Wednesday, March 31, 2010

The U.S. Senate’s Kopassus Aid Ban Is No Longer Relevant in the Reform Era

For more than a decade, a powerful US senator has had an extraordinary — not to mention disproportionate — negative influence over bilateral relations between Washington and Jakarta.

The person I am referring to, of course, is Senator Patrick Leahy of Vermont, who is chairman of the Senate’s appropriations subcommittee. Leahy also happens to be the author of a provision in the 1997 Foreign Operations Appropriations Act that effectively prohibits US military assistance to foreign military units that have a history of human rights abuses. In the case of Indonesia, Leahy’s human rights crusade has been directed against the Indonesian Army’s Special Forces (Kopassus) because of past excesses and abuses committed in places such as the former province of East Timor.

That Leahy should have Kopassus in his crosshairs is certainly understandable. During its checkered history on the front lines fighting against separatist forces in far-flung provinces such as Papua and Aceh, in addition to East Timor, Kopassus often found itself in the middle of controversies over its methods and tactics, especially during the long years of former President Suharto’s rule. It has frequently been accused of brutality.

Most Indonesians today — both ordinary citizens and those in positions of power and influence — would not argue against the historical reality: Kopassus was known to have used extreme means during times of conflict, and innocents needlessly suffered and perished. Indonesians of all stripes would, however, also be keen to remind Leahy that US policymakers were for many years willing partners with Suharto in his military policies. Indeed, the consequences of those policies cannot be logically divorced from the former Indonesian strongman and those who supported him abroad.
The most egregious example was when former US President Gerald Ford and his secretary of state, Henry Kissinger, fully backed Indonesia’s 1975 invasion of East Timor. For decades, this complicity was denied by Washington. More recently, the release of formerly classified US government documents offers compelling and indisputable evidence that the Ford administration and its successors were keen to provide military support to Jakarta for the annexation in the name of anticommunism.

Men like Kissinger must have known perfectly well what the invasion of East Timor implied in terms of the potential cost in civilian lives, yet he and his cohorts persisted because of their belief that the Suharto regime was an indispensable ally in the Cold War. In the aftermath of the Vietnam War, there were real fears in US policymaking circles that East Timor, if left to its own devices, might lean toward communist China and therefore end up as a sort of Cuba lying at the doorsteps of both Indonesia and Australia.

Realpolitik, then, not morality, was the driving force behind US foreign policy at the time. Low-level counterinsurgencies outside East Timor, in Papua and Aceh, were also believed to be important and deserving of Washington’s support, if for no other reason than to ensure Indonesia’s territorial integrity and therefore its political stability.

It is also understandable that Leahy believes that human rights should play an important role in US foreign policy, but he should realize that in light of contemporary history, Indonesians have grounds to believe that his moralism smacks of hypocrisy. As one retired Indonesian general told me, “When Indonesia was ruled by Suharto, Kopassus was the darling of the US defense establishment; they could do no wrong. Then we got rid of Suharto and became a democracy, and suddenly the politicians in Washington felt they had the right to criticize and punish us for our past. How can you explain that?”

If Leahy were to meet this Indonesian general, he might tell him that although history matters, human rights now plays an important and central role in US foreign policy. Leahy might further defend his current stance against Kopassus as a forward-looking policy instrument with the intention of providing the Indonesian government with incentives for deeper military reform, therefore resulting in fewer human rights abuses in the future.

Leahy’s carrot-and-stick approach might resonate with human rights advocates inside some corridors of the US government and with NGO communities, but Leahy should understand that while his focus might assuage the moral sensibilities of Human Rights Watch, it does not play well in Indonesia. This is not to say that Indonesians don’t care about human rights. They do care, and this is not only the case with Indonesian civil society, but with the majority of Indonesian politicians. Since Indonesia became a democracy in 1998, great improvements have been made in human rights. Indonesians are perfectly aware that more progress needs to be made. On the other hand, Indonesians don’t want to be lectured by foreigners on how they should be conducting their affairs.

Indonesians admire the United States for its democracy, but they are also critical of what they perceive to be a double standard being applied in foreign policy. At present, there are numerous governments in the world whose policies frequently result in human rights abuses against their citizens — abuses which, by any standard, are far more reprehensible than Indonesia’s track record since its democratic transformation. Leahy should know that Indonesians are not oblivious to the fact that Washington, obviously more concerned about its geopolitical interests than human rights when it comes to a serial human rights abuser like Israel, often turns a blind eye when it suits a grander purpose.

With Barack Obama now sitting in the Oval Office, there is a chance that a waiver to the Leahy provision will be granted by his administration. This could happen not because of Obama’s childhood ties to Indonesia, but due to the fact that he appreciates and understands how far and wide democratic reforms have spread in the country. Obama also surely appreciates the strategic significance of Indonesia in the Asia-Pacific region and how closer relations with Jakarta serve US interests.
When Obama comes to Jakarta in June to meet with President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, it would be an important gesture for the United States to waive restrictions on military relations with the Indonesian Armed Forces, including Kopassus. Before his departure to Jakarta, Obama should call Secretary of State Hillary Clinton along with Senator Leahy for a chat in the White House to remind them why the lifting of the ban is symbolically important for the bilateral relationship and how better relations can benefit the United States. Obama should also remind the senator that Xanana Gusmao, East Timor’s current prime minister and the leader of its independence fight, has repeatedly made it clear that his country does not seek retribution from Indonesia for what happened in the past.

Xanana is a man who speaks from the heart and wants his country to look to the future. If he is willing to bury his country’s Indonesian ghosts, then so should the United States be a willing partner in opening a long overdue and new chapter in relations here. By James Van Zorge manager of Van Zorge, Heffernan & Associates, a business consultancy based in Jakarta.

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