Saturday, April 3, 2010

Response re Indonesia’s “Special Forces KOPASSUS Kerfuffle”

Note: to see the original piece by Catharine Dalpino, go to:
Response re Indonesia’s “Special Forces KOPASSUS Kerfuffle”
Asia Security Initiative

The Asia Security Initiative’s March 29 post, “The Kopassus Kerfuffle” by Catharine Dalpino, is a timely and thoughtful analysis regarding the U.S. decision whether to provide training or other assistance to Indonesia’s Special Forces Kopassus.

This issue is important, as indicated by Ms. Dalpino, not only for the future of U.S.-Indonesia military relations, but also for the future of U.S. observance of the 1997 Leahy law which prohibits foreign military units from participating in military training or receiving assistance for weapons purchases if unit members have committed human rights violations for which they have not been brought to account.

The decision whether or not to skirt provisions of the Leahy law is a litmus test of whether the Administration respects U.S. Congressional mandates not to provide assistance to corrupt, human rights abusing forces that remain unaccountable for their crimes.

Ms. Dalpino’s piece fails to place the U.S. debate over assistance to Kopassus in the broader context of U.S. assistance to the Indonesian military (TNI). For many years, a bipartisan, bi-cameral majority in the U.S. Congress insisted that the prospect of U.S. assistance to the TNI be used as leverage to exact real reform.

This consensus was based on the recognition that this key institution had not been a part of the transformative reform movement that followed the 1998 overthrow of the military dictator Suharto. Instead, the TNI has remained the single greatest threat to democratization in Indonesia, eluding civilian control and insisting on impunity before the courts for its personnel who violate human rights or engage in illegal activities, including people trafficking.

U.S. observance of the Leahy law suffered serious erosion during the Bush Administration. In 2005 the administration used a “national security waiver” to remove remaining restrictions and U.S. assistance ceased to serve as a key incentive for reform. Unsurprisingly, faltering TNI reform stopped. Since then, the TNI failed to meet legislative requirements that it disburse its business empire which includes both legal and illegal businesses. That action, mandated by the Indonesian Parliament in 2004 was to have been completed by 2009. Failure of that key reform has enabled the TNI to maintain access to non-Indonesian government budget resources and to evade civilian control. The TNI also remains unaccountable for human rights violations and other crimes, enjoying impunity before an Indonesian justice system that is deeply corrupt and easily intimidated. Despite this the Obama administration has continued to pursue a broad military-to-military relationship with the TNI (but not its special forces).

Ms. Dalpino’s article also fails to emphasize that the debate over U.S. assistance to Kopassus is not simply a U.S. debate. Many Indonesian NGO’s and individual Indonesians are opposing U.S. assistance to Kopassus, and have urged U.S. and international NGOs and observers to join them. These Indonesian voices have been especially important and noteworthy given the risk they face for their criticism of the Indonesian military which has regularly targeted its Indonesian critics.

Finally, Ms. Dalpino raises the “osmosis” theory which conjectures that Kopassus could become a human-rights respecting organization through collaborative contact with U.S. forces. Yet, the Kopassus awful record was indelibly established during decades of close association with U.S. forces during the Suharto era. The reality is that Kopassus contact with rights-respecting Australian and other foreign forces has had no impact on the essential criminality of the Kopassus. The “osmosis” argument does not wash. President Obama ultimately faces a choice on principle. Inevitably, that choice will reveal the level of importance he attaches to respect for human rights, accountability and civilian control of the military.

Catherin Dalpino responds:

Ed McWilliams has offered a very thoughtful response, and I don’t disagree with most of his criticisms, which primarily expand on brief mentions I had made of other points (e.g., Indonesian human rights NGO concerns over Kopassus). And I do agree that the Kopassus issue is about more than Indonesia and is an early test case of the Obama administration’s implementation of the Leahy Law as part of the human rights framework of the US Government, a point that should be raised with Jakarta.

It is not uncommon for people to assume that legislation is aimed at a specific country or situation and therefore to be confused or disappointed that the law is not easily swept away with a change in bilateral relations. However, Mr. McWilliams has misread my including the “osmosis” theory in my recitation of the arguments on both sides of the issue as an endorsement of that theory. I would agree with him that mere contact with the armed forces of a democratic country seldom if ever has a tranformative effect. We have ample evidence of that from a wide range of military-to-miltary relations in several regions.

Ed McWilliams is a retired US diplomat. He worked as political counselor in Jakarta and received the American Foreign Service Association’s Christian Herter Award for creative dissent by a senior foreign service official.

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