Brothers in Arms

The United States moves a step closer to restoring military aid to Indonesia, despite its massive human rights abuses

Ben Terrall

A human rights activist carries a poster of Munir, who was poisoned on a plane in route from Jakarta to Amsterdam, during a peace demonstration in Jakarta.

On June 28, the U.S. House of Representatives voted to remove all restrictions on foreign military financing for Indonesia in the fiscal year 2006 Foreign Operations Appropriations bill. The restrictions were first put in place after the Indonesian military’s destruction of East Timor following the half-island’s pro-independence vote in August of 1999.

The House decision follows years of Bush administration lobbying aimed at rehabilitating Jakarta’s image. When Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono came to the United States in late May, the White House repeatedly described Yudhoyono as a reformer. The president told me he’s in the process of reforming the military and I believe him,” Bush said.

But retired Foreign Service Officer Ed McWilliams, a political counselor to the U.S. Embassy in Jakarta from 1996 to 1999 and now a human rights activist, is not convinced. He points to this year’s State Department Country Report on Human Rights Practices, which said of Indonesia, Security force members murdered, tortured, raped, beat, and arbitrarily detained civilians and members of separatist movements, especially in [the province] Aceh and to a lesser extent in Papua.”

As a creature of the TNI [Indonesian military], Yudhoyono is even less likely to assert civilian control over the military than the previous three Indonesian presidents,” McWilliams says. The TNI continues to act with impunity: It resisted allowing international help into Aceh for a critical three days after the January tsunami. It repeatedly sought early departure of international non-governmental organizations, and prevented international assistance from getting to 120,000 Acehnese displaced from pre-tsunami conflict.”

The TNI in Aceh

The TNI also refused calls for a ceasefire in Aceh, until just days before the government signed a tentative peace deal with Free Aceh Movement (GAM) resistance fighters on August 15. As written, the agreement gives the military a number of opportunities to circumvent it. The TNI has already exploited the deal’s ambiguities by arguing that a new human rights court and separate truth commission for Aceh should not deal with past crimes.

Contradicting every credible human rights organization to issue a report on the region, the new TNI commander in Aceh, Major-General Supiadin, told the Jakarta Post on June 16 that military forces had never committed a single human rights violation in the province. Regarding the impact of the tsunami, he said, Heart wrenching is the loss of firearms and ammunition, buried under the sand.”

Shadia Marhaban, a member of a non-violent student group Aceh Referendum Information Center, which organized a rally supporting a referendum for self-determination in Aceh that brought out 1.5 million people, says, TNI higher-ups in Aceh are mostly from the group responsible for the [1999] destruction of East Timor, and won’t go along with any reform agenda.” 

One of those active duty commanding officers is retired general Kiki Syahnakri, indicted for crimes against humanity by a U.N.-backed court in East Timor for his actions as martial law commander during the 1999 Timor campaign. Syahnakri now represents the conglomerate Artha Graha in its efforts to profit from Aceh’s reconstruction.

Marhaban, who was a civil society representative in recent peace talks between GAM and TNI in Finland, believes Jakarta only agreed to the talks because of the international attention focused on Aceh by the tsunami and the enormous amounts of international aid money at stake. The previous talks abruptly ended in July 2002 when Jakarta arrested civilian negotiators, citing a sweeping, vaguely defined anti-terror law. The former chief negotiator for GAM was among many prisoners trapped in jails destroyed by the tsunami. The New York-based group Human Rights First wrote, among those who died in detention were many accused GAM supporters who had been denied access to a lawyer, subjected to torture, and convicted in trials that did not meet international standards.”

Lessons from Iraq

In May, President Bush explained that in working to undo existing limits on military aid to Jakarta, we want there to be exchanges between our military corps that will help lead to better understandings.” But for four decades, such exchanges” have involved U.S. training of the notoriously brutal Kopassus special forces troops and other security” forces specializing in internal repression. (Since it won its independence from the Dutch after WWII, Indonesia has never faced a serious external military threat). 

