Getting Into Bed With the Devil in Indonesia

Bedding down with the devil is the only way one can describe a recent decision by the Obama administration to resume contact with the Indonesian military’s (TNI) most notorious human rights abuser, the Special Forces unit, Kopassus. Following a July meeting with Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates lifted the 1999 ban on any contact with the unit.

The Indonesian military has a long record of brutality toward its own people, starting with the massacre of somewhere from 500,000 to one million Communists and leftists during a 1965 military coup. That massive bloodletting was followed by a reign of terror against separatist groups in Aceh and West Papua and the invasion of East Timor. In the latter case, the UN estimated that as many as 200,000 died as a direct result of the 24-year occupation, a per capita kill rate that actually surpasses what Pol Pot managed in Cambodia.

But, even by the brutal standards of the TNI, the 5,000-man Kopassus unit has always stood out. It kidnapped and murdered students in 1997 and 1998, made up the shock troops for the Indonesia’s invasion of East Timor, and ruthlessly suppressed any moves toward independence in West Papua.

West Papua is the western half of New Guinea that Indonesia invaded in 1969.

“Working with Kopassus, which remains unrepentant about its long history of terrorizing civilians, will undermine efforts to achieve justice and accountability for human rights violations in Indonesia and Timor-Leste [formally East Timor],” says John M. Miller, national coordinator of East Timor & Indonesia Action Network (ETAN).

The Obama administration’s rationale for lifting the ban is that U.S. contact with Kopassus will serve to improve the unit’s human rights record. “It is a different unit than its reputation suggests,” Pentagon press secretary Geoff Morell told the New York Times. “Clearly, it had a very dark past, but they have done a lot to change that.” In any case, he said, “the percentage of suspicious bad actors in the unit is tiny…probably a dozen, or a couple of dozen people.”

The aid to Kopassus appears to violate the Leahy Law that prevents the U.S. from training military units accused of human rights violations. “Kopassus has a long history of abuse and remains unrepentant, essentially unreformed, and unaccountable,” U.S. Senator Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) told the Times.

No one in Kopassus or the TNI accused of human rights violations has ever been tried or removed from their position. “We regret this development very much,” Poengky Indarti of the Indonesian human rights group Imparsial told Reuters. “There is still impunity in the Indonesian military, especially in Kopassus.” She added, “We are confused about the position of Barak Obama. Is he pro-human rights or not?”

According to ETAN, Kopassus—sometimes called Unit 81—helped organize the murder of five Australian journalists in Balibo on the eve of Indonesia’s 1975 invasion of East Timor. Kopassus is also accused of a 2002 ambush in West Papua that killed three teachers, two from the U.S. According to Australian intelligence, the ambush was an effort to discredit the Papuan liberation movement.

There is also suspicion that the attack was aimed at blackmailing mine owners into paying protection money. From 2000 to 2002, Freeport McMoRan paid the TNI $10.7 million in protection money, but the company shut down the payments shortly before the ambush.

No one in Kopassus has ever been disciplined for the unit’s role in organizing nationalist militias to terrorize the East Timorese into voting against independence. TNI-financed and -led militias’ killed some 1,500 people, displaced two-thirds of the population, and systematically destroyed 75 percent of East Timor’s infrastructure.

It was Kopassus’ involvement in forming and directing the militias that was responsible for the U.S. decision to stop military training for the unit.

And, rather than improving Kopassus’ human rights record, U.S. training appears to have had the opposite effect. The “worst abuses” by the Indonesian military, according to Ed McWilliams, a former U.S. State Department counselor in Jakarta from 1996-99, “took place when we [the U.S.] were most engaged.”

According to Karen Orenstein, former Washington coordinator of ETAN, “History demonstrates that providing training and other assistance only emboldens the Indonesian military to violate human rights and block accountability for past injustices.”

This pattern is not confined to Indonesia. A recent study by the Fellowship for Reconciliation found that Colombian army units trained by the U.S. were the troops most likely to be associated with human rights violations.

“There are alarming links between increased reports of extrajudicial executions of civilians by the Colombian army and units that receive U.S. military financing,” John Lindsay-Poland told the Inter Press Service. Lindsay-Poland is a research and advocacy director for the Fellowship and an author of the two-year study.

