Sunday, December 19, 2010

Co-operation with Indonesia always has a Price

INDONESIA has been, overall, a success story for the past decade after a shaky emergence from the final debacle of the Suharto era. It has a rowdy democracy where no particular party can achieve a permanent dominance, and an economy that keeps growing at a pace that lifts average incomes. But some negative aspects linger from the recent past. Among them is the uncertain control of the military by the government, and continuing legal impunity for some or all of its components. The WikiLeaks revelation of a cave-in by President Barack Obama's administration over scrutiny and accountability of the Indonesian military's notorious special forces regiment, Kopassus, is disturbing. A lifting of the US ban on training with Kopassus was made a condition of Obama's recent visit to Jakarta, his childhood home for several years, by President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono. Obama complied.

In early decades Kopassus gave the young Indonesian republic its most effective strike force for quelling rebellions. But under Suharto it became a convenient weapon for taking out problems, from alleged urban gangsters to perceived Islamic radicals and human rights activists. Kopassus became a monster whose atrocities in Papua, East Timor and Aceh lessened prospects of reconciliation, to the point where the Clinton administration severed ties even before Suharto's fall.

Yudhoyono did not serve with Kopassus in his army career, but has close personal ties. His wife is the daughter of a famous commander of the unit, Sarwo Edhie Wibowo, who put down resistance by communist remnants in Java after the 1965 coup, then enforced Papua's manipulated accession to Indonesia. His brother-in-law was a Kopassus commander until a year ago.

It is claimed that under Yudhoyono the unit's ''culture'' has been steadily improved, but the drive for change has not been noticeably forceful. Kopassus may have improved its ethics, but its ranks include several officers plausibly implicated in atrocities and fresh abuses by its troops keep coming to light, like the recent torture of Papuans which was captured on a cellphone video.

Australia's military resumed training with Kopassus about six years ago, with our counterpart, the SAS, holding a joint anti-hijacking exercise at the Bali airport only in September. The leaked US cables show that Australia's opinion and example have been part of the pressure on the Americans to resume ties. But neither we nor the Americans should be held hostage to Kopassus. Its skills might be crucial in some rare contingencies, but it's not vital in fighting terrorism: Indonesia's civilianised police have been much more useful. Pressure for accountability must continue. Editorial, Sydney Morning Herald

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