Subject: Ed McWilliams: Making a Tragic Mistake in Indonesia

Foreign Service Journal

MAY 2005 Speaking Out

Making a Tragic Mistake in Indonesia By Edmund McWilliams

Edmund McWilliams entered the Foreign Service in 1975, serving in Vientiane, Bangkok, Moscow, Kabul, Islamabad, Managua, Bishkek, Dushanbe, Jakarta (where he was political counselor from 1996 to 1999) and Washington, D.C. He opened the posts in Bishkek and Dushanbe and was the first chief of mission in each. In 1998, he received AFSA's Christian Herter Award for creative dissent by a senior FSO. Since retiring as a Senior Foreign Service officer in 2001, he has worked with various U.S. and foreign human rights NGOs as a volunteer.

Is the United States making the same mistakes in its search for partners in the "war on terror" as it did during the Cold War? During that earlier global conflict, the United States pursued alliances with governments, militaries and rebel groups, even those whose policies and activities were in conflict with core American values and the goals we professed to be promoting in our struggle against the Soviet Union. The list of unsavory regimes Washington courted and counted as allies is long and notorious. It includes the merely corrupt, such as the Marcos kleptocracy in the Philippines, as well as some which were savagely brutal, such as Shah Pahlevi's dictatorship in Iran. Some, such as Indonesia's despotic Suharto regime, were both corrupt and brutal.

The political costs of these alliances continue to burden U.S. policies and interests today. We see the baggage in fractured societies like the Democratic Republic of the Congo and Haiti, where decades of U.S.-supported misrule have impaired the development of stable, democratic governments. Our interventions have also left legacies of deep resentment among local populations around the world, including Iran, Iraq and much of Central America.

Despite that history, since the 9/11 attacks Washington once again has sought out allies whose corruption, human rights abuses and undemocratic records render them pariahs in the international community. These include the Karimov regime in Uzbekistan, which routinely employs torture against opponents; the Musharaf regime in Pakistan, where democratic progress has been thwarted by the president/general; and the Indonesian military, the "Tentara Nasional Indonesia." In late February, Secretary Rice announced that the U.S. would resume International Military Education and Training assistance there, overturning a 14-year congressional ban imposed to protest the TNI's human rights abuses, operation of criminal "business enterprises" and lack of accountability to civilian authorities.

This action was not a surprise, to be sure. Last year, the Bush administration convinced Congress to adopt new criteria for restoration of IMET assistance that were far looser than the restrictions authored by Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt. Specifically, Congress agreed that restoration of IMET (though not Foreign Military Sales assistance) could be triggered by a State Department certification that the government of Indonesia and the TNI were rendering "full cooperation" to an FBI investigation of the Aug. 31, 2002, killing of two U.S. citizens and wounding of many more in Timika, West Papua.

Pursuant to that authority, Sec. Rice formally confirmed Indonesian "cooperation" on Feb. 27, 2005. She did so despite the failure of the Indonesian authorities to detain the one person thus far indicted for those crimes by a U.S. grand jury, and despite an eight-month hiatus in the FBI investigation, during which our agents have still not been invited back to Indonesia to resume the case.

A History of Brutality

Even if one accepts claims of Indonesian cooperation at face value, this decision ignores the TNI's broader record, which remains indefensible. In Southeast Asia, that record is rivaled for sheer brutality only by the murderous Khmer Rouge. From 1965 to 1968 alone, the Indonesian military engineered the slaughter of more than a half-million of its own compatriots, following an alleged "coup" attempt against President Sukarno. Employing a tactic it would resort to again and again, the TNI allied itself with Islamic forces that did much of the actual killing. The Suharto regime which rose to power as a consequence of the coup and which directed the massive killings sought to justify them in American eyes by labeling the victims as "communists."

Following the Indonesian military's invasion of East Timor in 1975, an estimated 200,000 East Timorese, one quarter of the population, died as a consequence of living conditions in TNI-organized relocation camps or as direct victims of Indonesian violence. In remote West Papua, it is estimated that over 100,000 Papuans died in the years following the forced annexation of West Papua under a fraudulent "Act of Free Choice" perpetrated by the Suharto regime in 1969. An April 2004 study by the Allard K. Lowenstein International Human Rights Clinic at Yale Law School concluded that the atrocities in West Papua constituted "crimes against humanity" and may have constituted genocide.

Yet throughout this period, extending from 1965 to the early 1990s, the U.S. military maintained a close relationship with the TNI, providing it with IMET training and arms. Those arms were employed not against foreign foes but against their own people: during the 1970s and 1980s, the TNI frequently bombed villages in East Timor and in West Papua with U.S.-provided OV-10 Broncos. Military offensives, conceived and directed by IMET-trained officers against usually miniscule resistance, caused thousands of additional civilian deaths.

Even with the end of the Cold War, the U.S. embrace of the dictator Suharto and his military continued for a time as if U.S. policy were on autopilot. The relationship endured largely unquestioned until 1991, when the Indonesian military was caught on film by U.S. journalists slaughtering peaceful East Timorese demonstrators. The murder of over 270 East Timorese youth by soldiers bearing U.S.-provided M-16's so shocked the U.S. Congress that it imposed tight restrictions on further U.S. military-to-military aid and training.

