summit in Vietnam, President Bush briefly touched down in Indonesia to meet President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono. Demonstrations against the visit highlighted popular outrage against the Bush administration’s Middle East policies.
The historic botanical gardens where Bush was scheduled to arrive in Bogor, 40 kilometers south of Jakarta, to meet Indonesian president Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono were dug up to build an enormous asphalt landing pad for Bush’s helicopter. In the end, Bush landed in a nearby Sports Center.
Prior to the visit, ETAN coordinated a public letter to Bush from 53 U.S. human rights, labor, religious and peace groups condemning the failure to hold the Indonesian military (TNI) accountable for years of serious human rights violations. The groups wrote, “restrictions on U.S. assistance to the Indonesian military are essential to promote concrete, demonstrable progress in the areas of military reform, accountability, and respect for human rights in Indonesia and Timor-Leste.”
The primary focus of discussions between the two Presidents was economic development and facilitation of trade deals, but Condoleeza Rice did tell Indonesian television that the meeting would give Bush a chance to discuss U.S.-Indonesian military relations. Bush administration support for the TNI is now a given. Normalization of military relations accelerated when, taking advantage of a loophole, the final legislated restrictions on weapons sales were waived on November 22, 2005. Thus there was little need to make additional assistance in this area a major item on the November visit’s agenda.
Subject to Debate
Military assistance to Indonesia will likely again be a subject of debate in Congress. The mid-term Democratic takeover has put members in key positions who support continued pressure on the Indonesian military and government for reform and accountability. For the past 15 years, Congress has often led U.S. efforts to promote democratic change, self-determination and human rights in Indonesia and East Timor, dragging reluctant administrations in its wake. ETAN believes that Congress should fully restrict Foreign Military Financing, military training programs, like International Military Education and Training (IMET), and export licenses for defense articles for Indonesia in the Fiscal Year 2008 Foreign Operations Appropriations Act. In the coming months, ETAN will be meeting with these committee and subcommittee chairs, as well as other members, about ways to step up pressure and put human rights front and center in relations with Indonesia.
The Bush administration’s decision to remove all restrictions on assistance to the TNI has essentially eliminated U.S. government leverage which heretofore had been used to assist democracy and human rights advocates in Indonesia to campaign for Indonesian military reform, accountability and an end to human rights abuses.
According to Ed McWilliams, an advisor to ETAN who headed the political section of the U.S. Embassy in Jakarta in the late 1990s, “Bush Administration support for the TNI has expanded vastly beyond levels seen at any time in the last 15 years. TNI impunity, corruption and violation of human rights has continued and in some ways worsened. TNI involvement in illegal logging continues unchecked in West Papua and elsewhere. Efforts to hold TNI senior officials responsible for their orchestration of the 1999 bloodbath in East Timor have ground to a halt. Similarly, despite promises that justice would be done in the 2004 murder of leading human rights advocate Munir, senior ex-military officials implicated in the crime have not been prosecuted. In West Papua intimidation of human rights advocates have continued forcing some to flee abroad. Others face daily abuse in jail as political prisoners.” (See article page 11)
McWilliams added, “It is a cruel irony that as the Bush Administration chooses to ignore the absence of TNI reform in favor of recruiting the TNI as an ‘ally in the war on terror,’ that ally continues to be a key sponsor of terror groups in Indonesia, including Islamic fundamentalist groups such as Laskar Jihad and the Front for the Defense of Islam, among others.”
The Human Rights Watch World Report 2007 criticized ongoing impunity for Suharto era crimes: “Military reform efforts have largely stalled. At this writing, there was no government plan to review the country’s defense structure, which is currently based on a territorial defense model… Some government officials also continue to actively resist measures to bring soldiers before civilian courts to answer for non-military crimes.”
“Longstanding rules against military profit-seeking have not been enforced,” according to the Indonesian human rights group Kontras. “The business practices of military enterprises have helped sustain the reputation of the Indonesian military as abusive, corrupt and largely above the law. Troops are breaking the law, violating human rights and hiding the money they make on the side. Military reform means getting soldiers out of business and prosecuting those who broke the law.”
The increasing outspokenness of a number of prominent retired generals shows how quickly the military becomes rankled by even modest efforts at reform. The disgruntled TNI veterans are questioning the legitimacy of the government of their former colleague, President Yudhoyono. “There has been talk about asking Dr. Yudhoyono to step down, proceeding with impeachment and even some chatter about a revolution,” according to the Straits Times.
In its final report, East Timor’s official Commission for Reception, Truth and Reconciliation called on governments to make military assistance to Indonesia “totally conditional on progress towards full democratization, the subordination of the military to the rule of law and civilian government, and strict adherence with international human rights.” (See article page 7)
In their November letter to Bush, the U.S. groups urged him “to maintain the best leverage the U.S. has—withholding prestigious U.S. military assistance, including foreign military financing and training such as IMET and JCET — to demonstrate that the U.S. government’s commitment to these issues goes deeper than words to actual action.” ETAN will be stressing a similar message to the new Congress.
Ben Terrall is a San Francisco-based writer. John M. Miller is the Brooklyn-based National Coordinator of the East Timor and Indonesia Action Network. An earlier version of this article appeared on Counterpunch.org.
see ETAN's U.S.-Indonesia Military Assistance pages