Subject: U.S.-Indonesia: Renewal Of Military Ties Angers Rights Groups


by Jim Lobe

WASHINGTON, Nov. 23, 2005 (IPS/GIN) -- This week's decision by the U.S. State Department to effectively normalize military ties with Indonesia is being attacked by human rights groups and their allies in Congress, who say the move is premature.

The decision, which was justified for reasons of "national security," came just a week after Congress extended six-year-old restrictions on some forms of military aid and sales to Jakarta until it fully prosecuted military officers alleged to have committed gross abuses and implemented reforms to ensure civilian control of the armed forces (TNI).

"We strongly feel that by doing this, the administration is losing whatever leverage it had to promote human rights and to reform the military," said T. Kumar, Asia analyst for the Washington office of Amnesty International.

"It sends the wrong message to the military, not only in Indonesia, but elsewhere in the region -- that the military can commit massive human rights abuses amounting to crimes against humanity and will not pay any price."

He said Amnesty and New York-based Human Rights Watch (HRW) plan to formally protest the decision in a joint letter to Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice next week.

The decision, the latest in a series of steps taken by the Bush administration since the Sept. 11, 2001, al Qaeda attacks on the U.S. to restore military ties between the two nations, is unlikely to result immediately in major new aid programs or weapons sales, according to U.S. officials. They insisted that all new assistance or sales would be decided on a case-by-case basis and determined in part on progress made by the TNI in meeting Congressional conditions.

"The U.S. 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 accountability," the State Department said in announcing its decision.

At the same time, it stressed that normalizing the military relationship was justified by Indonesia's "unique strategic role in Southeast Asia."

"As the world's most populous majority-Muslim nation," it said, "Indonesia is a voice of moderation in the Islamic world. It also plays a key role in guaranteeing security in the strategic sea lanes in Asia and is a leading member of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations. Indonesia has made significant progress in advancing its democratic institutions and practices in a relatively short time."

Indeed, since the ouster of former President Suharto and the end of his military-dominated New Order regime in 1998, Indonesia has by all accounts made significant reforms, particularly in the political arena.

And the current president, retired Gen. Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, is given credit for trying to accelerate that process. He is given especially high marks for negotiating a peace agreement -- in the face of resistance by senior TNI officers -- with rebels in Aceh province after last December's devastating tsunami.

"There is a real effort being made in Indonesia by Yudhoyono and others to push the army back," Dan Lev, an Indonesia expert at the University of Washington, told IPS.

"But, in spite of his efforts, the army is if anything getting stronger," he said, pointing to the growing weight and power of its territorial commands and the persistence of its business operations that are a major source of corruption, as well as economic influence.

Congress first imposed military-related sanctions against the TNI in the early 1990s after a widely reported massacre against unarmed protestors in East Timor, a province which had been invaded and subsequently annexed by Suharto's New Order regime in the mid-1970s.

In August 1999, the TNI and TNI-backed militias went on a deadly and destructive rampage in East Timor after its inhabitants voted overwhelmingly in favor of independence in a U.N.-backed plebiscite. The U.S. Congress severed virtually all military ties, making their restoration conditional on a number of primarily human rights-related reforms, including the prosecution and punishment of those responsible for the mayhem.

More than 1,000 people were believed killed in the violence, which also destroyed most of the territory's buildings and infrastructure.

But 9/11 changed the mood in Washington, and the Bush administration -- particularly the Pentagon -- began pressing Congress to exempt certain kinds of assistance, such as "anti-terrorist" training and equipment, joint military maneuvers, and some "non-lethal" supplies, from the ban.

This was despite reports that the TNI was not only refusing to cooperate in efforts to bring to justice the perpetrators of the East Timor violence, but was also engaged in serious abuses on other islands, including Aceh, West Papua, and in the Malukkas.

After the tsunami, the administration accelerated the pace toward normalization. In February, it lifted the ban on Indonesia's participation in its International Military Education Training (IMET) program and on sales of certain kinds of "non-lethal" military equipment.

Congress nonetheless remained skeptical and last week approved the 2006 foreign aid bill that extended the ban on certain kinds of financing for military equipment and training and on licenses for the export of "lethal" military equipment until the secretary of state could certify that three conditions are being met by Jakarta and the TNI.

They included the prosecution and punishment of TNI members "who have been credibly alleged to have committed gross violations of human rights;" cooperation by the TNI with civilian judicial authorities and international efforts to resolve gross abuses in East Timor and elsewhere; and implementation of reforms "to improve civilian control of the military."

The bill, however, also provided that the administration could waive these conditions in the interests of "national security." Unable to certify that Jakarta was indeed meeting these conditions, the State Department decided to waive them.

Rights groups had expected that the administration, which has never hidden its eagerness to fully restore military ties, would eventually issue such a waiver, but only after a "decent interval," as one activist called it, of six to nine months. This speed with which it acted took many by surprise.

"This is an abuse of discretion and an affront to Congress," Democratic Sen. Patrick Leahy told The Washington Post. "To waive on national security grounds a law that seeks justice for crimes against humanity -- without even obtaining the Indonesian government's assurance that it will address these concerns -- makes a mockery of the process and sends a terrible message."

Similarly, the East Timor and Indonesia Action Network (ETAN) called the move "profoundly disappointing" and warned that "U.S. support for an unreformed military which remains above the law is not in the interest of the United States or Indonesia."

Lev also condemned the decision, seeing in it a dangerous repeat of Washington's backing of the Indonesian army during the Cold War. "When the enemy was communism," he said, "the U.S. decided the one group in Indonesia that could take care of the Communists was the army, and the consequence of that the Indonesian state was essentially destroyed under military control ..."

"Now the enemy is terrorism, and again the decision is made in Washington that the military is on our side and everybody else be damned. And the assistance that's likely to be given will not be to make a better army, but to ensure that the army does what the U.S. wants it to do."

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