New Military Links to Indonesia Debated
improving Washington's image in South and Southeast Asia, the administration
of U.S. President George W. Bush is hoping to achieve something
more concrete from its aid efforts in the aftermath of the Dec.
26 tsunami that killed over 175,000 people along the coasts of the
particular, it is reviving its hopes of normalizing military ties
with Indonesia, the world's most populous Muslim nation, whose strategically
located archipelago, critical sea lanes, and historic distrust of
China have long made it an ideal partner for containing Beijing.
early this month, U.S. sailors have been working with the Indonesian
armed forces (TNI), as well as national and international humanitarian
groups, to rush relief supplies to the hundreds of thousands of
people whose homes and livelihoods were destroyed in Aceh province.
Another 100,000 are believed to have been killed by the tsunami.
site of a long-running secession movement, Jakarta closed off Aceh
to foreigners 18 months ago as part of a major counterinsurgency
campaign. But the disaster is now seen as having created the possibility
for a military rapprochement between the Indonesian and U.S. militaries,
whose ties were cut after the TNI and militias organized by it rampaged
through East Timor in 1999.
reports of serious human rights abuses by the army in Aceh, the
Bush administration would clearly like to renew those ties, beginning
with training programs designed to restore the once-close personal
and professional relations between the two militaries.
off contact with Indonesian officers only makes the problem worse,"
said Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz, who served as U.S.
ambassador to Jakarta in the 1980s, during a visit last weekend.
stressed that the advent of Indonesia's first directly elected president,
retired general Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, who received extensive
U.S. military training himself, makes it a particularly opportune
feeling is clearly mutual, particularly within the Indonesian military.
However, divisions also exist between reformists, who want to make
the institution more professional, and more traditional elements
that see the military as a means to gain political power and amass
and his allies at the Pentagon depict Yudhoyono and his civilian
defense minister, Juwono Sudarsono, as reformists whose influence
on the TNI could be enhanced by the full restoration of relations.
think if we're interested in military reform here, and certainly
this Indonesian government is and our government is," he told
reporters in Jakarta Sunday, "I think we need to possibly reconsider
a bit where we are at this point in history going forward."
critics here find the administration's new drive to restore ties
both somewhat unseemly, in light of the tsunami disaster, and very
addition to reports that some TNI units have not only been lackadaisical
about getting relief supplies to those who need them, but may also
be selling some of the emergency food aid that has been rushed to
the region, they point to renewed efforts over the past two weeks
by senior officers to reassert control over foreigners in the province
as evidence that the military cannot be reformed as presently constituted.
activists here have also charged that the TNI has withheld food
and other relief from civilians suspected of supporting the secessionist
insurgency, the Free Aceh Movement (GAM).
the government announced last week that soldiers must accompany
all international aid workers outside the capital, Banda Aceh, and
Meulaboh, the hardest-hit coastal city, to protect them from the
rebels. This despite the fact that GAM has guaranteed the security
of all aid workers, including U.S. and other foreign troops, working
in areas where the insurgency was active.
TNI is reverting to its usual behavior, partially reinstating recently
loosened restrictions on aid workers and journalists," said
John Miller, spokesperson for the East Timor Action Network (ETAN),
which has strongly opposed the restoration of military assistance
to Indonesia for more than a decade.
also charged that the military had facilitated the entry into Aceh
of "Indonesian jihadists" whom Miller identified
as the Islamic Defenders Front (FPI) and Laskar Mujahedin
under the guise of providing emergency relief, a charge that is
certain to make an impression on a Congress that has proved surprisingly
resistant to Bush's efforts to get restrictions on U.S. military
cooperation with the TNI lifted during the president's first term.
week's declaration that all foreign troops should leave by March
26 was also seen as inspired by the more conservative and nationalistic
forces in the TNI. Although the civilian government distanced itself
from the deadline, the move was taken even by right-wingers in Congress
here as motivated by a still-powerful and resentful army that did
not deserve renewed U.S. military aid and cooperation.
TNI's performance in Aceh to date, according to Dan Lev, an Indonesia
expert at the University of Washington in Seattle, has been less
than impressive and demonstrates that Yudhoyono, Sudarsono, and
the new army chief, Gen. Endriartono Sutarto, who is also seen as
a professional, "have a lot of work to do in reconstructing
both the Indonesian state and the TNI."
the ground," he said, "the U.S. servicemen are doing what
needs to be done," but Wolfowitz's and other U.S. officials'
public statements about renewing the relationship at this time have
been largely counterproductive in terms of Indonesian public opinion.
signals to Indonesians that this was a political response as much
as a humanitarian one, and shows them that the American government
is simply opportunistic," he told IPS. "Given the suspicion
about American purposes, the Bush administration really ought to
shut up for awhile."
for restoring links with the TNI, Lev said Congress is right to
insist on the government first enacting thoroughgoing reforms, including
drastically reducing the size of the army, shedding its economic
interests, and ridding it of its territorial commands.
should also work harder for a political settlement in Aceh where
"the military's efforts to resolve a political problem with
military force just makes things worse," according to Lev.
has been some evidence in recent weeks that the government has explored
the possibility of resuming negotiations with the GAM that were
broken off in 2003, but the TNI is believed to oppose those efforts.
first voted to restrict to restrict Indonesia from receiving International
Military Education and Training (IMET), a State Department-administered
program, in 1991 after a massacre of civilian demonstrators in East
Timor by Indonesian troops. Ties were then severed altogether in
lobbying by the administration, Congress extended a ban last November
both on IMED and on certain kinds of military sales to Indonesia
until a number of human rights conditions were met. In the early
stages of the humanitarian operations, the administration permitted
the Indonesians to buy previously banned spare parts for C-130 transport
planes provided they were used exclusively for humanitarian purposes.
the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, the administration has opened
new avenues to provide aid to the military, mainly through "anti-terrorist"
assistance, joint naval exercises, and some military training programs
not under the State Department's control.
some critics in the U.S. mainstream media are now urging caution
in going any further than that.
Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, a former general himself, needs to make
sure his generals understand that they are accountable to him as
the democratically elected leader and that the human needs of Aceh's
people must be Indonesia's most compelling concern," the New
York Times said in an editorial Monday.
that change is internalized, there can be no dropping of America's
limits on military ties with Indonesia."
Lobe is Inter Press Service's correspondent in Washington, DC.
© 2005 Inter Press Service