Subject: FEER: INDONESIA Loath to Take The Rap

INDONESIA Loath to Take The Rap

The United States wants to enlist Jakarta's help in the war on terrorism, but the apparent reluctance of top military leaders to accept responsibility for abuses by their men in East Timor and elsewhere is holding up resumed military-to-military ties

By John McBeth/JAKARTA and Murray Hiebert/WASHINGTON

Issue cover-dated March 07, 2002

TWO-AND-A-HALF YEARS after Indonesian troops and local militias went on the rampage against pro-independence voters in East Timor, it is not clear whether Jakarta's top military brass is ready to accept responsibility for the bloodshed. Until that happens, the United States will find it difficult to draw an already reluctant Indonesia into its war on international terrorism. "We just haven't decided how to move forward and even after we make up our minds, Congress will have a lot to say about what will actually happen," says one senior Washington official.

It's not as though the generals are not aware of the importance of accountability. H.S. Dillon, a member of the Indonesian Commission on Human Rights, recalls meeting a group of senior officers in September 1999, days after the death and destruction in East Timor that outraged the world and prompted the U.S. Congress to adopt legislation barring military ties with Jakarta. "There has to be some form of damage control," he told them earnestly. "If you think these actions won't have a cost, you're dreaming."

Today, human-rights trials for those responsible for the rampage remain the only significant obstacle to the resumption of military ties. But even with specially legislated ad hoc courts finally in place to try the handful of Indonesian officers, militiamen and civilian officials indicted so far for genocide and crimes against humanity in the former Indonesian province, the army apparently still needs convincing.

Even if the military leadership does decide to sacrifice one or two generals, diplomats say it will still be up to the U.S. Congress-and probably the United Nations too-to judge whether Indonesia has gone far enough on the general issue of accountability.


The signs aren't good. For example, many are angered that former armed-forces commander Gen. Wiranto and his then representative in East Timor, former military intelligence chief Maj.-Gen. Zacky Anwar Makarim appear to have been let off the hook for what happened in the territory. The government, moreover, clearly worried about setting a precedent, won't consider extraditing 17 low-ranking suspects to face trial by an international tribunal in East Timor for crimes against humanity.

The military has also raised hackles at home by turning its back on an investigation by the Commission on Human Rights into the sniper killings of four students at Jakarta's Triskati University-the incident triggered bloody riots in May 1998 that left 1,500 people dead and led to the resignation of former President Suharto. To rub salt into the wound, the officer who presided over those events, Maj.-Gen. Syafrie Samsuddin, was recently appointed military spokesman.

This leaves the U.S. in a dilemma over how to engage the Indonesian military on counter-terrorism. The U.S. Pacific forces commander, Adm. Dennis Blair, says there is a "continuing policy review" under way to figure out how to work with not only the army, but with the police and other security forces. "We all sort of fall into talking about congressional restrictions on our policy, but that's not a really accurate way to talk about it," he tells the REVIEW. "It is our policy. We will deal with the Indonesians in a certain way because of the interests we have and the things we expect of them."

The longer the situation drags on, however, the more Jakarta could become isolated. Both the No Safe Harbour bill before Congress and the recent expansion of the multinational Financial Action Task Force's mandate to tackle terrorist financing, as well as related money-laundering activities, promise tough new economic and travel sanctions on nations that don't cooperate. Using a baseball analogy, a U.S. law enforcement officer says: "We can't even find them [Indonesia] in the dugout, let alone stepping up to the plate."

American, Malaysian and Singaporean officials, including Singapore Senior Minister Lee Kuan Yew, have all referred to Indonesia as the weak link in the region's crackdown on Islamic extremists. Lee's assertion that terrorists remained free in Indonesia's vast archipelago angered the government and triggered protests by hardline Muslim groups in Jakarta.

The Indonesians, for their part, insist they don't have the evidence to act against radicals like Muslim cleric Abu Bakar Bashir, 63, the alleged founder of Jemaah Islamiah, a regional extremist group and suspected conduit for Al Qaeda financing since the late 1990s. Bashir denies he is part of the Al Qaeda terrorist network. But Jemaah Islamiah's alleged operations chief, fugitive Indonesian national Riduan Isamuddin, has been directly linked to the September 11 terrorist attacks in the U.S. and the October 2000 bombing of the U.S. destroyer Cole in Aden. And a third Indonesian, Fathur Rohman al-Ghozi, has been in Philippine custody since January for his alleged involvement in a December 30, 2000, Manila train-station bombing that killed 22 people. He too has been linked to Jemaah Islamiah.

