Senate Blocks Military Aid to Indonesia

U.S. military training to the Indonesian Armed Forces will be banned until its officials cooperate with investigators probing the ambush and killing of staff from an international school in West Papua province last year, according to amendments passed by the Senate.

The change to the 2004 foreign-aid bill that will ban training for Indonesian army officers comes two weeks after President George W. Bush announced he was ready to resume normalize military ties with Indonesia.

Senators who co-sponsored two amendments that were approved unanimously by the upper house said military ties should not return to normal at least until the Indonesian military (TNI) cooperates fully with a Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) probe into last year’s fatal ambush of the staff of an international school in Timika in West Papua province.

Two US schoolteachers and one Indonesian were killed in the incident in which eight other US citizens were wounded, including a six-year-old girl.

Both US investigators and the Indonesian police have suggested that members of the TNI were responsible for the ambush, possibly in retaliation for the refusal of Freeport McMoRan, the owner of the world’s largest gold mine, to continue paying the armed forces for security.

The first amendment, sponsored by Republican Sen Wayne Allard, bans Indonesia from receiving training under the State Department’s International Military Education and Training (IMET) program, for which the administration had tentatively allocated some 600,000 dollars, unless Bush "determines national security interests" justify a waiver.

The second amendment, proposed by Democratic Sen Russell Feingold, states that "normalization" of military relations between the two countries cannot resume until there is "full cooperation" with the FBI and the individuals responsible for the murders are brought to justice.

The Feingold amendment also states as a matter of policy that "respect of the Indonesia military for human rights and the improvement in relations between the military and civilian population are extremely important for the future of relations between the United States and Indonesia."

Last July, the House of Representatives, which also expressed concern about the TNI’s cooperation with the FBI, also voted to strip money for IMET training for Indonesia in its version of the foreign-aid bill, so conditions on IMET funding for 2004 will almost certainly be included in the final version of the bill to be submitted to Bush in coming weeks, Congressional aides said.

Both amendments represent a setback to the administration, which has seen Indonesia, the world’s most populous predominantly Muslim nation, as a key ally in its "war on terrorism" as well as an important target of the al-Qaeda terrorist group and other radical Islamist organizations for recruitment and training of militants.

Initially, the administration was frustrated by the attitude taken by the government of President Megawati Sukarnoputri, until the bombing just over one year ago of a nightclub on the predominantly Hindu island of Bali killed more than 200 people, including almost 90 vacationing Australians.

The attack was blamed on the Islamic group Jemaah Islamiyah, which Washington believes is linked to al-Qaeda. Since the incident, Jakarta has cracked down hard on the group and cooperated much more closely with the United States, Australia and regional security forces in tracking suspected militants.

The administration, which has made little secret of its desire to renew military ties with the TNI, particularly since the Sep. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks on New York and the Pentagon, has wanted to reward Megawati’s government for its changed attitude.

Last year, the Pentagon provided the TNI with four million dollars in counter-terrorism training and non-lethal equipment, while Congress also agreed to lift some restrictions on other military aid and training.

But actual delivery of some of that assistance has been held up by Congress since the Timika ambush. While Jakarta initially blamed rebels, police investigators, bolstered by the FBI, concluded that the evidence pointed instead to TNI units.

Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz, who served as US ambassador to Jakarta in the 1980s, has long favored normalizing military ties with Indonesia and particularly in renewing training programs for TNI officers.

"I believe exposure of Indonesian officers to US (military personnel and practices) has been a way to promote reform efforts in the military, not to set them back," he said last year.

But lawmakers remain unconvinced, noting that hundreds of Indonesian military officers had been training in IMET and similar programs since the 1960s, but there is little evidence of a change in the institution’s abusive practices.

In addition to the Timika incident, Congress has also expressed concern about the counter-insurgency campaign in Aceh province, launched against rebels there after peace talks collapsed last May.

Wolfowitz has himself stated several times over the past several months that Jakarta should seek a political settlement to the conflicts in both Aceh and West Papua.

But Bush created considerable confusion just two weeks ago on the eve of his own visit to Bali. "I think we can go forward with (a) package of mil-to-mil cooperation because of the cooperation of the government on the killings of the two US citizens," he said in an interview with Indonesian television, adding that "Congress has changed their attitude."

That was immediately challenged by puzzled lawmakers on Capitol Hill who had been negotiating with the administration over language to be included in the 2004 foreign-aid bill that would take account of their concerns. Three days later, a senior administration official, who talked with reporters on background, said that Bush had misspoken.

"Progress in building a broader military-to-military relationship with Indonesia," the anonymous official said, "will be pinned on continued cooperation from Indonesia on the investigation into the murders" of the schoolteachers in Timika.

IMET funding has long been a litmus test of military relations between Washington and Jakarta. Congress first voted to restrict IMET training for the Indonesian armed forces after they massacred more than 100 unarmed civilians in the capital of East Timor in 1991.

All military ties were subsequently severed by the Clinton administration when the TNI and militias under its control ravaged East Timor after its inhabitants voted overwhelmingly for independence in a United Nations-organized plebiscite.

Congress subsequently voted to tie all US military aid, training and sales on the TNI’s implementing far-reaching reforms in its human rights, economic and institutional practices, including its subordination to civilian authority and its prosecution of officers responsible for the violence in East Timor.

Although virtually all of the conditions were ignored, the Bush administration prevailed on Congress to lift them after 9/11.

(Inter Press Service)

Author: Jim Lobe

Jim Lobe writes for Inter Press Service.