Subject: Jakarta's Thugs in Red Berets Finally Brought to Account

Sydney Morning Herald Wednesday, February 23, 2000

Jakarta's thugs in red berets finally brought to account

By LINDSAY MURDOCH, Herald Correspondent in Jakarta

They call them Black Operations - kidnapping, killing, torturing, raping, burning and looting designed to intimidate opposition or set communities against each other. Sometimes they wear black masks, other times they pose as local thugs. Often local military officers are not told of the arrival in their towns and villages of highly trained, brutal soldiers who launch covert, state-sponsored terror campaigns.

"For decades they have been a law unto themselves," says Mr Robert Lowry, an Australian expert on Indonesia's armed forces. "They have become a force within a force that make work for themselves to justify their own existence."

But the new civilian government in Jakarta is preparing to effectively dismantle Kopassus, the country's 6,000-strong elite red beret special force that human rights investigators say is behind a swathe of terrorist acts across the archipelago over decades, including last year's violence in East Timor and atrocities in Aceh province.

The Defence Minister, Mr Juwono Sudarsono, told the Herald that he intended to cut back what he described as the "rag-tag" elite that Kopassus has become to a force of between 700 and 1,000, similar to Australia's anti-terrorist SAS group.

"My aim is to streamline the military, particularly the army and particularly Kopassus," Mr Juwono said. "I am just beginning to rein in the military to do what it does best and that is soldiering."

The move to radically cut back Kopassus and make it accountable to the new military hierarchy dominated by non-army officers appointed by the President, Mr Wahid, is certain to increase tensions between the army and the country's first democratically elected government.

A two-week stand-off between Mr Wahid and the former armed forces chief, General Wiranto, fuelled rumours of an army rebellion that subsided only when the general - accused over the East Timor violence - reluctantly agreed to step down from Cabinet.

Throughout the 1990s, Kopassus - the army's first special forces, formed in 1952 - was greatly expanded under the leadership of Lieutenant-General Prabowo Subianto, the ambitious son-in-law of the then President Soeharto.

"Kopassus was Prabowo's power base," said a retired army officer in Jakarta, who asked for anonymity. "He ruled it as his own fiefdom ... there were no checks, no balances. They were basically out of control."

General Prabowo tried to buy the unit Russian helicopters and insisted on its commandos being the best at everything, including rushing to beat Malaysian soldiers to climb Mt Everest.

But after Soeharto's downfall, General Prabowo admitted to a military tribunal that he had presided over the kidnapping of nine political activists.

He was drummed out of the military and forced into exile, one of the few times a Kopassus man has been brought to account.

At the height of the East Timor violence last year, journalists saw Kopassus soldiers change into civilian clothes and join militias attacking independence supporters.

Human rights investigators in the Territory have evidence that Kopassus covertly directed much of the violence before the September arrival of Interfet troops.

Australian soldiers with Interfet caught at least 10 Indonesians operating in militia units who carried Kopassus identity cards.

An independent commission investigating human rights abuses in Aceh over a decade concluded late last year that most of the troops responsible for countless atrocities in the province were from Kopassus.

Kopassus forces have traditionally reported to the military's senior commanders in Jakarta. Their primary role has been strategic intelligence gathering and special covert operations at home and abroad.

One of most spectacular successes of Kopassus was the storming of a hijacked Indonesian aircraft in Bangkok in 1981. Only one hijacker survived.

In 1962 its forces infiltrated Irian Jaya in support of Indonesia's liberation campaign.

When East Timor was invaded in 1975, Kopassus forces were among the first to land. For the next two decades they played a leading role in the province, hunting down the resistance leader Lobato in 1978 and in 1992 capturing his successor, Xanana Gusmao.

Over decades, Kopassus concentrated on eliminating rebel leaders and their support structures in Aceh, East Timor and Irian Jaya, now West Papua.

Some former Kopassus commanders have gone on to fill top positions in the armed forces, including General Edi Sudrajat and General Feisal Tanjung.

In 1998 Australia abandoned major military exercises with Kopassus after damaging publicity over its human rights record.

Indonesia's Parliament will summon General Wiranto to face questioning over East Timor, a senior politician, Mr Yasril Ananta Baharuddin, said yesterday.

Back to February Menu
World Leaders Contact List
Human Rights Violations in East Timor
Main Postings Menu

Note: For those who would like to fax "the powers that be" - CallCenter V3.5.8, is a Native 32-bit Voice Telephony software application integrated with fax and data communications... and it's free of charge! Download from