The Other Aftershock

The Bush administration seeks normalization of ties with Indonesia and its brutal military

Tim Shorrock

Indonesian students raise university flags in front of Jakarta's presidential palace during the fifth day of demonstrations in January.

The Bush administration and the Pentagon are leveraging warmer post-tsunami relations with Indonesia to convince Congress to lift its restrictions on full military ties with the world’s largest Muslim nation. But lawmakers and human rights groups say the Indonesian government must first account for its past abuses in East Timor and end its repressive military tactics in sections of the country seeking independence.

Many of my colleagues and I firmly believe that now is not the time to advance efforts toward normalizing military relations,” wrote Rep. Lane Evans (D-Ill.), a member of the House Armed Services Committee, in a January 18 letter to Adm. Thomas Fargo, the commander of the U.S. Pacific Command who is leading the Pentagon’s efforts. Evans’ views are widely held in Congress, where even Republicans are wary of the Indonesian army, known as the TNI, and its record of corruption and brutality.

The administration’s push began in January, when Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz visited Aceh province, where an estimated 220,000 people were killed by the tsunami. The U.S. military relief effort marked the highest level of U.S.-Indonesian cooperation since 1991, when Congress imposed a ban on U.S. training of Indonesian officers under the State Department’s International Military Education and Training (IMET) program. Upon his return, Wolfowitz urged Congress to reevaluate the IMET restrictions. We can have more positive influence that way,” he told PBS’s Online News Hour.”

The congressional ban, which also includes restrictions on U.S. arms sales to Jakarta, was extended in 2000 after militias trained by the TNI rampaged through East Timor on the eve of the country’s historic independence vote, killing hundreds of people and wrecking the capital city of Dili. Under legislation passed last fall, Congress declared that IMET training cannot begin until the State Department confirms that the Indonesian government has fully cooperated in the FBI’s investigation into the August 31, 2002 murders of two American employees of the mining giant Freeport McMoRan during a military-style ambush in West Papua province.

After her televised confirmation hearings, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice told Congress that the administration is currently evaluating whether to issue the required determination.” But she was unequivocal on the training funds. IMET for Indonesia is in the U.S. interest,” she said in a written response to questions posed to her by Sen. Joseph Biden (D-Del.). IMET, she added, will strengthen the professionalism of military officers, especially with respect to the norms of democratic civil-military relations such as transparency, civilian supremacy, public accountability and respect for human rights.”

But recent actions by the TNI have not helped the administration’s cause. At the time of the tsunami disaster, Aceh had been closed to outside observers and humanitarian groups since May 2003, when martial law was declared. By all accounts, TNI’s fighting with the Free Aceh Movement (GAM) — the armed group seeking independence — has been savage.

Last November, Human Rights Watch said it had substantial evidence” that Indonesian security forces have engaged in extra-judicial executions, forced disappearances, torture, beatings, arbitrary arrests and detentions, and drastic limits on freedom of movement in Aceh.” The watch group also cited the massive internal displacement” of tens of thousands of civilians [who] have fled their homes or been forcibly relocated by the military for operational reasons.” 

A similar situation is unfolding in West Papua in the eastern part of the archipelago. In January, the TNI launched an offensive against the Free Papua Movement (OPM) — the group fighting for independence there — driving an estimated 14,000 people from their homes in the Central Highlands.

The TNI responded to the tsunami like it was an extension of war. International aid agencies arriving on the scene objected to the military’s severe restrictions on humanitarian operations and its demands that all relief flow through the army. The TNI made the situation worse by launching attacks on GAM units and withholding relief from civilians suspected of supporting the fighters. (In mid-January, the TNI said it had killed 120 rebels and accused them of trying to derail aid efforts, a charge denied by GAM leaders.) Apparently stung by international criticism, the newly elected government of Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono sent a delegation to Finland on January 28 to open talks with GAM’s leadership.

Many U.S. lawmakers are still deeply uneasy about links between elements of the TNI and fundamentalist Muslim groups inside of Indonesia. Moreover, the Indonesian government’s actions in West Papua, the site of the 2002 killings, is raising more questions about the TNI’s ties to violent militia groups.

Last July, Attorney General John Ashcroft announced that a Washington grand jury had indicted Anthonious Wamang in the attack on the mining employees. Ashcroft identified Wamang as an operational commander” of the military wing of the OPM. Rice, in her comments to Congress, said that the FBI had uncovered no evidence indicating TNI involvement” in the murders.

But according to Elsham, an independent human rights group in Papua that has investigated the attack, Wamang has close ties to the Indonesian military. John Rumbiak, Elsham’s director, told In These Times that Elsham has evidence that Wamang was armed, wined and dined” by TNI officers and was once flown by the military to Jakarta, where he stayed in luxury hotels courtesy of the TNI — his ostensible enemies. 

The truth behind the killings of the two Americans is that the TNI was involved,” Rumbiak says. The issue is, were these military people operating as individuals or as an institution?”

Patsy Spier, a teacher who lost her husband in the 2002 Papua attack and was herself seriously wounded, said in an interview that she has no doubt” that the FBI — which collected its own forensic evidence in Indonesia — had enough evidence to bring a case against Wamang. But who ordered [the attack], and who supplied the guns and the ammunition?” she asks.

Spier says the FBI has offered to return to Indonesia to help apprehend additional participants in the attack and assist in issuing indictments, but Indonesia hasn’t responded.” This case should remind us why the training funds were held up in the first place,” she said. They’ve got to be willing to bring to justice those people who are still in service for crimes committed in Aceh, Papua and East Timor.”

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Tim Shorrock is a Washington-based journalist who grew up in Japan and South Korea. He is the author of Spies for Hire: The Secret World of Intelligence Outsourcing.
Democratic Rep. Summer Lee, who at the time was a candidate for the state House, at a demonstration in Pittsburgh for Antwon Rose, who was killed by police, in 2018. Lee recently defeated her 2024 primary challenger.
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