Subject: AT: U.S. Tips Jakarta's Terror Balance

Received from Joyo Indonesia News

Asia Times

July 3, 2004


U.S. Tips Jakarta's Terror Balance

By Michael Roston

Perhaps nowhere else in the world is there a more challenging need to carefully balance the global "war on terrorism" with promoting progress on human rights and the development of nascent democratic institutions than in Indonesia. In the aftermath of the Abu Ghraib prison scandal in Iraq, treading carefully is necessary to successfully restore credibility to America's ability to challenge human rights violations.

Unfortunately, the George W Bush administration appears not only to have given up on restoring its legitimacy on human rights, but has shifted the balance to encourage human rights violations by the Indonesian military in the name of fighting terror. Such capitulation is the only credible explanation for the June 24 press release by the US Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) and the Justice Department on its indictment of an Indonesian for the murder of two American school teachers employed by the Freeport McMoRan corporation in the distant province of West Papua. The release sent a stark message that US policy will exclusively promote counter-terrorism, even at the cost of important human rights goals.

The deadly August 2002 attack in restive West Papua resulted in difficulties for US-Indonesia relations. The US Congress subsequently approved legislation suspending some military ties between the two states until the perpetrators of the murders in West Papua were brought to justice. US legislators were spurred into this action based in part on the belief that elements of the Indonesian armed forces (known by the Indonesian acronym TNI) had been involved in the attacks. However, the FBI's release concludes that a single individual, Anthonius Wamang, identified as a commander of the military arm of the Free Papua Movement (known by its Indonesian acronym OPM), an organization promoting Papuan independence from Indonesia, was responsible for the killings and is to be solely indicted in the case.

The Robert F Kennedy Memorial Center for Human Rights is already questioning the contours of the indictment, finding reasons to doubt that Wamang was individually responsible for the murders. Representatives of the Papuan organization Elsham also reported that Wamang has strong links to the Indonesian military. It has been the long-standing policy of TNI to build up local militias supportive of Jakarta's policies, much as pro-Indonesia militias were responsible for much of the violence in East Timor in 1999.

Unfortunately, the indictment is not questionable for this reason alone. In addition to ignoring the line of command responsible for the murder of the Freeport employees, the language used by the US government in explaining its pursuit of this case is suggestive of a dangerous policy shift in the war against international terrorism in Southeast Asia.

The Justice Department announcement stridently claims that the West Papua indictment is an effort to combat terrorism against American citizens. Attorney-General John Ashcroft has boldly stated, "Terrorists will find that they cannot hide from US justice." However, by identifying the actions of a purported leader of a section of the OPM as terrorism, the Justice Department and the FBI have equated these criminal actions with the kind of terrorism that most threatens international security - that is, the organized, multi-nationally coordinated strikes on the United States, its allies and friends best exhibited by the al-Qaeda network's efforts to advance its destructive ideological goals.

The State Department has never identified OPM or any other separatist organization in Indonesia as reaching the level of "foreign terrorist organization". The department's Office of Counter-terrorism devotes considerable resources toward determining which political groups are heinous enough in intent and action to receive this dubious title for a good reason: without a clear understanding of what is and is not a foreign terrorist organization, the US will identify too many political groups as dangerous to its national security and subsequently be unable to carefully marshal limited counter-terrorism resources to defend the interests of America and its allies. The deliberative process of identifying groups as foreign terrorist organizations is undertaken to ensure that the US is not left with a hammer as its only tool, with the resulting view that every problem is a nail.

The Indonesian military, on the other hand, is happy to pound away at the OPM, and any other organization in conflict with the country's central government. When given the opportunity, authorities in Jakarta have tried their best to elevate rebels and political groups in other restive regions like Aceh to the level of "terrorist", hoping that tarring the government's opponents with this brush would motivate foreign support for its brutal responses to political disputes. Indonesia's identification of a communist threat in East Timor was similarly used to justify its horrific 1977 invasion of the now independent nation, and TNI has shown a willingness to use the language of the global "war on terrorism" to motivate international approval of its brutal means of securing Indonesian territorial integrity. Unfortunately, the Justice Department announcement signals a willingness by the US to overlook excessive Indonesian military action.

After the American indictment, the Indonesian Foreign Ministry quickly announced its hope that the move would remove a major obstacle to military cooperation between the two countries. If American assistance is resumed, the West Papua indictment will be a turning point in US acquiescence to viewing terrorism through Indonesian military lenses. While TNI's repression of political opponents in several areas of the country accelerates, it is unlikely that the political will or military resources will be available for Indonesia to prosecute the fight against international terrorism, and the advancement on Indonesia of radical Islamists who share the anti-Western goals of the al-Qaeda network will culminate in more rounds of destructiveness as terrible as that already seen in the Bali and Jakarta bombings.

Hopefully, policymakers in the US will realize that a balanced consideration of human rights concerns is essential to achieving victory in the struggle against terrorism. When militaries like the one found in Indonesia focus resources on brutalizing the political opposition, little of their efforts will be directed toward combating the terrorism that threatens not only America, but the world.

Michael Roston ( is a New York-based researcher on terror and violence. He has worked with the Singaporean organization Think Center and spent the past three years in Washington, DC as an analyst of WMD security issues.

Speaking Freely is an Asia Times Online feature that allows guest writers to have their say.

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