Subject: SFChron: Indonesia terror acquittals imperil U.S. ties

The San Francisco Chronicle August 20, 2002

Indonesia terror acquittals imperil U.S. ties

International anger follows East Timor verdicts

By Jacqueline Koch, Chronicle Foreign Service


Last week's acquittals of six army commanders accused of inciting terror in East Timor graphically illustrate the distance Indonesia still has to travel before its military is brought under firm civilian control, foreign governments and human rights groups say.

The verdicts could jeopardize the re-establishment of military ties between Indonesia and the United States, diplomats add.

Addressing the long tradition of impunity for abuses by the Indonesian army, New Zealand Foreign Minister Phil Goff said late last week: "The international community will have no confidence in the outcomes of these tribunal hearings when those who were told to commit crimes and those who were responsible for giving the orders . . . are not properly punished."

Pressure from the world community forced the Indonesian government to set up ad hoc special tribunals to try 18 senior officers and government officials accused of unleashing the 1999 mayhem in East Timor, which left more than 1,000 people dead.

But on Thursday, the courts cleared a general and five other colonels and majors, saying they found no evidence against the men. One of the majors was charged with allowing his men to kill 27 civilians -- including three Roman Catholic priests -- in a church in the town of Suai.

A day earlier, another court convicted Abilio Soares, East Timor's last Indonesian-appointed governor, to just three years in prison for doing nothing to prevent such atrocities when the territory voted for independence in a referendum. The law calls for a minimum 10-year term.

The United States cut off military ties with Indonesia in 1999 to protest the East Timor violence. But last month, the U.S. Senate, worried by the proliferation of shadowy terrorist groups in the world's most populous Muslim country, voted to lift restrictions on training assistance to the Indonesian army.

Robert Gelbard, who until last year was the U.S. ambassador in Jakarta, says the East Timor verdicts show that reform efforts have fallen short.

"This will simply demonstrate to Congress that they can't go ahead with this," Gelbard said Friday.

It has been three years since Indonesia embarked on democracy following the demise of the Suharto regime. But steps to implement military reform have been tentative and largely half-hearted. Critics of abuses in such troubled outlying areas as Aceh, Papua, Sulawesi and the Malukus archipelago say only minor players are being held accountable -- not senior officials.

Meanwhile, the military, known for its corruption and brutality under the authoritarian Suharto, has been allowed to determine its own reform agenda.

At the academy that grooms the elite Special Forces, known as Kopassus, cadets these days must pore over the Geneva Conventions, lessons in "human rights and everyday life" and books carrying such titles as "The Right Way to Fight" before earning their distinguishing red berets.

"I am getting my soldiers on the right track, the right way" the academy's director, Commander Wisnu Bawatenaya, asserted emphatically.

Bawatenaya is also eager to show off a new state-of-the-art firing range using computer-generated video images. Not only does it save money on expensive ammunition, he says it helps cadets better discern armed rebels from innocent victims in a combat scenario -- a chronic problem among troops.

"The military equates reform with improvements such as training, not (in raising its level of) professionalism," said retired Lt. Gen. Hasnan Habib, who believes the in-house reform effort will have little success.

Few cases illustrate this better than the involvement of Kopassus soldiers in the murder of Papuan pro-independence leader Theys Eluay last November. Eluay was abducted and found dead in his car after attending a celebration at Kopassus headquarters outside the provincial capital, Jayapura. His driver escaped and according to eyewitnesses returned to the headquarters to report the incident. He was never seen again.

After months of stonewalling mounting police evidence, the military finally admitted that Kopassus personnel might have been involved. When commanders in Jakarta announced that the suspects would face a full judicial process, there was hope accountability had finally begun to take root.

But a few months later, another Kopassus soldier was arrested on charges he attempted to assassinate a key witness in the case.

Despite cases like the Eluay murder and the numerous killings of civilians in rebellion-torn Aceh, President Megawati Sukarnoputri's government in Jakarta has promoted the army as a reformed institution committed to human rights.

Last month, the effort began to pay off with the U.S. Senate vote to allow Indonesian officers to join the IMET (International Military Education Training) program. Activists denounced the move, arguing that the reform benchmarks called for in the Leahy amendment remain unfulfilled.

Habib says substantial reform is impossible as long as the military is operating side businesses to make up for the fact that the cash-strapped central government can afford to pay for only 25 percent of the military's budget.

"How can you become a professional army when you spend all your time making money, especially in a manner that is hardly legal?" he asked.

The vast array of army-owned businesses -- ranging from consumer malls to logging concessions to alleged drug trafficking -- yields handsome profits. This has kept influence and power in the hands of the military, thwarting efforts to bolster civil institutions and democratic political reforms.

Some analysts contend that officers in the IMET program will benefit from exposure to the civilian-controlled U.S. military, its practices and values. Others argue that it makes no difference, noting that decades of U.S. training and aid didn't prevent brutal debacles like the one in East Timor.

In fact, earlier this summer Megawati nominated Gen. Endriartono Sutarto to head the military. The choice was broadly seen as a return to the "old guard," as Sutarto was a loyal figure in the Suharto dictatorship.

The Senate vote appears to have less to do with nurturing Indonesia's fragile democracy than with bolstering a key but very weak link in the global "war on terror."

Earlier this month, Secretary of State Colin Powell promised $50 million to Indonesia for the anti-terror campaign. Of that total, the military will receive $4 million under the ambiguous banner of "regional training fellowships" while most of the rest will go to National Police to build and train counter-terrorism units.

On Aug. 10, the military appeared to suffer a blow in the power arena when members of the 700-member People's Consultative Assembly voted to abolish by 2004 the 38 unelected seats reserved for the security forces -- a remnant of the Suharto era.

But Mike Jendrzejczyk, the director of Human Rights Watch's Asia division, noted: "Regardless if the military has seats in parliament, it is still the strongest institution in the country. The general impression is that it is more assertive and confident under Megawati." Senior generals are now likely to wield their power and influence mostly through private dialogues with Megawati, said Dede Oetomo, a professor at Airlangga University in Surabaya.

"It's probably easier to do it at the (presidential) palace than at Parliament," he said. "There is no light yet for Indonesia at the end of the tunnel."The Associated Press contributed to this story.

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