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Never mind the human rights record, Kopassus simply cannot be trusted

By Gary Brown - posted Friday, 22 August 2003

It is only natural that many people have serious reservations about Australian cooperation with the Indonesian Special Forces unit, Kopassus. Most of these people, however, are uneasy mainly about Kopassus' highly questionable human rights record and the fact that it was long a key instrument of repression under the Suharto dictatorship.

Nevertheless some are now arguing that cooperation with Kopassus is important. This case was cogently put by Alan Dupont in a recent edition of the Diplomat magazine. In essence the argument is that because Kopassus, whatever its faults, is the repository of much of Indonesia's counter-terrorist capability (true), we must perforce work with Kopassus people if we expect to cooperate with Jakarta against terrorism.

Bali and the recent Marriot Hotel bombing show that despite being a Muslim nation, Indonesia is targeted by Islamic terrorist organisations. Those of a fundamentalist stamp reject the legitimacy of secularist regimes like that in Jakarta, seeking an Islamic state. Such people have few qualms about killing fellow Muslims as collateral damage as at the Marriot. One might therefore expect that Jakarta's security forces would strongly oppose local terrorist activity. Certainly, if we can help stabilise the secularist regime, we should do so.


The well-conducted Bali investigation, headed by Indonesian police General Pastika and characterised by genuine cooperation between Indonesian and Australian investigators, with the latter working on Indonesian soil, shows that there is a willingness to pursue terrorists. The police, who are no longer a branch of the military, in this instance performed admirably. All of this might argue for more extensive counter-terrorist cooperation, including with Kopassus.

The Indonesian military, however, is still untrustworthy. There is strong evidence suggesting that elements of TNI (Tentara Nasional Indonesia - the armed forces) continue efforts to destabilise the young democratic regime. A promising peace process in Aceh appears to have been deliberately sabotaged by elements of the military, and the attack near the Freeport mine in August 2002 was, if claims of Australian intelligence communication intercepts are true, organised by elements of TNI, and not by the Papuan separatists Jakarta blamed.

Although today Indonesia has not just the forms but some of the reality of a democracy, the military in particular is lagging behind in developing a democratic mindset. Under Suharto it not only wielded great power but via an elaborate system of institutionalised corruption commanded great wealth. Such power and wealth are not easily surrendered, and the military is finding it difficult to efface itself in the approved democratic manner. The old Suharto doctrine of military "dwi fungsi" (dual function - military and "social-political") still has many adherents in TNI - not least in Kopassus, which is not always responsive to government directives or policies.

Herein lies the hidden danger of collaboration with Kopassus on counter-terrorism. There are in fact no guarantees either that elements of Kopassus are not themselves terrorists, using covert violence for illicit political ends, or that they are not at least providing aid and assistance to terrorists. Were Australia to begin, say, helping Kopassus develop its military skills, we might be helping those who will later covertly attack us, our friends or interests. Were we to share intelligence with Kopassus, we might be providing a pipeline for Jemah Islamiya or even Al Qa'ida right into Western counter-terrorist intelligence material. It is well to recall the case of Pakistan, where the military intelligence organization ran its own agenda and operations in complete disregard of any policies enunciated by the government of the day.

Those who argue for cooperation with Kopassus are only repeating the tired clichés that characterised cooperation in the Suharto period, when Australia followed a policy of appeasement of a vicious, corrupt and aggressive dictatorship. The Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade at every turn has shown that it is prepared to sacrifice much on the altar of good relations with Jakarta. East Timor's immolation was a direct consequence of this policy.

In short, Kopassus's track record says not only that it is contemptuous of basic human rights, including the right to live, but moreover that it is not to be trusted. Even if one were prepared to throw over the human rights considerations, a policy of the purest pragmatism should still accept that cooperation with Kopassus is simply unsafe. We may trust the bona fides of President Megawati and her government but trusting those of Kopassus on counter-terror copperation would be the classic case of handing Count Dracula the keys to the blood bank.

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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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