Obama: Stand Up to the Indonesian Military
Miller | December 4, 2008
Editor: John Feffer
According to some pundits, U.S.
reengagement with the largely unreformed and unrepentant
Indonesian military is the best way to promote reform and
human rights. The Wall Street Journal Asia, for
called on President-elect Barack Obama "to stand down
liberal senators and interest groups" for seeking conditions
on military assistance to Indonesia. "Indonesia's military
has certainly had human rights problems in the past," the
editorial states, but urges the incoming administration to
forget about them in the name of building an alliance on the
"global war on terror."
The Obama administration and incoming 111th Congress should
indeed change course on Indonesia. It should put human
rights at the forefront of U.S. policy. This would
contribute more to encouraging democratic reform and human
rights accountability in the world's largest Muslim-majority
country than any amount of military training or weapons.
Indonesians who view the military as a chief roadblock to
greater reform will be grateful.
In 1965, when U.S.-Indonesia ties were the
closest, General Suharto seized power and, according to
scholars, the Indonesian government killed up to one million
people in the coup's aftermath. Earlier, Indonesia took over
West Papua in 1963, leaving up to 100,000 dead. In 1975,
with explicit U.S. support, Indonesia invaded East Timor,
resulting in another 100,000-200,000 dead. Some 90%
of the weapons used in the
invasion and subsequent occupation came from the United
States. These are the lessons the Indonesian military
learned from unfettered U.S. military assistance.
only period of significant reform came when the
United States actually suspended much assistance
during the 1990s.
The only period of significant reform came
when the United States actually suspended much assistance
during the 1990s. Chief among the changes were the end of
the Suharto dictatorship in 1998. After he was driven from
office, East Timor became independent (the Indonesian
military's destructive exit from the country led for a time
to a full cutoff of all military assistance). In the late
1990s, the military gave up a few prerogatives, including
its seats in parliament. But since the United States began
incrementally to reinstate military assistance in 2002, the
reform process has stalled.
By 2005, the Bush administration reinstated
nearly all military assistance and has since sought further
expanded ties through training of the Kopassus, the
notorious special forces unit responsible for some of the
worst human rights violations in East Timor, West Papua,
Aceh, and elsewhere. Senators Patrick Leahy (D-VT) and Russ
Feingold (D-WI) have opposed lifting this final hurdle to
unrestricted military engagement. They have called for
following existing law barring training of military units
with histories of human rights crimes where those
responsible have not been brought to justice. If that
provision has any meaning, it must apply to the Kopassus.
Reengagement has failed to end the
widespread impunity enjoyed by Indonesia's security forces
for crimes against humanity and other serious violations
committed in East Timor and Indonesia. Rather, reengagement
has emboldened the military's continued resistance to
civilian control and persistent emphasis on internal
security. The Indonesian military continues to resist
attempts to dismantle its "territorial command" system,
which allows it to exert influence over politics, commerce,
and justice down to the village level. Finally, efforts to
implement a law ending the military's involvement in
business have degenerated into farce, and it remains
involved in a variety of illegal enterprises, including
logging and narcotics trade.
Several retired generals responsible for
some of the worst atrocities in East Timor are serious
candidates for president in next year's elections. General
Wiranto is perhaps the best known after coming in third in
the 2004 presidential campaign. A UN-sponsored court in East
Timor indicted Wiranto for crimes against humanity for his
role as top commander of the military during the
bloodletting of 1999. Former Kopassus commander (and Suharto
son-in-law) Prabowo Subianto is another credible
presidential candidate. A third potential candidate, Lt.
General Sutiyoso, was a member of a unit that, according to
an Australian coroner's report, murdered five foreign
journalists after they crossed the Timorese border a few
months prior to Indonesia's full-scale invasion.
Human rights violations are not just a
matter of history. In West Papua, with Indonesian military
protection, the U.S.-based Freeport Mining Company has
destroyed the environment, livelihoods, and culture of the
local people while making billions off the largest goldmine
in the world. Just this year, the Indonesian government
punished the protests of Papuan people demanding
self-determination and greater voice with harsh reprisals,
including long prison terms, torture, and the death of at
least one bystander.
