The administration of President Barack Obama hopes to resume U.S. training of an elite Indonesian military unit whose members have been convicted of gross human rights abuses in East Timor and elsewhere in the sprawling archipelago.
The leadership of Indonesia’s controversial special forces division — the Komando Pasukan Khusus, or Kopassus — has been in Washington to discuss the proposal this week.
Its meetings here come ahead of President Barack Obama’s state visit to Indonesia later this month. The trip will launch "The U.S.-Indonesia Comprehensive Partnership" — a bilateral strategy to enhance security and economic cooperation between the two countries.
"In the next few months, the U.S. State Department will conduct a review of the ban [indicating] that military-to-military relations will be restored … to allow Kopassus officers to be trained in the United States," former Defense Minister Juwono Sudarsono told the Jakarta Post on Wednesday.
Under the so-called Leahy law, first approved in 1997, Washington is banned from providing training or other kinds of assistance to any foreign military unit if there is "credible evidence" that it has committed "gross violations of human rights." The ban can be waived if the secretary of state certifies that the relevant foreign government is "taking effective measures" to bring to justice responsible members of the unit.
The Kopassus have been notorious for employing brutal tactics since the 1970s, particularly in East Timor, Aceh, Papua and Java. Various human rights groups, including Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International and the East Timor Action Network, have accused the unit of murder, torture and kidnapping among other egregious rights abuses.
The plan to resume U.S. training, however, proposes to limit participation to younger members of Kopassus, as their age would make it more likely that they had not participated in the group’s most notorious abuses.
The new efforts to engage the Indonesian military follow Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s comments last week at a Senate Foreign Relations Committee meeting that the administration hoped to expand its military partnership with Indonesia and enhance counterterrorism cooperation.
However, this policy is not without opposition. Critics argue that Kopassus continues to commit serious abuses with impunity and that restoring a cooperative relationship could actually prove counter-productive.
"U.S. military assistance harms reform and sets back human rights accountability in Indonesia," said John M. Miller, national coordinator of the East Timor Action Network (ETAN).
"The best way to prevent future violations is to hold accountable those responsible for the multitude of human rights crimes committed by the Indonesian military in East Timor, West Papua, and elsewhere. Many of these crimes occurred while the U.S. was most deeply engaged with the Indonesian military providing the bulk of its weapons and training," he added.
Kenneth Roth, executive director of Human Rights Watch, sent an open letter to the White House late last month in which he called for Obama to "seize this opportunity to reaffirm that human rights and the rule of law are essential pillars of U.S. engagement in Indonesia."
Roth also asked him to "condition even limited re-engagement with Kopassus" on the firing "of any personnel previously convicted for human rights abuses," and the establishment of a tribunal to thoroughly investigate the disappearance of some two dozen student activists in 1997 and 1998. Rights groups have charged that Kopassus units were responsible.
He also called for wide-ranging structural reforms to enhance civilian control of the military in all realms, from the jurisdiction of military tribunals to the vast military-run businesses that exercise a major influence in the Indonesian economy, particularly in resource-rich regions, such as Papua.
The push to renew U.S. training of Kopassus units constitute the latest developments in a gradual rapprochement between the U.S. and Indonesia’s military, the Tentara Nasional Indonesia (TNI).
Washington first began heavily supporting Indonesia’s army in the late 1950s. Since then, the military has been long been seen, especially by the Pentagon, as the one effective — if corrupt and often brutal — national institution in an archipelago that spreads across thousands of kilometers and includes hundreds of islands.
After a massacre by Indonesian troops of more than 100 peaceful demonstrators in East Timor in 1991, Congress cut off Indonesia’s eligibility for International Military Education and Training (IMET) programs and for buying certain kinds of "lethal" military equipment.
When the TNI, Kopassus, and their local auxiliaries rampaged through East Timor after its electorate voted to secede from Indonesia in 1999, the administration of former President Bill Clinton severed all remaining ties with TNI, but then quietly restored contacts the following year.
After the 9/11 terrorist attacks on New York and the Pentagon, the administration of former President George W. Bush tried to circumvent the ban on providing some support for the TNI by providing limited counterterrorism-related assistance, albeit not to Kopassus. Bolstered by the 2002 bombing attack on a nightclub in Bali that killed nearly 200 people, it argued that Indonesia’s territory was being used by al Qaeda affiliates.
The following year, the administration released funds for training a limited number of TNI officers, despite strong objections from Congress, which had demanded that Jakarta first investigate the killing of two U.S. teachers in Papua and bring the perpetrators to justice. The ban on Kopassus, however, remained in effect, due to the Leahy Law.
In 2005, Washington repealed its arms embargo on Jakarta, and military-to-military ties have steadily increased since then.
The Obama administration sees much to gain by enhancing military ties with Indonesia, the world’s most populous Muslim nation and the largest economy in Southeast Asia. The strategically located archipelago has critical sea-lanes and a historic distrust of China that has long made it a desirable partner for containing Beijing.
In recent years, the U.S. has found itself vying with China for influence in the region. The Chinese government’s "non-interference policy" of funding development and infrastructure projects in southeast Asia — without conditioning such assistance on compliance with human rights or other "good governance" criteria — has helped to expand its influence.
On Thursday, Indonesia’s defense minister, Purnomo Yusgiantoro, told Reuters that his forces in the Malacca Strait would be on increased alert, following the Singapore navy’s warning of a possible terrorist attack against oil tankers traveling through the channel.
Piracy has long plagued the waterway, but a terrorist attack could have serious economic repercussions in the surrounding areas. The strait contains "chokepoints," or narrow passages that, if obstructed, can easily create bottlenecks for commercial and energy flows from the Indian Ocean to the Sea of Japan, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration.