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Indonesia's Killers
Selected Editorial, The Nation magazine

30 March 1998

Today in Indonesia activists and observers speculate that the country--reeling from hunger and mass layoffs promoted by the I.M.F.--is moving toward social upheaval and perhaps a change of regime. At the dumps in Bantar Gebang, the ranks of scavengers have soared as sacked day laborers pick through garbage hoping to survive. In the midst of this, many Western reporters are casting Washington as a champion of reform because it is twisting Suharto's arm to implement a fifty-point I.M.F. plan that includes some popular clauses that cut against the Suharto family's vast corruption. Largely unknown is that the Clinton Administration, against an understanding with Congress, is shoring up the Indonesian military's response against its own people.

The Suharto regime counts on its armed forces, ABRI, to survive, and is intensifying the grip of the police state with each fresh week of crisis. The army has demanded access to cell-phone-company systems, explaining that it has to monitor, cut off and, if need be, seize critical callers. On March 7, a human rights lawyer was talking to a friend on his home phone when a voice broke in and warned, "I will kill you tonight." This followed an afternoon fax--emblazoned with a hammer and sickle and skull--that said, "Don't Be a Hero. Be Careful of Your Safety, Your Self and Your Family." Although the law already prohibits gatherings of five or more people without state permission, the ABRI recently announced a formal ban on demonstrations (which students and workers have defied). On March 9, Suharto's tame assembly granted him new "special powers." Gen. Feisal Tanjung even announced that opponents of the regime will be "cut to pieces."

The United States and the I.M.F. are using the crisis to push Indonesia from protected capitalism, crony-style, to a harsher, multinational and corporate variety based on submission to global markets. The I.M.F. plan means wage restraint, mass layoffs, "more flexible" labor markets and the phased-in end of all existing food and fuel subsidies for the poor. Stanley Roth, the Assistant Secretary of State for East Asia and an I.M.F. booster, says: "We're going to see tremendous hardship in the Indonesian countryside as millions of unemployed go back to their villages." A senior U.S. official here calls the I.M.F. the "lance point" of U.S. policy and says that if Suharto doesn't go along he will be "committing suicide." But regardless of what happens to the 76-year-old dictator, U.S. policy is grounded on maintaining control inside Indonesia through backing and strengthening ABRI.

The current planning, according to officials familiar with Pentagon, White House and State Department discussions, envisions a post-Suharto regime perhaps headed by a civilian or civilians but under which ABRI keeps its vast apparatus and "dual function" security/political role. Sources here say that Washington has queried Megawati Sukarno--the most popular opposition figure--on whether she would accept an ABRI vice president or a candidate approved by the army.

Indonesians know well that ABRI is the co-manager with Suharto of state repression and the author, under his command, of two of the most intensive slaughters of the postwar era (the massacre of a half-million Indonesians when Suharto and ABRI seized control starting in 1965, and the post-1975 extermination of one-third of the populace of occupied East Timor, some 200,000 people). The United States collaborated with the 1965 slaughter (as documented by journalist Kathy Kadane in The Washington Post), providing a list of 5,000 communists and dissidents, most of whom were then assassinated. The United States approved the East Timor invasion, blocked the U.N. Security Council from enforcement action and, after the 1991 massacre in Dili (which I survived but at least 271 did not), helped the ABRI with damage control. On December 10, 1991, according to a State Department cable, the United States convened a secret meeting in Surabaya and assured ABRI that Washington did "not believe that friends should abandon friends in times of adversity."

That same sentiment is now being reiterated in Jakarta. Since the crisis got under way last summer, senior Pentagon and service officials have flown here to meet top ABRI officers at least two or three times a month. When Defense Secretary William Cohen visited here in January, he pointedly refused to call for ABRI restraint in dealing with street demonstrations. Asked about the overall message conveyed by the visits, one official said, "It's simple. The U.S. is close to and loves the army."

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That U.S. stance--although fairly widely understood within ABRI and a key source of its apparent confidence--seems less clear to foreign observers, the press and some in the U.S. Congress. Noting that many weapons sales have been curtailed in the years since the Dili massacre, many have wrongly assumed the White House was distancing itself from ABRI. In fact, those cutoffs, which included fighter plane and small-arms sales, were imposed on two recalcitrant administrations by a bipartisan coalition in Congress responding to grassroots organizing pressure.

The cutoff that most stunned Jakarta was the vote by Congress, in the fall of 1992, to end the military training that Indonesian officers received in the United States under the International Military Education and Training program. After a fierce counterattack by Jakarta and U.S. corporate partners of Suharto, the IMET was partially restored in 1994 and 1995, as a smaller program called E-IMET that purported to instruct ABRI in human rights. After 1995 Congress agreed in its foreign aid appropriations bills that the only training Indonesia could get would be E-IMET-style classroom instruction.

But newly obtained Pentagon documents and interviews with key U.S. officials indicate that, largely unknown to Congress and unremarked by the U.S. press, the U.S. military has been training ABRI in a broad array of lethal tactics. This (much of it known as JCET, or Joint Combined Exchange Training) dwarfs IMET in size and scope, and is apparently being intensified as the Indonesia crisis deepens. Unlike the E-IMET stateside classroom lectures, this operation has involved at least thirty-six exercises with fully armed U.S. combat troops flying or sailing into Indonesia. The U.S. participants have included Green Berets, Air Force commandos and Marines. The ABRI trainees have run the gamut from Suharto's presidential guard to KOSTRAD, the key Army Strategic Command that anchors the regime in central Jakarta.