Called “Military Assistance and Human Rights: Colombia, U.S. Accountability, and Global Implications,” the report examined 3,000 extrajudicial executions by the Colombian military. “We found that for many military units, reports of extrajudicial executions increased during and after the highest levels of U.S. assistance,” Lindsay-Poland told IPS.

The U.S. “School for the Americas” has trained numerous Latin American leaders associated with human rights abuses and death squads.

ETAN points out that Maj. Gen. Hotma Marbun, a senior Kopassus commander, has just been appointed regional commander in West Papua. Marbun was a highly placed officer during a particularly bloody period in East Timor from 1983-86, and was also involved in military operations in West Papua in 1982 and 1994.

Human rights organizations are reporting that the INF has stepped up its counterinsurgency operations in West Papua, including numerous sweeps aimed at “separatists.” The Indonesian military tends to describe any West Papuan who objects to Indonesia’s military occupation as “separatists.”

Some 22 non-governmental organizations from Indonesia, Australia, Germany, Britain, Timor-Leste, and the Netherlands have written a letter to President Yudhoyono protesting the imprisonment of scores of Papuans arrested for peacefully demonstrating or expressing their opinions. Some of these activists have been sentenced for “rebellion” under the criminal code that goes back to the Dutch colonial period.

According to the NGOs the use of the criminal code to imprison dissenters is a violation of the Indonesian constitution that guarantees citizens the right to “freedom of association and expression of opinion,” and the right to “seek, acquire, possess keep, process and convey information by using all available channels.”

Sentences have ranged from three to 15 years, and human rights groups say that the prisoners have been mistreated.

More than 50 members of the U.S. Congress recently sent a letter to President Obama stating that the Indonesian government may have committed “genocide” against West Papuans. “Genocide is usually difficult to document since leaders are often reluctant to state their intentions to destroy another nation, race, or ethnic group,” the letter stated. “Even still, in 2007 Col Burhanuddin Siagian, who was then the local commander said, ‘If I encounter elements that use government facilities, but still are betraying the nation, I will destroy them.’”

Members of the congressional black and Hispanic caucuses are prominent in the group of 50. The Congress members urged President Obama to meet with representatives of the West Papua during his upcoming November visit to Indonesia and to make the island “one of the highest priorities of the American administration.”

West Papua groups have called for an “international dialogue” on the current situation, and Komnas Ham, the Indonesian government’s official human rights commission, recommends withdrawing military forces from the island to encourage an atmosphere for talks.

In the meantime, ETAN and the West Papua Advocacy Team (WPAC) have asked the Obama administration to reject Indonesia’s new ambassador to the U.S., Dino Djalal. The groups claim that Djalal has been a tool for the Indonesian military and that he blamed the violence in East Timor on the Timorese. ETAN and WPAC say that Djalal was “a dogged critic of international journalists and human rights organizations who sought to report these atrocities.”

Why is the U.S. bedding down with these thugs?

According to the New York Times, Indonesian “officials dropped hints that the unit [Kopassus] might explore building ties with the Chinese military if the ban [against training] remained.” With the U.S. taking a more aggressive stance Asia—the recent U.S.-South Korean war games, and the immense pressure the Obama administration put on Japan to let it build a new Marine base in Okinawa come to mind—the U.S. clearly saw a Chinese incursion into Indonesia as a threat.

Of course, there might never have been a Chinese offer. Indonesia learned long ago that all one had to do to open the U.S. aid spigot was to become chummy with Beijing.

The U.S. has a long and sordid relationship with Indonesia’s military. According to documents uncovered by George Washington University, the U.S. fingered leftists for military death squads during the 1965 coup. During the Ford administration, then Secretary of State Henry Kissinger gave Indonesia the green light to invade East Timor. And the Americans acquiesced with Jakarta’s torpedoing of a UN-sponsored referendum on independence following Indonesia’s 1969 invasion of West Papua.

It looks like we are about to once more bed down with some pretty awful characters.

More of Conn Hallinan’s work can be found at Dispatches from the Edge.