Bush Uses Tsunami Aid to Regain Foothold in Indonesia

Besides improving Washington’s image in South and Southeast Asia, the administration of U.S. President George W. Bush is hoping to achieve something more concrete from its aid efforts in the aftermath of the Dec. 26 tsunami that killed over 175,000 people along the coasts of the Indian Ocean.

In particular, it is reviving its hopes of normalizing military ties with Indonesia, the world’s most populous Muslim nation, whose strategically located archipelago, critical sea lanes, and historic distrust of China have long made it an ideal partner for containing Beijing.

Since early this month, U.S. sailors have been working with the Indonesian armed forces (TNI), as well as national and international humanitarian groups, to rush relief supplies to the hundreds of thousands of people whose homes and livelihoods were destroyed in Aceh province. Another 100,000 are believed to have been killed by the tsunami.

The site of a long-running secession movement, Jakarta closed off Aceh to foreigners 18 months ago as part of a major counterinsurgency campaign. But the disaster is now seen as having created the possibility for a military rapprochement between the Indonesian and U.S. militaries, whose ties were cut after the TNI and militias organized by it rampaged through East Timor in 1999.

Despite reports of serious human rights abuses by the army in Aceh, the Bush administration would clearly like to renew those ties, beginning with training programs designed to restore the once-close personal and professional relations between the two militaries.

"Cutting off contact with Indonesian officers only makes the problem worse," said Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz, who served as U.S. ambassador to Jakarta in the 1980s, during a visit last weekend.

He stressed that the advent of Indonesia’s first directly elected president, retired general Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, who received extensive U.S. military training himself, makes it a particularly opportune moment.

The feeling is clearly mutual, particularly within the Indonesian military. However, divisions also exist between reformists, who want to make the institution more professional, and more traditional elements that see the military as a means to gain political power and amass wealth.

Wolfowitz and his allies at the Pentagon depict Yudhoyono and his civilian defense minister, Juwono Sudarsono, as reformists whose influence on the TNI could be enhanced by the full restoration of relations.

"I think if we’re interested in military reform here, and certainly this Indonesian government is and our government is," he told reporters in Jakarta Sunday, "I think we need to possibly reconsider a bit where we are at this point in history going forward."

But critics here find the administration’s new drive to restore ties both somewhat unseemly, in light of the tsunami disaster, and very premature.

In addition to reports that some TNI units have not only been lackadaisical about getting relief supplies to those who need them, but may also be selling some of the emergency food aid that has been rushed to the region, they point to renewed efforts over the past two weeks by senior officers to reassert control over foreigners in the province as evidence that the military cannot be reformed as presently constituted.

Rights activists here have also charged that the TNI has withheld food and other relief from civilians suspected of supporting the secessionist insurgency, the Free Aceh Movement (GAM).

Indeed, the government announced last week that soldiers must accompany all international aid workers outside the capital, Banda Aceh, and Meulaboh, the hardest-hit coastal city, to protect them from the rebels. This despite the fact that GAM has guaranteed the security of all aid workers, including U.S. and other foreign troops, working in areas where the insurgency was active.

"The TNI is reverting to its usual behavior, partially reinstating recently loosened restrictions on aid workers and journalists," said John Miller, spokesperson for the East Timor Action Network (ETAN), which has strongly opposed the restoration of military assistance to Indonesia for more than a decade.

He also charged that the military had facilitated the entry into Aceh of "Indonesian jihadists" – whom Miller identified as the Islamic Defenders Front (FPI) and Laskar Mujahedin – under the guise of providing emergency relief, a charge that is certain to make an impression on a Congress that has proved surprisingly resistant to Bush’s efforts to get restrictions on U.S. military cooperation with the TNI lifted during the president’s first term.

Last week’s declaration that all foreign troops should leave by March 26 was also seen as inspired by the more conservative and nationalistic forces in the TNI. Although the civilian government distanced itself from the deadline, the move was taken even by right-wingers in Congress here as motivated by a still-powerful and resentful army that did not deserve renewed U.S. military aid and cooperation.

The TNI’s performance in Aceh to date, according to Dan Lev, an Indonesia expert at the University of Washington in Seattle, has been less than impressive and demonstrates that Yudhoyono, Sudarsono, and the new army chief, Gen. Endriartono Sutarto, who is also seen as a professional, "have a lot of work to do in reconstructing both the Indonesian state and the TNI."

"On the ground," he said, "the U.S. servicemen are doing what needs to be done," but Wolfowitz’s and other U.S. officials’ public statements about renewing the relationship at this time have been largely counterproductive in terms of Indonesian public opinion.

"It signals to Indonesians that this was a political response as much as a humanitarian one, and shows them that the American government is simply opportunistic," he told IPS. "Given the suspicion about American purposes, the Bush administration really ought to shut up for awhile."

As for restoring links with the TNI, Lev said Congress is right to insist on the government first enacting thoroughgoing reforms, including drastically reducing the size of the army, shedding its economic interests, and ridding it of its territorial commands.

Washington should also work harder for a political settlement in Aceh where "the military’s efforts to resolve a political problem with military force just makes things worse," according to Lev.

There has been some evidence in recent weeks that the government has explored the possibility of resuming negotiations with the GAM that were broken off in 2003, but the TNI is believed to oppose those efforts.

Congress first voted to restrict to restrict Indonesia from receiving International Military Education and Training (IMET), a State Department-administered program, in 1991 after a massacre of civilian demonstrators in East Timor Indonesian troops. Ties were then severed altogether in September 1999.

Despite lobbying by the administration, Congress extended a ban last November both on IMED and on certain kinds of military sales to Indonesia until a number of human rights conditions were met. In the early stages of the humanitarian operations, the administration permitted the Indonesians to buy previously banned spare parts for C-130 transport planes provided they were used exclusively for humanitarian purposes.

Since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, the administration has opened new avenues to provide aid to the military, mainly through "anti-terrorist" assistance, joint naval exercises, and some military training programs not under the State Department’s control.

But some critics in the U.S. mainstream media are now urging caution in going any further than that.

"President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, a former general himself, needs to make sure his generals understand that they are accountable to him as the democratically elected leader and that the human needs of Aceh’s people must be Indonesia’s most compelling concern," the New York Times said in an editorial Monday.

"Until that change is internalized, there can be no dropping of America’s limits on military ties with Indonesia."

(Inter Press Service)

Author: Jim Lobe

Jim Lobe writes for Inter Press Service.