Indonesia and the School of the Americas
By Andrew de Sousa, Bangkok *
November 15, 2013
This November 22-24, thousands of people from across the United States and Latin America will converge upon Fort Benning (Georgia, USA) to demand a closure to the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation, formerly known as the School of the Americas (SOA). In what has become an annual ritual for more than 20 years, activists will employ civil disobedience in attempts to enter the SOA, facing arrest rather than accept the continued injustices embodied by the institute.
The activists have good reason to protest. The military institute is notorious for training over 64,000 foreign soldiers in subjects such as counterinsurgency, military intelligence, interrogations and psychological warfare. Many of the military officials responsible for some of the worst atrocities committed in Latin America were trained there, and some have even served as guest instructors.
When the School of the Americas is finally closed it will be an important victory for its victims across the Western Hemisphere, Indonesia, and the world. However, its end must be followed by larger moves to dismantle the system of training which supports atrocities across the globe.
Since 2004, six Latin American countries have now pulled out of the school, and each year opponents come closer to finally closing the school down. Over the years, the U.S. has provided similar training to Indonesia. The U.S. government was a chief backer of the New Order regime, and supplied the Indonesian military with the intelligence, equipment and training used for some of the worst human rights atrocities of the last century. Indonesian military officers are among the graduates of Fort Benning are Gen. Prabowo Subianto, who was behind some of the worst atrocities in Timor-Leste and kidnapped democracy activists in 1998. His troops were implicated in atrocities in West Papua and elsewhere during his command of the feared Kopassus special forces. Other Indonesians trained in the U.S. include Gen. Sjafrie Syamsuddin and Gen. Johny Lumintang, who both played prominent roles in orchestrating the violence around the 1999 referendum in Timor-Leste.
Following the 1991 Santa Cruz Massacre in East Timor, citizens pushed the U.S. Congress to restrict military training and other assistance to the Indonesian military. While Congress banned IMET, the main program that brought Indonesian officers to the U.S. for training, the Pentagon quietly continued to train soldiers in surveillance, psychological operations, and other tactics to be used against civilian populations under other programs.
Grassroots pressure forced the U.S. to take very minor steps towards addressing the atrocities of the Pentagon’s Indonesian students: Prabowo is currently barred from travel to the U.S. for his involvement in torture of student activists, and Lumintang was found liable of gross human rights violations and ordered to pay $66 million to Timorese victims by a U.S. District Court. (The verdict was later overturned on a technicality.)
Inside Indonesia impunity continues to reign supreme: despite some modest gains in reforming the military over the past decade, regular human rights violations continue in West Papua and elsewhere, and the U.S.-created Detachment 88 acts like a death squad, killing suspected terrorists at will. Past crimes continue to go unpunished, with those responsible enjoying prominent positions: Prabowo has formed his own political party and is a leading contender for president, Sjafrie Syamsuddin is a vice-minister, and Lumintang is set to be the next ambassador to the Philippines. General Wiranto, indicted in Timor for his role as head of the military in 1999, is also planning a presidential run.
It is clear that the Pentagon has also failed to absorb the lessons of the past. With the State Department as a willing ally, human rights conditions on U.S. military training and other assistance to Indonesian security forces have been systematically dismantled. Despite its rights rhetoric, the Obama administration, like its predecessors, has put made engagement with Indonesia’s security forces a priority. This is what makes actions like the annual mobilization against the SOA so important.
When the School of the Americas is finally closed it will be an important victory for its victims across the Western Hemisphere, Indonesia, and the world. However, its end must be followed by larger moves to dismantle the system of training which supports atrocities across the globe – including full accountability for those who committed past atrocities, and for those who trained and equipped them.
*The writer is with the NGO Focus on the Global South and a member of ETAN's Steering Committee.
A version of this article appeared in the Jakarta Post.