APSN Banner

Too soon to reward Indonesia?

Washington Times - June 26, 2000

Dana R. Dillon – It is a debate that pits the Clinton administration against human-rights watchers who say the White House is rewarding a corrupt regime bent on violence. The White House counters it is trying to export American values. Building trade with China? No, resuming military ties with Indonesia, where independence movements have been springing up for months, only to be met with violent reprisals from local militias.

It was because of last year's massacres in the Indonesian province of East Timor that military-to-military contact between the United States and Indonesia was cut in the first place. A recent UN report says segments of the Indonesian army did "support the militias in intimidation and terror attacks" in East Timor. Now the White House is quietly re-establishing ties with the army and will soon ask Congress to approve a program allowing the United States and Indonesia to engage in more joint military exercises.

Generally, military-to-military programs with developing countries are entirely defensible. Training their military officers makes their armies more professional and imparts sound American practices. But the problems with the Indonesian military are systemic and have nothing to do with poor training. Indeed, if President Clinton's goal is to reform the Indonesian army, then renewing engagement is the worst course of action.

The problem is this: The Indonesian military has spent the last 30 years gradually grabbing control of almost every facet of Indonesian society, including the bureaucracy, the legislature and the economy. In short, the Indonesian military has evolved from an arm of national security into a uniformed mafia.

I traveled to Indonesia in March and visited both Aceh and Papua, two of the more restless provinces. It was clear from the people I spoke with that the army and police are the most hated and distrusted institutions in the country. Many Indonesians feel the military cares more about its business and political interests than about national security. One activist who has worked in eastern Indonesia for 12 years told me he frequently asks people what could be done to improve their quality of life. Their consistent reply: "Get the army out of my village."

The Clinton administration says it is rewarding Indonesia for removing some senior officers responsible for the massacres in East Timor and for establishing civilian control of the military. True, President Abdurrahman Wahid's record of pursuing and convicting soldiers who commit war crimes isn't bad, but don't give him too much credit. After all, the general who served as the army's chief of staff during the East Timor debacle has only been questioned, not tried, for whatever role he played in slaughtering unarmed civilians.

Supporters of resuming military ties often tout Juwono Sudarsono's record as civilian defense minister, but he is allied with the uniformed officers. Mr. Sudarsono has decried the intense vilification of the military and calls anti-army media commentary the result of "too much democracy" in Indonesia.

When violence and political dissent increased in Aceh last year, Mr. Sudarsono asked permission to re-impose martial law. President Wahid denied that request, but the military went ahead and launched a brutal crackdown anyway. Since February, more than 400 people have been killed and more than 300 schools torched. The killing continued even after the government signed a peace accord with the main insurgent group on May 12. Since then, more than two dozen have been killed.

At one point, the army agreed to give up its seats in the legislature by 2004, but it now appears to have reneged on that commitment. Lt. Gen. Agus Widjoyo, chief of territorial affairs, recently called for the formation of a military "faction" in the legislature. These are not the words or actions of a military under the control of a civilian government.

A few days or weeks of American military training for officers who have spent their entire careers in a corrupt system – and who will return to that system when their training is complete – will not reform Jakarta's military. Nor will it encourage democracy in Indonesia. It will more likely help Indonesia's army officers become more proficient criminals.

If our goal is to reward Indonesia's government, we should maintain the military embargo until we see evidence of substantive reform. Removing a few officers isn't sufficient. The army must abandon its political role, divest its business interests and dismantle its territorial security apparatus. The US seal of approval doesn't belong on half-measures.

[Dana R. Dillon is a Southeast Asia policy analyst at the Heritage Foundation.]