As U.S. President George W. Bush last week reiterated his strong support for spreading freedom abroad, his administration was preparing to remove a major obstacle to restoring full ties with Indonesia’s armed forces (TNI), widely regarded as one of the world’s most abusive militaries.
According to Congressional offices contacted last week by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, the State Department will soon "certify" that the TNI is cooperating fully in the investigation of the murder of two U.S. schoolteachers in West Papua in 1982. The State Department confirmed Monday that the question is under active review.
Once the certification takes place, Indonesia will be eligible to receive $600,000 to participate in the Department’s International Military Education and Training (IMET) program, from which it has been barred since 1992 after army troops massacred more than 100 peaceful demonstrators in East Timor.
The move, long urged by the Pentagon for strategic reasons, will leave in place only one sanction imposed by Congress against the TNI as a form of pressure to improve its human rights performance and ensure its subordination to Indonesia’s civilian-led government: a 1999 ban on the sale of lethal military equipment to the TNI imposed after the army and TNI-backed militias killed hundreds of people in East Timor following a plebiscite in which the population voted overwhelmingly for independence.
Human rights groups and activists, some of whom warned Monday against Jakarta’s plans to register and relocate up to 100,000 tsunami refugees in conflict-wracked Aceh province to semi-permanent camps controlled by the police military brigade (BRIMOB), are protesting the move as premature and shortsighted.
"The amount of money for IMET may be small, but its symbolic value is enormous," said John Miller, spokesperson for the East Timor Action Network (ETAN). "The Indonesian military will view any restoration of IMET as an endorsement of business as usual."
"Business as usual," he added, "has been nothing less than brutal human rights violations and impunity for crimes against humanity. In tsunami-stricken Aceh, the Indonesian military continues to manipulate relief efforts and to attack civilians as part of their counterinsurgency war."
Miller’s fears were echoed by Edward McWilliams, a retired senior foreign-service officer who headed the political section of the U.S. embassy in Jakarta from 1996 to 1999. "I think the message that would be derived from this is that the U.S. is no longer concerned about real reform of the Indonesian military," he told IPS.
"I think that’s a tragic mistake, both in terms of our relationship with Indonesian military and with the people of Indonesia," he added, noting that civil society groups in Indonesia have welcomed the fact that Washington has withheld aid.
"I think they would feel themselves abandoned by this," said McWilliams, who added that the IMET ban was "highly symbolic and thus very important in the dialogue between Washington and the military."
The Bush administration has long wanted restore full military ties with Indonesia. As the world’s most populous Muslim nation, occupying an enormous archipelago that controls some of the world’s busiest and most important sea lanes, it is seen as a major strategic asset, particularly in the "war on terrorism" and as a possible counterweight to China in Southeast Asia.
It has been constrained from doing so largely as a result of Congress’ insistence that the restoration of military aid and sales should be conditioned on demonstrated improvement in the TNI’s human rights performance.
This is particularly true in Aceh and West Papua, where it is also challenged by a low-level insurgency, the prosecution of the perpetrators of serious abuses, including those that occurred in East Timor in 1999, its subordination to civilian control, and, most recently, cooperation with a U.S. investigation of the 2002 ambush of schoolteachers and their families near the giant Freeport McMohan gold mine on West Papua.
Since Sept. 11, 2001, however, the administration has persuaded Congress to drop or water down most of the conditions, leaving only the last place. At the same time, it has opened a variety of new aid channels designed to circumvent the military ban.
For example, it has provided several million dollars in "counter-terrorism" assistance and training; provided money for the so-called E-IMET, or expanded IMET, programs; and carried out dozens of joint military exercises with the TNI.
After the Dec. 26 tsunami, it also facilitated Indonesia’s purchase of spare parts for C-130 transport planes to carry out relief operations in Aceh, where some 220,000 people are believed to have been killed.
Washington took an active part in the relief operations in Aceh, and cooperation between its forces and the TNI was cited by visiting Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz, who served as ambassador to Jakarta in the early 1980s, as another reason to restore ties.
"Cutting off contact with Indonesian officers only makes the problem worse," he said during his visit in mid-January. He also stressed that the advent of Indonesia’s first directly elected president, retired Gen. Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, who received extensive military training himself, made it a particularly opportune moment to revisit IMET.
Most critics, such as Dan Lev, an Indonesia specialist at the University of Washington in Seattle, consider Yudhoyono and his civilian defense minister, Juwono Sudarsono, as reformists who want to professionalize the armed forces.
The problem, according to Lev and others, is that they cannot truly control them, particularly the army, which has been the most powerful institution in Indonesia since 1958, shortly after the U.S. first began providing it with major support.
"There are professional officers, but they’re just overwhelmed by the political ones," Lev told IPS.
Juwono himself conceded in an interview with the New York Times that the military "retains the real levers of power" in Indonesia.
While the Indonesian Air Force and Navy were reportedly particularly helpful during the tsunami relief efforts, reports of army abuses, including continuing its counterinsurgency campaign against secessionist rebels who had declared a unilateral cease-fire, have persisted.
In a lengthy article Monday, the Times recounted abuses committed against Acehnese activists who protested against the army’s actions, including hoarding or possibly diverting emergency assistance and forcing displaced people into barracks or camps.
That concern provoked Human Rights Watch (HRW) and Human Rights First (HRF) to warn Monday that the military may be preventing the displaced from returning to their homes by moving them into camps without consulting them.
"In the context of the war in Aceh," said Neil Hicks, director of HRF’s international programs, "a military presence at the camps can be a form of intimidation and abusive control."
As to the murder case on which the IMET is expressly conditioned, critics do not see the cooperation that Rice says exists. While the U.S. Justice Department has named one Papuan, Anthonius Wamang, as a gunman in the case, witnesses have reported there were several others.
As pointed out by Sen. Patrick Leahy, one of the TNI’s strongest critics, Wamang, who has been indicted, "remains at large even though his whereabouts are reportedly known to the TNI." According to other reports, Wamang was armed by the TNI.
"Right now, the only leverage we have to ensure the FBI investigation can go forward is the IMET ban," noted McWilliams. "The notion they would give up this leverage now on the eve of a very serious FBI effort is simply inexplicable."
(Inter Press Service)