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Combatting insurgency Indonesian style

The Nation - December 5, 1997

The Indonesian military is serious about redeeming its tarnished image, a top general said. The Nation's Rita Patiyasevi reports.

Atrocities and human degradation in warfare can be greatly reduced if those engaged in armed conflicts were to abide by the International Humanitarian Law (IHL). But despite strict military training to respect human life, soldiers often commit chilling acts of atrocities against civilians.

While conventional battles are no longer a regular feature in today's world, low-scale insurgencies, supported by foreign countries, have become more prominent.

According to Maj Gen Prabowo Subianto, commander of the Indonesian special forces, such intervention follows the norms of low intensity conflicts, defined as a limited political-military struggle to achieve political, social, economic or psychological aims.

While the international community continues to attack the Indonesian army for widespread human rights violations, Prabowo's paper on "The International Humanitarian Law in Low Intensity Conflicts" serves to defend the country's image.

Maj Gen Agus Widjojo presented Prabowo's paper at an International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) seminar in Bangkok last week. The ICRC seminar brought together military instructors from 16 countries in an effort to promote the knowledge of the international humanitarian law and create common awareness among the military of its importance.

Prabowo's paper describes low intensity conflicts as generally confined to a geographic area of less developed countries and characterised by constraints on weaponry, tactics and level of violence. It explains that interventions by outside countries take the non-traditional forms of economic, diplomatic and psychological coercion, and through paramilitary operations. Implications of such phenomena are seen in the Middle East, Afghanistan, Central Asia, Panama, Cuba, Haiti and the former Soviet Republic, the general said.

Common cause

Philippine Col Manuel L Carranza, in responding to Prabowo's paper, agreed that common cause factors of internal conflicts or insurgencies in some countries in East Asia today are brought about by ideological, ethnic or religious differences. These conflict situations are aggravated by poor economic conditions and are therefore more prevalent in less developed countries.

Indonesia, a country which comprises an archipelago of more than 16,000 islands and over 100 ethnic groups as a result of 350 years of colonisation, is susceptible to potential internal differences in terms of ideology, politics, economy, social structure and culture. It also has to deal with elements that want to pursue separatist causes.

Prabowo, considered by observers as a key general in the Indonesian military, said the dissidents create low intensity conflicts in the form of infiltration, subversion, insurgencies and terrorism by taking advantage of the lack of education and development. He described most conflicts in Indonesia and almost all the military operations that have been conducted during the last 20 years as low intensity.

"Since the war of independence, the Indonesian government has never conducted an act of aggression towards another country," he argued in his paper.

But critics of Indonesia would certainly refute that assertion. One clear example is the invasion of East Timor, a former colony of Portugal, by the Indonesian army in 1975. The United Nations Security Council has called for the withdrawal of the Indonesian forces. However, Indonesia has consistently argued that the invasion was carried out upon the invitation of the East Timorese themselves. East Timor was subsequently annexed by Indonesia in 1976 as its 27th province, and resistance guerillas have been fighting the Indonesian occupation since.

At a UN special committee in June this year, the Timorese Democratic Union (UDT) petitioned the committee to denounce Indonesia's false claim that the UDT was one of the Timorese parties that had welcomed the Indonesian invasion and supported East Timor's illegal annexation by Indonesia through the so-called Balibo declaration.

Prabowo, who was stationed in East Timor after he graduated from the military academy in the mid-1970s, justifies Indonesia's action as similar to that of Western democracies, which would not tolerate the idea of separatism through violent means. The general claims its action in dealing with separatist forces is no different from that of the United Kingdom in Northern Ireland, France in Corsica and Spain in the Basque region.

Under pressure

Atrocities committed by soldiers are said to be due to the pressure, high tension, fear and fatigue in the combat zone, which could drive soldiers to excessive violence, causing civilian casualties, unnecessary property damage, torture and rape.

The Indonesians are aware of this, asserted Prabowo, and is trying hard to show the world that they care. He believed that low intensity conflicts can be resolved by "winning the hearts and minds of the people". However, critics may ask how this can be achieved, especially in East Timor, given the unsavoury image the Indonesian army has in relation to human rights.

Widjojo quoted Prabowo as saying strict adherence to the rules and provisions of the International Humanitarian Law will help win over the people. He said the Indonesian Armed forces' doctrine is based on the concept of a people's army.

"The key is to win over the support of the people or the hearts and minds of the people," Prabowo writes.

Widjojo said those found guilty of abuses will not go unpunished. He gave the example of the military trying to redeem its tarnished image after troops killed more than 50 people in the Timorese capital of Dili in November 1991.

In the wake of the massacre, the military had sought to lay the blame on some agitators and claimed that the protesters were armed. However, the Muslim-based United Development Party demanded an investigation into the shootings, which eventually saw the removal of three officers from their posts.

"We may have made mistakes way back in the early 1990s, but we have learnt from our mistakes," Widjojo said.

Indonesia, he said, realises that to win low intensity conflicts, everything must be done to win the support and sympathy of the people. It also knows that bad treatment of the population will result in antipathy towards the government and the loss of popular support.