Rajiv Chandrasekaran, Jakarta – The Defense Department has quietly resumed training Indonesian military officers in the United States, restoring one element of its relationship with Indonesia that was suspended last year after Indonesian soldiers participated in the violence that engulfed East Timor.
The training program is small, involving only seven Indonesian officers. But US officials said it was restarted without fanfare to avoid criticism on Capitol Hill and among human rights groups, which argue that Indonesian government-supported militias are still discouraging refugees from returning to newly independent minded East Timor.
US officials stressed that they have not resumed full military-to-military relations and warned that the training program will not be continued if the Indonesian military does not actively deal with the refugee problem and other issues.
Nevertheless, US officials said they are heartened by Indonesia's efforts to reform its armed forces since the country's first democratically elected president, Abdurrahman Wahid, took office in October.
The country now has a civilian defense minister, a respected former academic who is trying to ferret out corruption and extricate the military from politics. The government also is investigating dozens of military officers – including the now-suspended armed forces chief, Gen. Wiranto – for human rights abuses in East Timor. The attorney general this week promised suspects will be brought to trial within three months. "There have been some very positive strides," said a US official here. "The determination was made that this would be a good first step."
The official said the training program was not resumed as a quid pro quo for specific Indonesian military reforms. But Washington has been pleased with many of the changes – particularly Wahid's decision this week to suspend Wiranto during the human rights investigation – and is hoping resumption of training will serve as an incentive to follow through with other reforms.
Defense Minister Juwono Sudarsono said in an interview that cooperation with the United States will help his efforts to change the Indonesian military. "We need all of this management training," Juwono said. "We are trying to become a people's army that respects civilian control."
Political analysts had feared that Wahid's effort to suspend Wiranto might result in a military backlash and possibly a coup d'etat. But many top armed forces officers publicly threw their support behind the president.
Juwono said the "principle of civilian control" now is "firmly entrenched" among soldiers. But he worried that "the substance of it still has to be worked out." "Our civil society is still very weak," he said.
The country's 500,000-strong armed forces has long boasted a "dual function" role in Indonesian society, involving itself in virtually every aspect of political and business life. The military, for instance, had been allotted a number of seats in parliament and certain top civil-service posts, and it has been involved in a vast array of business ventures from construction to pharmaceutical and textile production.
Juwono said he will soon begin to thin the ranks of senior generals and promote junior officers committed to civilian military leadership. "I've told my generals that the party's over," he said.
The violence in East Timor, which was prompted by the territory's overwhelming vote in August to separate from Indonesia, led the US government to suspend arms sales and all military-to-military contacts. At the time, 18 Indonesian military officers were in the United States participating in the International Military Education and Training Program.
Eleven of them returned to Indonesia, but seven had been staying in the United States, waiting to resume classes. The officers went back to their classes in mid-January.