In May 2007, Indonesian marines killed four civilians and
wounded eight in a land dispute between villagers and the
Indonesian navy in Pasuruan, East Java.
According to The International Herald
Tribune, "The marines were tried by a military tribunal
but ultimately sentenced to just 18 months in prison. The
marine station's relationship with the plantation company
was never investigated, nor were any of the station's
officers. The land dispute remains unresolved."
As in the past, the current U.S.
administration downplays these and other human rights
violations, while celebrating its reinvigorated
institutional partnership with Indonesia's security forces.
Military assistance flowing to Indonesia has yet to reach
the levels of the Suharto years. The United States has
funded coastal radars, supplied spare parts, and urged the
Indonesians to prepare a military wish list. Earlier this
year, the Indonesian Air Force sought F-16 fighters and
C-130 Hercules transport planes. For 2008, foreign military
finance funding jumped to $15.7 million from only one
million dollars two years earlier. For now, an Indonesian
budget crunch and a lingering wariness bred of past
restrictions on assistance have limited Indonesia's
willingness to buy substantial stocks of new weapons.
Meanwhile, the number of Indonesian students
in the International Military Education and Training (IMET)
program is increasing. IMET was the first military
assistance program that Congress restricted in the early
1990s. Indonesia was a major beneficiary of the Regional
Defense Counterterrorism Fellowship Program, created soon
after the September 11 attacks
circumvent the IMET ban on Indonesia and other
countries. Joint military exercises have covered
counterinsurgency and counterterrorism, among other topics.
However, the Indonesian police, not the military, tracked
down and arrested those responsible for a series of bombings
in Bali and Jakarta in 2002 and 2003. The Indonesian
military tolerates and, more ominously, continues to back
militias and vigilante groups that intimidate civilians,
particularly those in ethnic, religious, and political
Now that Indonesia is eligible
for unrestricted aid, its military can assume
issues of human rights and reform no longer matter to their once and
Ultimately, the size of the military
assistance package may not matter. The United States had
restricted aid as a means to build pressure for human rights
accountability and reform. Now that Indonesia is eligible
for unrestricted aid, its military can assume those issues
no longer matter to their once and future patron.
A New Era with Obama?
President-elect Obama has described U.S.
engagement in Indonesia, where he lived as a child, as less
than positive. In The Audacity of Hope, Obama
writes that "for the past sixty years the fate of
[Indonesia] has been directly tied to U.S. foreign policy."
This policy included "the tolerance and occasional
encouragement of tyranny, corruption, and environmental
degradation when it served our interests." In his earlier
book Dreams from My Father, Obama writes of
Suharto's bloody seizure of power: "The death toll was
anybody's guess: a few hundred thousand, maybe, half a
million. Even the smart guys at the [CIA] had lost count."
Based on these early positions, Obama is
quite conscious of the problems with the Indonesian
military. While in the Senate, he rarely spoke about these
Indonesian advocates have called on Obama
and Congress to pressure Indonesia's government to respect
human rights. Rafendi Djamin, coordinator of the Human
Rights Watch Working Group, acknowledged the U.S.'s past
"huge role in pushing for rights advocacy in Indonesia… I
have seen that during the Bush administration, the U.S.
Congress is still concerned with Indonesia's democratization
and human rights advocacy, but Bush has rarely given a
direct warning of the importance of human rights advocacy."
said in the Jakarta Post, "We are now expecting
Obama to put more pressure on Indonesia to resolve
unfinished human rights cases by directly questioning the
government about them and by addressing their importance."
Another advocate said that "if Indonesia does not respond
positively to U.S. pressure…the U.S. would reinstate its
military embargo against us."
East Timor's official Commission for
Reception, Truth and Reconciliation, after examining in
detail the impact of Indonesian occupation and destructive
withdrawal on the East Timorese, called on countries to make
military assistance to Indonesia "totally conditional on
progress towards full democratisation, the subordination of
the military to the rule of law and civilian government, and
strict adherence with international human rights."President
Obama and the next Congress should follow that
John M. Miller is the national coordinator
of the East Timor and
Indonesia Action Network and a contributor to
Foreign Policy In Focus.
On Line Opinion (Australia)