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Federal Government folly over 'Kopassus'

By Gary Brown - posted Tuesday, 3 January 2006

One can only boggle at the folly of the Federal Government’s decision to resume co-operation with the Indonesian Special Forces unit, Kopassus.

This unit’s atrocious human rights record is one thing; and certainly I agree with those who argue that this of itself is sufficient reason to refrain from co-operation. But, as I will show, this is by no means the only reason.

It is true, as the government argues, that Kopassus is the principal repository of counter-terrorist capability in the Indonesian Armed Forces. This is the principal reason offered for the resumption of co-operation.


It is also true Indonesia is trying very hard to establish democratic principles and the rule of law, in place of the arbitrary and corrupt authoritarianism which characterised the Suharto era. In that era Kopassus was a principal instrument of repression and coercion. It was the hard core enforcement unit in support of the notorious dwi fungsi (dual-function) pseudo-doctrine, which was manufactured solely to legitimise military dominance of Indonesian politics, censorship, brutal repression and the rest of the authoritarian smorgasbord.

The Indonesian military as a whole was then a vast corrupt business enterprise. Nominal salaries, even for officers, were low and were routinely supplemented by corrupt payments. This became an entrenched and institutionalised system. We saw the sort of military this produced in East Timor after the independence referendum and notably during the Indonesian pullout, when the military trashed everything not already destroyed by its militia stooges.

Despite the best efforts of the Jakarta government, democratic principles, in particular the primacy of the elected civilian authority over the military, are being assimilated by the amed forces much more slowly than by most other areas of the Indonesian body politic. It is proving particularly difficult to wean the military away from corrupt practices, while it certainly worked to sabotage the late 2002 peace process in Aceh, which eventually collapsed. The military was also accused - allegedly on the basis of communications intercepts by an Australian intelligence agency - of involvement in the attack on Freeport mine personnel in August 2002, which Indonesia vociferously blamed on the OPM, the Papuan independence movement. The present post-tsunami Aceh peace process depends heavily on military compliance with the new agreement.

Within the armed forces, it is probably Kopassus, due to its position at the core of the old regime’s system, which is the slowest of all to develop a real and effective commitment to the principles of civilian and democratic government.

These might indeed be considered adequate reasons to refrain from co-operation with Kopassus, and I would not disagree.

But there is another equally compelling reason having nothing to do with the human rights issue. I outlined this at some length in an earlier On Line Opinion contribution warning against co-operation with Kopassus, and will not repeat it all here. Suffice it to say there is reason to fear that Kopassus itself harbours elements which would not be averse to the use of terrorist tactics, and that it may even harbour some who are sympathetic to the kind of extremist Islamism which drives much contemporary terrorism.


One problem is that while Kopassus is well-equipped and trained for counter-terrorist operations, such capabilities are equally useful for the commission of clandestine acts of terror. Even in the West, an undisciplined French intelligence agency committed an act of lethal terrorism, bombing the Greenpeace vessel Rainbow Warrior in a New Zealand port. That Kopassus is still significantly less “disciplined” - subject to complete control by the civilian government - than most Western forces, is I think, hard to dispute.

It is well to recall the case of Pakistan, where for decades the military intelligence organisation ran its own agenda and operations in complete disregard of any policies enunciated by the government of the day. Indeed, as a Muslim country with a secular regime often dominated by the military (as Pakistan is today), Indonesia has certain parallels with Pakistan. Even now it is difficult to avoid the suspicion that if the democratic regime in Jakarta got into serious difficulties the military might yet step in and resume control in the name of “order and stability”.

The issue is further complicated by the question of what hold religious fundamentalism, or support for extremist acts, might have on Kopassus personnel. It takes only one such individual, strategically placed in Kopassus’ intelligence section, for an intelligence feed from Australia or elsewhere to be compromised.

The core of the case I advanced in my earlier article, and which I still believe to be valid, is this: if we help Kopassus develop its military skills, we might be helping those who will later covertly attack us, our friends or interests. If we share intelligence with Kopassus, we might be providing a pipeline for Jemah Islamiya or even Al-Qaida straight into sensitive western counter-terrorist intelligence material.

The government is making a potentially disastrous mistake if it believes that Kopassus has truly changed its spots. This decision is bad enough on human rights grounds; on intelligence and security grounds it is simply insupportable and we may yet have reason to regret it.

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About the Author

Until June 2002 Gary Brown was a Defence Advisor with the Parliamentary Information and Research Service at Parliament House, Canberra, where he provided confidential advice and research at request to members and staffs of all parties and Parliamentary committees, and produced regular publications on a wide range of defence issues. Many are available at here.

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