Friday, March 5, 2010
U.S. Seeks to Resume Indonesian Training of Brutal Special Forces
The administration of President Barack Obama hopes to resume United States 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 leaders of Indonesia's controversial special forces division - the Komando Pasukan Khusus, or Kopassus - were in Washington to discuss the proposal this week.
Its meetings come ahead of President Barack Obama's state visit to Indonesia later this month. The trip will launch "The US-Indonesia Comprehensive Partnership" - a bilateral strategy to enhance security and economic cooperation between the two countries. In the next few months, the US 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.
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.
Kopassus has become notorious for the brutal tactics it began to employ in 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 US 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 counter-terrorism 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.
The push to renew US training of Kopassus units constitutes the latest developments in a gradual rapprochement between the US 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 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 demonstrators in East Timor in 1991, the US Congress cut off Indonesia's eligibility for International Military Education and Training 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 counter-terrorism-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 US 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 an historic distrust of China that has long made it a desirable partner for containing Beijing.
In recent years the US 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. Excerpt of article by Charles Fromm for the Asia Times/Inter Press Service