All this worries U.S. policymakers, who feel that bringing the world's most populous Muslim country on board is important in the effort to roll up Al Qaeda and Southeast Asian Muslim militant networks that have been identified by governments in recent years, such as the Jemaah Islamiah, Abu Sayyaf in the Philippines and the Kumpulan Militan Malaysia.

But while senior U.S. officials believe some of Indonesia's top military officers want to take a more active part in the counter-terrorist campaign, they say President Megawati Sukarnoputri doesn't have the political will to seriously tackle the issue. She fears it will antagonize the Islamic parties in her fragile coalition.

Indonesia has, however, been making some effort to improve its human-rights record. Three militiamen accused of the September 2000 murder of three United Nations aid workers in the West Timor border town of Atambua recently had their jail terms increased from between 10-20 months to between five and seven years. The military also appears to have made some progress in sensitizing soldiers to dealing with the civilian population, particularly in the secessionist northern Sumatran province of Aceh.

All the same, human-rights advocates worry that recent parliamentary backing for the military's opposition to investigations into the Triskati incident and the shooting of student protesters on two other subsequent occasions could influence the outcome of the East Timor trials.

"There's a sense of resistance that may cloud the tribunals in a way that lessens the [international] pressure on the courts," argues Marzuki Darusman, a former attorney-general who sits on the Indonesian Commission on Human Rights.


But U.S. Democratic Senator Patrick Leahy, who sponsored the 1999 bill that cut military ties with Indonesia, is in no mood to allow the war on terror to sideline human-rights cases and what he considers to be other key foreign-policy objectives such as rule of law and military reform. And that, he has made clear, includes accountability for past actions. "Senior officers in the Indonesian military were responsible for orchestrating the slaughter and destruction in East Timor," he tells the REVIEW. "It is imperative they be brought to justice."

State Department officials acknowledge that a provision in this year's defence appropriations bill, which seeks to include the Indonesian military in a $21 million regional counter-terrorism programme, is not the loophole it first appeared to be. In fact Leahy and his supporters have said they are unhappy at what they consider to be efforts by Blair and other defence officials to find a way around the military-to-military ban.

Blair downplays his differences with Leahy. The executive and congressional branches have the same goals, he insists, but differ at times on how to get there, particularly on when to use carrots and when to use sticks. Asked if congressional restrictions hamper the ability of the U.S. to fight terrorism, Blair says: "I don't know yet because we have not really worked out all of those aspects on the post-September 11 period."

Channelling money to the Indonesian police would be one way around the problem, but it would take time to bring the poorly equipped and poorly trained force to the point where it could form the nucleus of a new indigenous counter-terrorism agency. Moreover, bypassing the military would likely exacerbate the testy relations between the police and the army. It might also put current intelligence-sharing between Indonesia and the U.S. at risk, given that the military has the only real database on Islamic extremists.

In the meantime, concern has mounted over the implications of the No Safe Harbour bill tabled by Republican Congressmen Lindsey Graham, a Gulf War air-force veteran and member of the armed-services committee, and Porter Goss, a former Central Intelligence Agency undercover operative and current chairman of the select committee on intelligence.

Tabled in late January, the proposed legislation prescribes economic and travel embargoes on nations that fail to extradite terrorist suspects, allow fund-raising for terrorist activity or refuse to cooperate in intelligence-gathering.

The Financial Action Task Force, a grouping of 28 industrialized nations, has also ratcheted up the pressure by issuing new financial standards to combat terrorist financing. Indonesia is already on the task force's blacklist for failing to pass important money-laundering legislation, which has languished for months in parliament while politicians engage in domestic power games. As in many other areas, the persistent failure of the Indonesian government to appreciate international concerns may signal even more trying times ahead.

Back to February menu

World Leaders Contact List
Human Rights Violations in East Timor
Main Postings Menu

Note: For those who would like to fax "the powers that be" - CallCenter is a Native 32-bit Voice Telephony software application integrated with fax and data communications... and it's free of charge! Download from