By far the main recipient of the special U.S. training has been a force legendary for specializing in torture, disappearances and night raids on civilian homes. Of the twenty-eight Army/
Air Force exercises known to have been conducted since 1992, Pentagon documents indicate that twenty have involved the dreaded KOPASSUS Red Berets.

Asked about KOPASSUS, a leading Indonesian human rights monitor called its work "spying, terror and counterterror," meaning that it stages violent provocations. He said KOPASSUS battalions from Aceh and West Papua were relocated to Jakarta two months ago and have recently been deployed to contain street demonstrations along with units of ABRI's regional command. His group believes that KOPASSUS has two clandestine jails (in Cibubur and Bogor) for detaining and questioning dissidents they have abducted and "disappeared." A knowledgeable U.S. official confirms that KOPASSUS has been implicated in torture and civilian killings in West Papua, Aceh and occupied East Timor.

The Sydney Morning Herald reports that in a forthcoming military journal article, Brigadier Jim Molan, the Australian defense attaché in Jakarta, will warn (as paraphrased by the Herald) that his army's own KOPASSUS training program "risks associating Australia with human rights abuses." Reached for comment, Molan confirmed the substance of the piece but said that to learn about KOPASSUS I should call the U.S. Embassy.

The U.S. exercises for KOPASSUS in the period since the Timor massacre have included Sniper Level II (1993), Demolitions and Air Operations (1993) and Close Quarters Combat (1994). The last of these was performed after the State Department, to stave off stronger action by Congress, had imposed the ban on the sale of small arms to Indonesia. Ensuing KOPASSUS sessions covered Special Air Operations, Air Assaults and Advanced Sniper Techniques.

On July 27, 1996, Jakarta erupted in anti-army riots, after ABRI-backed paramilitaries raided Megawati Sukarno's headquarters, leaving at least sixty people listed as missing. In the wake of that, ABRI launched a crackdown and intimidation campaign against nongovernmental organizations. In the midst of it, KOPASSUS and other units were given training in Psy Ops by a U.S. team flown in from Special Operations Command­Pacific.

From then until late 1997 there were seven more KOPASSUS exercises, one (Mortar Training) focusing on the unit of Col. Slamat Sidabutar, an East Timor occupation commander whose troops have conducted torture sessions that were photographed and later published abroad. The U.S. Marines have trained the Indonesian Denjaka Counterterrorism Force in Demolition and Small Weapons Instruction as well, and also run a course for the Indonesian First Infantry Brigade on Small Boat Operations, Reconnaissance, Surveillance and Raids. As the financial crisis hit and protest grew last fall, KODAM Jaya, one of the main anti-demonstration forces, and the Infantry Training Center received twenty-six days of instruction from the U.S. Army in Military Operations in Urban Terrain.

Reached by phone at the U.S. Embassy, Col. Bob Humberson, who coordinates the training programs, said: "We want to make sure they know the right way to do it by minimizing casualties and with proper treatment of the enemy or unidentified personnel." Asked what enemy might be found on the urban streets of Indonesia, he said the training was designed to repel "an enemy from outside." He ended up contending that since some Indonesian troops had served in Bosnia (with the U.N.), this kind of urban training would make troops ready for action there. Humberson said that none of the Urban Terrain schooling had to do with crowd control and that all the exercises fit the guidelines of the E-IMET program. His aide, Maj. Rick Thomas, called the exercises "very tame" and said all were approved by the State Department. Thomas estimated that for the remainder of 1998 there would be twenty exercises, including smaller-scale exchanges of experts.

The U.S. focus on KOPASSUS seems to be part of a systematic effort to build it up. It has also cemented links with its recent commander, General Prabowo. Prabowo is Suharto's son-in-law, the Indonesian business partner (through his wife) of Merrill Lynch and one of the key sponsors of the U.S.-Indonesia Society, an influential pro-Suharto U.S. front group launched in 1994 and backed by ABRI, U.S. corporations and former Pentagon, State Department and C.I.A. officials. Prabowo is also Indonesia's most notorious field commander. When I first visited East Timor in 1990, he had recently chaired a meeting in which the army had openly debated whether to assassinate future Nobel Peace laureate Bishop Carlos Belo. Today, Prabowo is the KOSTRAD commander, an often-touted Suharto successor and the recipient of a steady stream of high-level U.S. visitors. Assistant Secretary of State Stanley Roth has dined frequently with him recently. When Secretary Cohen visited, he raised eyebrows in Jakarta by going to KOPASSUS headquarters. Spending three hours by Prabowo's side, he watched as the U.S.-trained killers executed maneuvers for their sponsor from Washington.

Allan Nairn

More on U.S.-Indonesia Military Assistance

Veteran journalist Allan Nairn was banned from Indonesia as "a threat to national security" after he was injured while attempting to stop the 1991 East Timor massacre. He has since campaigned against U.S. support for the Suharto military regime and is now organizing Justice for All, a grassroots human rights group. After being turned away at a border crossing in rural Sumatra, he recently succeeded in re-entering Indonesia without the army's knowledge. Research support was provided by the Investigative Fund of The Nation Institute.

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