Subject: ST/McBeth on TNI: Renewed Calls To Push Through Reforms

The Straits Times (Singapore)

Wednesday, June 13, 2007

Renewed calls to push through reforms

John McBeth, Senior Writer

JAKARTA - LAND takeovers and military abuses were two of the worst aspects of former president Suharto's 32-year rule. On May 30, they came together again in the East Java district of Pasuruan, where a platoon of Indonesian marines allegedly opened fire on a crowd of demonstrators, killing four people - including a pregnant woman and her young son.

Thirteen of the soldiers have been detained in an incident that has already re-ignited debate over the lack of reform in the Indonesian Armed Forces, or TNI, and strengthened calls for the military to get out of business and for servicemen accused of criminal acts to be tried in civilian courts.

Human-rights groups are still upset over recent disclosures that Special Forces officers who faced court martial for the abduction and torture of 24 pro-democracy activists in 1997 were later reinstated and promoted. Twelve of the activists remain missing.

That, and the government's failure to prosecute senior officers for past human-rights abuses in former East Timor and elsewhere, will not play well in the new Democrat-dominated United States Congress, where lawmakers are deciding whether to continue military aid to Indonesia, restored by the country's Republican administration in 2005.

It is still not clear whether the Pasuruan villagers were armed with anything more than rocks, but even if they were carrying knives or machetes, it raises serious questions about why the marines were in a confrontation that should have been dealt with by the police equipped with non-lethal riot gear.

The police were not there, of course, because the incident occurred on military land. If relations between the two services were amicable, perhaps they would have been. But they are not. In fact, armed clashes between police and the military over money-making and other issues are common across the country.

When the marines first shot into the air, the protesters thought they were firing blanks and so kept advancing. Commanders insist their troops then fired into the ground and those killed and wounded were hit by ricocheting bullets. But that does not explain how some were hit in the head.

The incident has indelibly ruined the good reputation of the marines who, unlike the army and police, were widely perceived to be much more in tune with the civilian populace.

Wearing their distinctive magenta berets, and with flowers poking out from the barrels of their assault rifles, they won high praise for their calm demeanour on Jakarta's streets in the turbulent period following Mr Suharto's downfall in 1998.

A growing source of unrest

THE roots of the Pasuruan problem go back to the early 1960s when the navy took over the 3,600 ha to use as a training ground. As with a lot of land cases during that era, residents had little say in the matter. After all, only 10 per cent of land in Indonesia is covered by titles registered with the National Land Agency (BPN).

But the navy has never had the money to build any facilities and, over time, it rented out parts of the property to private companies to grow cotton, sugar, cassava and other cash crops. Angry that it was being used for business instead of national defence, the 11 villages in the area have been agitating ever since for the land to be returned to them.

Although it went largely unnoticed, land issues became a growing source of unrest during the final years of Mr Suharto's rule, making up 75 per cent of complaints fielded by the then rubber-stamp Parliament. Not a lot appears to have changed in the decade since his downfall.

Regarded as one of Indonesia's most hated institutions because it is believed to have colluded with the rich and powerful, the National Land Agency now has more than 2,800 outstanding land disputes on its books, of which 322 are considered to have the potential for violent action.

Many of the cases stem from the New Order era, when developers and other Jakarta fat cats would often appear in far-flung locations waving BPN certificates for land that local farmers had worked on for generations, but had only limited title to.

President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono has announced plans for a national agrarian reform programme aimed at redistributing more than nine million ha to the poor over the next eight years, most of it in 17 provinces outside Java.

The programme is based on a 1960 law, used by the now-banned Indonesian Communist Party, or PKI, as a way to rally rural support. But after the demise of the PKI and president Sukarno, the campaign ran out of steam and today there are doubts whether it has the proper legal basis to be effective.

For many pro-democracy activists, however, the Pasuruan shooting highlights the more important task of reforming the military, which may have dropped from the national political stage but is still seen to be resisting the principle of civilian supremacy.

Acting on a mandated provision in the new Indonesian Armed Forces Law, the House of Representatives and the Defence Ministry are in the process of amending the Military Tribunal Bill under which soldiers will be tried in civilian courts for criminal offences.

Defence Minister Juwono Sudarsono wants three years to prepare for the new arrangement, but public pressure has mounted for its earlier introduction following the disclosure that two officers jailed for abducting political activists a decade ago are now district commanders in Java and Maluku.

The two were among five officers from the covert 'Team Rose' Special Forces unit who were discharged from active service at the time of their sentencing in 1999, but later reinstated following an appeal to the Supreme Court. The court's verdict was never made public.

If and when the Pasuruan case comes to trial, the military may be forced to allow civilian judges to sit in on proceedings. Given the many unresolved human-rights cases involving military personnel in Indonesia, anything less would hardly be considered credible.

Indonesia has made more progress than countries like Thailand in advancing military reforms, but little effort has been made so far to dismantle the TNI's pervasive territorial structure, which contributes significantly to its legal and illegal businesses.

Dr Sudarsono and other officials have said that despite taking some steps towards professionalising the armed forces and paring down its business operations, the government recognises that substantive change will be possible only when it is able to double the current defence allocation of US$3.2 billion (S$4.9 billion).

Meanwhile, the people of East Java must feel particularly unfortunate. The scene of the Pasuruan shooting is only 35km south-east of Sidoarjo, where an unstoppable mud volcano has left tens of thousands of people homeless.

------------------------------------------ Joyo Indonesia News Service

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