Subject: US must face Jakarta's cruel past - James Dunn

The Sydney Morning Herald

US must face Jakarta's cruel past

James Dunn

February 20, 2009

Australian and United States policies towards Indonesia have long been quite close, and it is going to be interesting to see the impact of the change in Washington. Both countries in the past supported the Soeharto regime, including its illegal seizure of East Timor, where both governments helped shield the regime from allegations of war crimes by the TNI, the Indonesian Army.

However, many Americans, including congressmen, mostly Democrats, have long condemned this support, and they are pressing President Barack Obama to shift away from the US's longstanding close relationship with the Indonesian military.

Obama comes to the presidency, however, with unusual links with Indonesia, where he spent his early childhood on the outskirts of Jakarta. As a child, he romped the streets of Jakarta with other Indonesian children before moving to Hawaii.

Though a critic of the Soeharto dictatorship, Obama clearly has a soft spot for Indonesia and supports President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono and the shift to democracy. His victory excited Indonesians and clearly the country has a special meaning to him.

As the most populous Muslim nation, Indonesia could play a lead role in Obama's plans to improve Washington's relations with the Islamic world. Therefore Hillary Clinton's early visit to Jakarta comes as no surprise. She received a warm welcome but the relationship is not without some political problems.

Many US congressmen and leading US human rights organisations, who strongly supported Obama's presidential campaign, want changes to the military link. For one they would like some action over the TNI generals responsible for crimes against humanity in East Timor and West Papua, many of them indicted by the UN Timor mission. How can Americans rejoice at the execution of Saddam Hussein and his cronies, they say, while the generals enjoy an utterly unjustified immunity?

I share such sentiments. These officers, many of them now in comfortable retirement, continue to enjoy an immunity tacitly endorsed by our governments, which decided that too much pressure on the Indonesian generals would destabilise the fledgling democracy. However, ignoring the past crimes is tantamount to condoning the brutal culture that developed under Soeharto, especially in the elite Kopassus (Special Forces) command, the shield of Soeharto's Orde Baru (New Order).

True, East Timorese leaders now want to forget their cruel past and have long abandoned demands for an international tribunal largely because of the lack of support, including from the Howard and Bush governments. Such an attempt would fail, leaving East Timor to face a hostile neighbour, though many Indonesians would favour such an exposure as a means to a comprehensive reform of the military.

Our role is murky - by remaining silent where serious atrocities (which we knew about) were being perpetrated, Australia and the US became accessories to very serious violations of human rights.

Our political leaders failed to express any concern in 1965 when more than half a million so-called communists, with their wives and children, were killed, and tens of thousands of others incarcerated in prison camps not because of their subversive intentions but because of their political beliefs or preferences.

Yudhoyono, who will face an election in July, deserves our support for his efforts to transform Indonesia into a democratic state. He could be a breath of fresh air in a stagnant political environment. He is a retired general, but at least he is from Kostrad (the strategic reserve command) rather than Kopassus, the KGB of Suharto's Orde Baru. His victory is far from assured - former president Megawati Soekarnoputri will again be a candidate, which would please TNI generals whose influence remained strong while she was in office. In 2002 she only reluctantly attended East Timor's independence celebrations for fear of offending the military. In her time in office, an abortive inquiry into events in East Timor exonerated the very military commanders responsible for the mass killings and destruction.

A much bigger worry is retired General Prabowo Subianto of the Gerindra party, son-in-law of President Soeharto, who is attracting support from former military officers. This former Kopassus commander should be asked to explain his role in a past massacre in East Timor, a virtual reprisal killing in which more than 1000 Timorese men, women and children died. The fact that he feels free to stand, it could be said, is testament to our dismal failure to procure a just settlement of the most troubling part of the East Timor settlement.

However, Prabowo is only one of some two dozen TNI officers in command in situations where serious crimes against humanity were committed. Some time has elapsed since those incidents but, as in the case of former Nazi war criminals, it is never too late to bring them to justice, a move that would do a lot to stabilise the social scene in East Timor.

To ignore those crimes is to deepen the injustice to the victim communities. To expose what transpired in the 24 years of Indonesian occupation would act as a stimulant to the democratic process in Indonesia. Many Indonesians are aware that exposing the dark episodes of their history, however painful, is essential to a full understanding of their national identity. In the circumstances, will Obama take a stand on a question that continues to trouble many of his former senior Democrat colleagues in Congress? And where would Australia stand this time?

James Dunn, a former intelligence analyst, diplomat and author, was Australian consul in East Timor from 1962-64.


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