Subject: JP: Dubya's retreat on Indonesian human rights

Jakarta Post

March 28, 2005

Dubya's retreat on Indonesian human rights

Brad Simpson, Washington, D.C.

There is a bitter irony to the Bush Administration's announcement in late February that it will restore military training for the Indonesian armed forces, which came just days before the State Department's annual human rights report charged that in 2004 "security force members murdered, tortured, raped, beat, and arbitrarily detained civilians."

Just as surely as it used the attacks of Sept. 11 to enlist authoritarian and human-rights abusing regimes in the so-called "war on terror," the Bush Administration is now exploiting the tragedy of the Asian tsunami to expand military ties with Indonesia. If we are serious about advancing reform in Indonesia, Congress and the American public should oppose such a move.

Congress first restricted International Military and Educational Training (IMET) for Indonesia in 1992 following the massacre of more than 270 unarmed civilians in Dili, the capitol of then Indonesian-occupied East Timor. Over the next several years, Congress further restricted most forms of military assistance in response to clear evidence of Indonesian military participation in human rights abuses.

The Clinton Administration finally cut military ties with Jakarta entirely in September 1999, after the Indonesian Army and its paramilitary proxies murdered an estimated 1,500 people and burnt much of East Timor to the ground following the territory's vote for independence in a U.N.-sponsored referendum.

After 1999, Congress demanded that Indonesia assert civilian control over the military and hold accountable military officers responsible for crimes against humanity in East Timor before military aid could be resumed. In a series of ad-hoc trials condemned by the State Department, however, Indonesian judges proceeded to acquit every military officer brought before them, sending a clear signal that Jakarta did not believe in accountability for human rights crimes.

Following the events of Sept. 11, 2001, the U.S. government authorized the provision of "anti-terrorism" assistance to the Indonesian Armed Forces, using the terrorist attacks to justify partial re-engagement with the military. Increased involvement with the Armed Forces has not led to a reduction in abuses.

In May 2003, Indonesia broke off internationally mediated peace talks with separatist forces in Aceh, launching a massive military operation in which several thousand Acehnese were killed, many of them civilians. No ranking Indonesian military officers have been held to account for crimes that include the killing, torture, arbitrary detention and even rape of civilians.

In West Papua, Indonesian security forces continue to commit serious abuses, especially in areas near concessions run by Freeport McMoran, a U.S.-based mining company. In August 2002 two Americans teachers working for Freeport in the town of Timika were killed when gunmen opened fire on a caravan of vehicles. The FBI has praised Indonesian cooperation in the case, though no one has been arrested and Indonesian police concluded that members of local Kopassus (Special Forces) units were likely behind the killings.

In spite of this sordid record, Bush Administration officials claim that Indonesia has met the sole Congressional condition for the resumption of military training. That extremely narrow condition merely requires cooperation in investigating the Timika killings.

While Indonesia has doubtless made progress on many fronts, most importantly by holding free elections last year, the Armed Forces willingness to hold itself accountable for human rights abuses is a crucial litmus test of its commitment to democratic reform. So far the signs have not been encouraging.

Concern about the U.S. re-engagement with the Indonesian military is not confined to Congressional critics such as Senate Foreign Relations Committee member Patrick Leahy, who agues that the resumption of IMET "will be seen by the Indonesian military authorities who have tried to obstruct justice as a pat on the back." Writing in the conservative Weekly Standard on Feb. 28, analyst Ellen Bork cautioned that U.S. military aid should be conditioned to a strategy "for advancing democracy and human rights in Indonesia."

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice claims that U.S. military training will imbue Indonesian officers with respect for human rights and civilian control, but the history of U.S. engagement with the Indonesian military suggests that the opposite is true. Since the late 1950s, when training began, U.S.-trained soldiers and officers have been involved in the murder and torture of hundreds of thousands of civilians in East Timor, Aceh, West Papua and other parts of the Indonesian archipelago.

Military engagement has reinforced, not reduced, the power of the Armed Forces in Indonesian society, who view increased assistance as Washington's stamp of approval for brutal military practices.

Indonesian defense minister Juwono Sudarsono is visiting Washington this week for talks with U.S. officials. Congress should make clear to both Minister Sudarsono and the Bush Administration that increased military assistance will only come after genuine accountability for past and present human rights abuses.

Military aid is both carrot and stick, but, more important, a potent political symbol of the values that the U.S. holds to be important in foreign policy making. Increasing military assistance to Indonesia at this time will send a clear and damaging signal to the rest of the world that respect for human rights is but another casualty of the recent tsunami and the broader war on terror.

The writer is an assistant professor at Idaho State University and a Research Fellow with the National Security Archives in Washington, DC, specializing in U.S.-Indonesian relations. He can be reached at

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