In the May 2003 imposition of martial law in Aceh – during which the TNI launched its largest operation since the 1975 invasion of East Timor – the military embedded” journalists and established a media center to control the flow of information. TNI spokesman Major General Sjafrie Sjamsuddin explained, These regulations were sent to us by the U.S. Pacific Command. It is what they used in Iraq. … Of course, we have adapted them to our local environment.”

Human Rights First argues that another aspect of the Iraq war has served the TNI well: Indonesian security officials responded to human rights criticism aggressively, pointing to the United States invasion of Iraq and subsequent acts of torture in Abu Ghraib prison to justify Indonesia’s own military operations and question the credibility of American human rights policies.”

A Climate of Impunity

Yudhoyono and his supporters in the West make much of efforts to combat corruption in Indonesia. Yudhoyono told Business Week, Fighting corruption is very, very important to our competitiveness. If we fail, we will lose the battle to attract foreign capital.” But there is little evidence of any curbing of military corruption, which Karen Orenstein, Washington Coordinator of the East Timor and Indonesia Action Network (ETAN), calls massive.” Orenstein points out that the majority of the military’s budget comes from legal and illegal ventures, including extortion of U.S.-based corporations operating in Indonesia, environmentally devastating illegal logging, prostitution, and both drug and human trafficking.”

Nor does the climate of impunity seem to have shifted regarding past atrocities committed by the military. On May 26, a U.N. Commission of Experts appointed by Kofi Annan released a report on Jakarta’s Ad Hoc Human Rights Court for East Timor, which was set up to investigate crimes against humanity perpetrated by Indonesian security forces and their militia proxies in East Timor in 1999. The U.N. experts found that the Indonesian tribunal was manifestly inadequate, primarily due to a lack of commitment on the part of the prosecution.” Of the 18 people indicted and tried, all but one (a Timorese civilian) were either acquitted or freed on appeal. 

The report further noted, The failure to investigate and prosecute the defendants in a credible manner has not achieved accountability of those who bear the greatest responsibility for serious violations.” It recommended that if Jakarta does not successfully prosecute those charged within six months, the United Nations should try them before an international tribunal or refer cases to the International Criminal Court.

The Murder of Munir

Justice has been similarly elusive in the investigation of the murder of Munir, a leading Indonesian human rights activist. The 38-year-old lawyer was poisoned with arsenic on September 7, 2004, while flying to the Netherlands. An Indonesian fact-finding team found that officials of BIN, Jakarta’s main intelligence agency, were involved in Munir’s killing. The former BIN chief, retired general A.M. Hendropriyono, refused to respond to a summons to testify before the team. Hendropriyono is infamous for serving as district military commander in Lampung when, in 1989, the TNI massacred hundreds of Muslim youth, an incident that Munir later investigated.

Hendropriyono received U.S. military training at Fort Leavenworth in 1980. He was later involved in a training program for Indonesian officers at Norwich University in Vermont, which was cancelled after sustained activist pressure. Norwich’s president conceded, This army has not demonstrated a commitment to … respect for civilian authority by the military.”

The Commission for Disappearances and Victims of Violence (Kontras), an organization Munir founded, recently came to a similar conclusion. In a June 21 report, Difficult to Imagine TNI’s Future Without Politics of Violence,” the group concluded that military impunity of human rights violations is growing stronger. Among the reasons they cited were the continued presence within structures of power of high military officers suspected of being responsible for such crimes; the cessation of efforts to revise laws on military tribunals; and the repeated refusal of the military to cooperate in efforts to uphold the law.

Back in Washington, the House Appropriations bill is currently being reconciled with the Senate version, which would keep some existing restrictions and add new reporting requirements about the TNI’s behavior. The two bills could be reconciled as early as late September. 

Orenstein calls the Senate version of the Foreign Operations Appropriations bill an improvement over the House version, which was nothing less than a total sell-out on human rights and justice, under the leadership of [Republican] Arizona Representative Jim Kolbe at the behest of the Bush administration.”

Ben Terrall is a freelance writer based in San Francisco.
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