Washington – Key members of the US government supported military assistance and training to Indonesia as the best tool to advance democracy there, despite recent calls to sanction it for human-rights violations.
Mr Doug Bereuter, chairman of the House sub-committee on the Asia-Pacific, said at a special hearing on US policy towards Indonesia, on Wednesday:
"Continued military-to-military interaction and training under the Extended Imet programme, and the sale of appropriately limited military equipment will advance US security interests as well as the cause of democracy and human rights, if we pay attention to this relationship and if we make wise policy choices."
Imet is the International Military Education and Training programme of the US.
It ended after the Dili massacre of 1991, but was re-instated in 1995 for fiscal year 1996, in a more limited form known as Extended Imet.
In March, Congressman Patrick Kennedy of Rhode Island introduced a Bill to eliminate US$26 million (S$36.4 million) in annual military assistance, plus US$600,000 in military education and training funds, unless Indonesia overhauled its human-rights situation.
This Bill has just been overtaken by a less restrictive amendment put forward by Congressman Howard Berman.
This seeks to limit military assistance and arms transfer to Indonesia for one fiscal year, unless President Bill Clinton can certify to Congress that Indonesia is meeting requirements, like election monitoring and concerted attempts to resolve the East Timor conflict. The Berman amendment is expected to be sent to the House floor soon
A State Department senior official, Ms Aurelia Brazeal, testified that Imet was a valuable tool: "The record of Imet speaks for itself.
Indonesian officers trained in the United States have been among the strongest advocates for improved respect for human rights and the accountability of the armed forces in the performance of their duties." Mr Paul Wolfowitz, the US envoy to Indonesia from 1986 to 1989, said the cancellation of Imet had done nothing to improve human rights in East Timor.
"But it did diminish US influence with the Indonesian military," he said.
US research has shown that unilateral sanctions rarely work and can hurt US interests instead.
Any advice offered to the Indonesian government should be done with "humility", added Mr Wolfowitz, now Dean of the School of Advanced International Studies at Johns Hopkins University.
"We are not in a position to dictate," he said.
The US-Asean Business Council, meanwhile, said commercial engagement should proceed as it is linked with better human rights. The House sub-committee agreed that Indonesia had huge economic potential and was playing a constructive role in the region – though these trends were little understood by Americans who focused largely on its human rights situation.
Internal signs of progress were noted by the Congressmen and expert witnesses.
Ms Brazeal, the State Department's Deputy Assistant Secretary for East Asian and Pacific Affairs, said the Indonesian military was "increasingly responsible" and had shown "considerable restraint" in recent riots and ethnic conflicts.