Ever since Congress cut off such assistance, successive U.S. administrations, with the support of nongovernmental organizations that received strong financial support from U.S. corporations with major interests in Indonesia, have sought to restore military-to-military ties. Those efforts were accompanied by contentions that the Indonesian military had reformed or was on a reform course. But such claims of Indonesian military reform were refuted in 1999, when, following an overwhelming vote by East Timorese for independence from Indonesia, the TNI and its militia proxies devastated the tiny half-island. United Nations and other international observers were unable to prevent the killing of over 1,000 East Timorese, the forced relocation of over 250,000 more, and the destruction of over 70 percent of East Timor's infrastructure. Six years later, the Indonesian justice system has failed to hold a single military, police or civil official responsible for the mayhem.

That failure to render justice demonstrates that, even when confronted by unanimous international condemnation, the Indonesian military remains unaccountable either to civilian authorities or to world opinion. Moreover, TNI human rights abuses continue to this day. Since mid-2004, it has been conducting military operations in West Papua, forcing thousands of villagers into the forests, where many are dying for lack of food and medicine. A ban on travel to the region by journalists and even West Papuan senior church leaders has limited international awareness of this tragedy and prevented provision of humanitarian relief.

The recent devastating Indian Ocean tsunami turned international attention to another remote arena where the TNI has conducted a brutal campaign for over 20 years. In Aceh, over 12,000 civilians have fallen victim to these military operations. The State Department's most recent Human Rights Report, like its predecessors, notes that most of those civilians died at the hands of the TNI.

What Has Changed?

Sadly, the latest trends recall the worst features of the Suharto period (1965-1998), when critics and dissenters were seldom tolerated, at best, and often met harsher fates. Despite the genuine democratic progress made since Suharto's fall in 1999, critics of the military and anyone else the TNI regards as enemies remain in grave jeopardy.

Reflecting the power of the TNI in "democratic" Indonesia, those critics who meet untimely ends are often the most prominent. In 2001, Theys Eluay, the leading Papuan proponent of Papuan self-determination, was assassinated. In a rare trial for such crimes, his military killers received sentences ranging up to just three-and-one-half years. Army Chief of Staff Ryamazad Ryacudu publicly described the murderers as "heroes."

Last year, the country's leading human rights advocate, Munir, a prominent critic of the TNI, died of arsenic poisoning in 2004. (Like many Indonesians, he only used one name.) In 2000, Jafar Siddiq, a U.S. green-card holder who was in Aceh demanding justice for Achenese suffering TNI abuses, was tortured and murdered. Since 2000, 14 prominent human rights advocates have been murdered and no perpetrators have been prosecuted.

Even more recently, Farid Faquih, a leading anti-corruption campaigner who has targeted military and other government malfeasance, was badly beaten by military officers as he sought to monitor tsunami aid distribution. He was then arrested and is now facing trumped-up charges of theft of the assistance he was monitoring. And the Papuan human rights advocates who supported FBI investigations of the U.S. citizens murdered in 2002 in West Papua are undergoing continuing intimidation by the military.

More generally, the TNI constitutes a threat to the fledgling democratic experiment in Indonesia. The many businesses it operates generate over 70 percent of its budget, freeing it from accountability either to the civilian president (himself a retired general) or the parliament. Much of this income comes from extortion, prostitution rings, drug-running, illegal logging and other exploitation of Indonesia's great natural resources and -- as documented in the State Department's Annual Human Rights Report and an August 2004 Voice of Australia report -- human trafficking. With its great institutional wealth, the TNI maintains a bureaucratic structure that functions as a shadow government, paralleling the civil administration structure from the central level down to sub-district and even village level.

For much of the last decade, advocates of closer ties between the Indonesian and American militaries have contended that a warmer U.S. embrace, including training programs and education courses for TNI officers, could expose them to democratic ideals and afford a more professional military perspective. Of course, this ignores the decades of close U.S.-Indonesian military ties extending from the 1960s to the early 1990s, when the Indonesian military committed some of its gravest atrocities and when a culture of impunity became ingrained. The argument for reform through engagement also ignores the fact that the U.S. Defense Department already maintains extensive ties and channels for assistance with the TNI under the guise of "conferences" and joint operations billed a humanitarian or security-related.

In the wake of 9/11, proponents of restored U.S.-Indonesian military ties have adduced a new argument for restoring IMET funds: however unsavory the Indonesian military may be, we need it as a partner in the war on terrorism. But the TNI has close ties to numerous indigenous fundamentalist Islamic terror groups, including the Front for the Defense of Islam and the Laskar Jihad. It even helped form and train the latter group, which engaged in a savage communal war in the Moluku Islands between 2000 and 2002 that left thousands dead.

So long as the Indonesian military refuses to curb its human rights abuses, submit itself to civilian rule, end corruption and end its sponsorship of terrorist militias, it will remain a rogue institution and a threat to democracy. And until that changes, the longstanding restrictions on military-to-military ties between the United States and Indonesia must remain in place.


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