Armed Conflicts, Asia-Pacific, Headlines, Human Rights, North America

US/INDONESIA: Resumption of Special Forces Training Denounced

Jim Lobe*

WASHINGTON, Jul 22 2010 (IPS) - Thursday’s announcement in Jakarta that Washington will resume training for the Indonesian military’s controversial Special Forces unit (Kopassus) has been denounced by human rights groups and two key lawmakers here.

The announcement – which lifts a ban on co-operation with Kopassus dating back to 1999 – was made by visiting Secretary of Defence Robert Gates, who has continued efforts launched by the administration of President George W. Bush to restore full bilateral military ties between the two nations.

“I was pleased to be able to tell the president that as a result of Indonesian military reforms over the past decade, the ongoing professionalisation of the TNI [the Indonesian Armed Forces], and recent actions by the Ministry of Defence to address human rights issues, the United States will begin a gradual, limited programme of security co-operation activities with the Indonesian Army Special Forces,” Gates told reporters after meeting with President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono.

“I noted to the president that these initial steps will take place within the limits of U.S. law and do not signal any lessening of the importance we place on human rights and accountability,” he went on. “What’s more, our ability to expand upon these initial steps will depend upon continued implementation of reforms within Kopassus and TNI as a whole.”

That caveat, however, did not appease rights groups that have long regarded Kopassus, including some of their highest-ranking officers, as responsible for some of the most notorious mass killings, assassinations, disappearances, and other serious abuses committed in Southeast Asia’s most populous nation – notably in the former East Timor, Papua, and Aceh, over the past 20 years.

“Amnesty International is disappointed by the decision that U.S. forces will train the Kopassus unit,” said T. Kumar, the director for international advocacy of the U.S. branch of Amnesty International (AIUSA). “It sends the wrong message in a country where mass and severe human rights violations have taken place in an atmosphere of impunity.”

“The [Barack] Obama administration has just failed a key test,” said Sophie Richardson, Asia director at New York-based Human Rights Watch (HRW). “This is not the way to encourage reform with a military that has yet to demonstrate a genuine commitment to accountability for serious human rights abuses.”

“This decision rewards Kopassus for its intransigence over abuses and effectively betrays those in Indonesia who have fought for decades for accountability and justice,” she noted, adding that Jakarta has not only failed to remove the very few Kopassus soldiers who have been convicted of serious rights violations from the military, but has also recently promoted officers linked by credible evidence to past abuses to top Kopassus positions.

The announcement was also denounced as “premature” by the Sen. Russell Feingold, the former chair of the Senate’s Asia subcommittee and as “deeply regret[able]” by Sen. Patrick Leahy, who wrote the law banning U.S. aid and training for any foreign military unit credibly suspected of major abuses.

“Although the Indonesian Ministry of Defense has taken some positive steps, numerous problems remain, including allegations of recent abuses,” Feingold said in a statement. “Further actions are needed before we can be reasonably satisfied that Kopassus, and the Indonesian armed forces more broadly, have become a reformed institution accountable to international human rights standards and the rule of law.”

“The ‘gradual, limited program of security cooperation activities’ described by Secretary Gates should certainly not be seen as wiping the slate clean for Kopassus – that is something that only a full accounting of the past can do,” Feingold added.

Thursday’s announcement constitutes the latest development in what has been a gradual rapprochement between the Pentagon and the TNI.

Washington first began heavily supporting Indonesia’s military in the late 1950’s. Between then and the period that followed the fall of President Soeharto in 1998, the army was seen, especially by the Pentagon, as the one effective – if corrupt and often brutal – national institution in an archipelago that spreads across thousands of kilometres and straddles key sea lanes and shipping “chokepoints”.

After a massacre by Indonesian troops of more than 100 peaceful demonstrators in East Timor in 1991, Congress cut off Indonesia’s access for certain kinds of U.S. military training and “lethal” equipment.

When the TNI, Kopassus, and their local auxiliaries rampaged through East Timor after its electorate voted to secede from Indonesia in 1999, President Bill Clinton severed all remaining ties with the TNI, but then quietly restored contacts the following year. Some 1,400 civilians died in that mayhem for which no soldier has ever been tried and convicted.

After the 9/11 terrorist attacks on New York City and the Pentagon, the Bush administration tried to circumvent Congressionally imposed restrictions by providing some assistance, although not to Kopassus, through a counter- terrorism programme.

By highlighting the operations of al Qaeda operatives – responsible for a 2002 bombing in Bali that killed nearly 200 people – in Indonesia, the administration made slow but steady progress in restoring ties over the following years, including lifting the arms embargo.

Amid growing concern about China’s influence and increasing naval strength in the region, however, the Pentagon has pushed hard to restore full military ties with Jakarta, including with Kopassus. But, it has reportedly received some resistance from Indonesia specialists in the State Department and the National Security Council.

The latter, like the rights groups, argued that Kopassus continued to commit serious abuses, especially in Papua, and remained largely unaccountable to civilian authority.

In response to U.S. demands over the last few months, Jakarta shifted at least three Kopassus officers previously convicted by military courts of abuses to other positions within the TNI. In addition, the defence minister told an English-language newspaper that soldiers found by a military tribunal to have committed genocide or crimes against humanity would be tried by a civilian court.

“The U.S. government appears to have considered these steps satisfactory to ensure future accountability…,” HRW complained Thursday, adding that the decision to start training Kopassus now risks undermining the limited progress towards professionalism that the Indonesian military has made thus far.”

Indeed, in April this year, Col. Nugroho Widyo Utomo, who in 1998 reportedly played a key role in creating and arming the militias that later carried out much of the violence in East Timor the following year, was appointed deputy commander of Kopassus.

Pentagon officials told reporters here that initial contacts with Kopassus will be quite limited and that, in any event, the State Department will vet any members of the force before they can receive training.

Leahy said he expected Gates to follow through on his pledge to condition Washington’s co-operation with Kopassus on the implementation of real reforms, including prosecuting “past and future crimes” committed by its members. “I deeply regret that before starting down the road of re- engagement, our country did not obtain and Kopassus did not accept the necessary reforms we have long sought. But a conditional toe in the water is wiser at this stage than diving in.”

“The United States and Indonesia share important interests, and I have sought a way forward that is consistent with our interests and our values. I hope that will become possible,” Leahy said.

But rights activists remain doubtful. “For years, the U.S. provided military training and other assistance to Kopassus, and when the U.S. was most involved, Kopassus crimes were at their worst,” said John Miller, national co- ordinator of the East Timor Action Network (ETAN). “While this assistance improved the Indonesian military’s deadly skills, it did nothing to improve its behaviour.”

*Jim Lobe’s blog on U.S. foreign policy can be read at

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