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Obama: stand up to the Indonesian military

By John Miller - posted Tuesday, 16 December 2008

According to some pundits, US re-engagement with the largely unreformed and unrepentant Indonesian military is the best way to promote reform and human rights. The Wall Street Journal Asia, for instance, called on President-elect Barack Obama "to stand down liberal senators and interest groups" for seeking conditions on military assistance to Indonesia. "Indonesia's military has certainly had human rights problems in the past," the editorial states, but urges the incoming administration to forget about them in the name of building an alliance on the "global war on terror".

The Obama administration and incoming 111th Congress should indeed change course on Indonesia. It should put human rights at the forefront of US policy. This would contribute more to encouraging democratic reform and human rights accountability in the world's largest Muslim-majority country than any amount of military training or weapons. Indonesians who view the military as a chief roadblock to greater reform will be grateful.

History lessons

In 1965, when US-Indonesia ties were the closest, General Suharto seized power and, according to scholars, the Indonesian government killed up to one million people in the coup's aftermath. Earlier, Indonesia took over West Papua in 1963, leaving up to 100,000 dead. In 1975, with explicit US support, Indonesia invaded East Timor, resulting in another 100,000-200,000 dead. Some 90 per cent of the weapons used in the invasion and subsequent occupation came from the United States. These are the lessons the Indonesian military learned from unfettered US military assistance.


The only period of significant reform came when the United States actually suspended much assistance during the 1990s. Chief among the changes was the end of the Suharto dictatorship in 1998. After he was driven from office, East Timor became independent (the Indonesian military's destructive exit from the country led for a time to a full cut off of all military assistance). In the late 1990s, the military gave up a few prerogatives, including its seats in parliament. But since the United States began incrementally to reinstate military assistance in 2002, the reform process has stalled.

By 2005, the Bush administration reinstated nearly all military assistance and has since sought further expanded ties through training of the Kopassus, the notorious special forces unit responsible for some of the worst human rights violations in East Timor, West Papua, Aceh, and elsewhere. Senators Patrick Leahy (D-VT) and Russ Feingold (D-WI) have opposed lifting this final hurdle to unrestricted military engagement. They have called for following existing law barring training of military units with histories of human rights crimes where those responsible have not been brought to justice. If that provision has any meaning, it must apply to the Kopassus.

Re-engagement has failed to end the widespread impunity enjoyed by Indonesia's security forces for crimes against humanity and other serious violations committed in East Timor and Indonesia. Rather, re-engagement has emboldened the military's continued resistance to civilian control and persistent emphasis on internal security.

The Indonesian military continues to resist attempts to dismantle its "territorial command" system, which allows it to exert influence over politics, commerce, and justice down to the village level. Finally, efforts to implement a law ending the military's involvement in business have degenerated into farce, and it remains involved in a variety of illegal enterprises, including logging and narcotics trade.

Several retired generals responsible for some of the worst atrocities in East Timor are serious candidates for president in next year's elections. General Wiranto is perhaps the best known after coming in third in the 2004 presidential campaign. A UN-sponsored court in East Timor indicted Wiranto for crimes against humanity for his role as top commander of the military during the bloodletting of 1999. Former Kopassus commander (and Suharto son-in-law) Prabowo Subianto is another credible presidential candidate. A third potential candidate, Lt. General Sutiyoso, was a member of a unit that, according to an Australian coroner's report, murdered five foreign journalists after they crossed the Timorese border a few months prior to Indonesia's full-scale invasion.

Current abuses

Human rights violations are not just a matter of history. In West Papua, with Indonesian military protection, the US-based Freeport Mining Company has destroyed the environment, livelihoods, and culture of the local people while making billions off the largest goldmine in the world. Just this year, the Indonesian government punished the protests of Papuan people demanding self-determination and greater voice with harsh reprisals, including long prison terms, torture, and the death of at least one bystander.


In May 2007, Indonesian marines killed four civilians and wounded eight in a land dispute between villagers and the Indonesian navy in Pasuruan, East Java. According to The International Herald Tribune, "The marines were tried by a military tribunal but ultimately sentenced to just 18 months in prison. The marine station's relationship with the plantation company was never investigated, nor were any of the station's officers. The land dispute remains unresolved."

As in the past, the current US administration downplays these and other human rights violations, while celebrating its reinvigorated institutional partnership with Indonesia's security forces.

Military assistance flowing to Indonesia has yet to reach the levels of the Suharto years. The United States has funded coastal radars, supplied spare parts, and urged the Indonesians to prepare a military wish list. Earlier this year, the Indonesian Air Force sought F-16 fighters and C-130 Hercules transport planes. For 2008, foreign military finance funding jumped to $15.7 million from only $1 million two years earlier. For now, an Indonesian budget crunch and a lingering wariness bred of past restrictions on assistance have limited Indonesia's willingness to buy substantial stocks of new weapons.

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First published in Foreign Policy In Focus on December 4, 2008.

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About the Author

John M. Miller is the national co-ordinator of the East Timor and Indonesia Action Network and a contributor to Foreign Policy In Focus.

Creative Commons LicenseThis work is licensed under a Creative Commons License.

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