Kevin Knodell – On a rainy November day outside of Wahiawa at the 25th Infantry Division's Lightning Academy, a platoon of U.S. Army Cavalry scouts trained with Indonesian paratroopers in the jungle.
They used ropes to cross ravines and evacuated casualties up and down steep inclines through the jungle environment. Experienced jungle fighters, the Indonesians taught the Americans as much as they were learning.
"They have different ways of (making) the knots and mountaineering stuff that they do, and it was actually more efficient," said Sgt. 1st Class Daniel Hawkins. The platoon sergeant said that in his years deploying to combat zones around the world, the Indonesians were among the best soldiers with whom he's worked.
Capt. Sean Rimba, an Indonesian army officer, said he was eager for the opportunity to do urban combat training and to learn from the Americans' experience in Iraq.
U.S. and Indonesian troops train at the 25th Infantry Division's Lightning Academy on Oahu last month during a platoon exchange between the two militaries.
It was part of a platoon exchange last month in which the 25th Infantry division sent troops to Indonesia simultaneously. All were screened for COVID-19, waited two weeks before training and stayed in a "training bubble" to prevent infections. Both sides have since returned home and undergone another two week quarantine.
While the Pentagon has been aggressively courting Indonesia as an ally amid escalating tensions with China in the Pacific, Hawaii state officials and soldiers have played a key role over the last two decades in laying the groundwork for this relationship based on common worries about deadly natural disasters and terrorism.But the ongoing relationship also has fierce local opponents.
Many Hawaii activists oppose the training because of the ongoing conflict on the mineral rich Pacific Island territory of West Papua, where Indonesian troops have been accused of human rights abuses in a decades-long campaign against pro-independence forces.
"We are actively training – in Hawaii – these paratroopers, these pararaiders, who are set up to go in to basically commit a slow genocide on the people of West Papua," said Joy Enomoto, a lecturer in Pacific Island Studies at the University of Hawaii and a member of the Cancel RIMPAC Coalition.
Hawaii state and military officials say that their engagement has helped reform the Indonesian military. But activists argue this partnership only enables more violence.
"When we talk about cooperation, they're talking about controlling the region economically. And also building a really increased military budget and arms and defense industries," said Enomoto. "And that's all playing out here in Hawaii."
Strongmen and loopholes
Indonesia is made up of 17,508 islands and has a population of 268 million. A former Dutch colony, it gained independence after World War II. It's a Muslim majority country, but its scattered islands are home to people of different ethnicities and faiths.
In 1965 a military commander named Suharto came to power in a coup and ruled Indonesia for decades as a dictator. During his rise to power he began an anti-communist purge that killed as many as a million people, with the blessing of the U.S. government.
The Indonesian military also annexed the former Dutch colony of West Papua in the 1960s and invaded the former Portuguese colony East Timor in 1975.
"There was this rising fear of communism in the region," said Enomoto. "Since Indonesia's independence, the role the United States has played in supporting whatever Indonesia wants to do, to protect these resources, to protect these economic interests, has been fascinating."
In 1998, widespread protests across Indonesia forced Suharto from power and led to democratic elections. In 1999, the people of East Timor secured independence in a referendum that Indonesia's newly elected leaders pledged to respect.
However, government backed-militias reacted violently, conducting operations with support from an elite group of special forces known as Kopassus. Then-President Bill Clinton suspended military cooperation with Indonesia and slapped sanctions on members of the special forces accused of atrocities.
American policymakers began softening toward Indonesia's military after 9/11 as many grew concerned about Jemaah Islamiah, an Islamist militant group with ties to al-Qaida.
The late Hawaii Sen. Daniel Inouye added language in the 2001 defense appropriations act allowing Indonesian military officials to attend workshops and lectures at the Asia-Pacific Center for Security Studies.
"After 9/11, many of us who were working on Asia-Pacific peace issues were very concerned that Senator Inouye created a loophole in the ban on military assistance to Indonesia," said Kyle Kajihiro, a University of Hawaii professor and activist involved in local solidarity efforts in Hawaii that support independence activists in East Timor and West Papua.
'Hawaii? No problem'
In 2007 Hawaii National Guard commander Maj. Gen. Robert Lee received a call from Adm. Timothy Keating, the then-head of Pacific Command at Camp Smith, telling him the Indonesian military had requested to partner with Hawaii through the National Guard's State Partnership Program. Lee met with Gov. Linda Lingle to ask her to approve the partnership.
Unknown to him, Lingle had a long love affair with Indonesia. She had first traveled there in 1995 as the mayor of Maui through Sister Cities International for the nation's 50th anniversary of independence from the Netherlands and returned again in 2001 to help train the newly decentralized government in Jakarta.
She enthusiastically agreed to his proposal.
Lee had watched with concern the terrorist bombings in Bali that killed hundreds in 2002 and 2005 as well as Indonesian jihadists fighting in the Philippines and Malaysia. He was worried that the militant networks – if left unchecked – could spread across island communities and make their way to Hawaii.
"From the military perspective, why we wanted to get involved was from a homeland security perspective. I was heavily concerned about terrorism in the Pacific," Lee explained in a telephone interview.
Lee said Lingle was a fan of the secular nature of the constitution, which explicitly recognized religious minorities in the Muslim majority country – at least on paper. "We know that with the junta and the dictatorship and all that not everything went well," Lee added.
In June 2007, Lee and Lingle boarded a Hawaii National Guard KC-130 for a direct flight to Jakarta so Lingle could sign the partnership agreement.
Some Muslims in Indonesia were deeply critical of the United States over the 2003 invasion of Iraq and were eager to take advantage of business opportunities with China, but Lee said Hawaii was largely seen as a more acceptable partner than active duty American troops.
He said that Defense Ministry officials told him "there's certain factions in Indonesia that might have some qualms about tighter alliances with the United States, but Hawaii? No problems, no problem with Hawaii."
While U.S. policymakers were looking for help from the Indonesian military to fight Islamic militants, the Indonesians saw the U.S. National Guard's experience in disaster management as a selling point as they were still reeling from a destructive 2004 earthquake and tsunami.
The two countries set up exchanges involving disaster response and aircraft maintenance. But the State Department had to screen participating Indonesian troops to make sure they hadn't served in units accused of human rights abuses.
"There was a vetting process so that the Kopassus, or the heavy-handed part of the military under Suharto, was not part of the deal," said Lee.
After several tsunami response exercises, Lee said the Indonesians sent an unusual request. "They said 'we'd like to have an exploding volcano.' So we had to put on our thinking caps and organize," he recalled.
Like Hawaii, many of Indonesia's islands are volcanic. In 2010 Hawaii National Guardsmen worked with both civilian and military leaders in Indonesia to prepare for an eruption. Lee said that the country's disaster response mechanisms were overly centralized in Jakarta, so they focused on the province level.
The training paid off when Indonesia's Mount Merapi volcano erupted in 2010, killing 353 people. "Yeah, they lost lives. But they did say it could have been a lot worse," Lee said.
Several advocates of closer ties with Indonesia have argued that training troops is an opportunity to instill in them professional ethics and withholding support would merely leave an opening for China to fill the void.
In 2010, Lingle warned that "America, on the national level, is missing a major opportunity in Indonesia" during a speech to the Hawaii-Indonesia Chamber of Commerce where she was introduced as the "only Indonesianophile governor of the state of Hawaii."
She praised then-President Barack Obama, who was born in Hawaii and spent part of his youth in Indonesia, for advancing closer ties. But she also criticized members of Congress who she said were "using politics, in my opinion, to punish Indonesia when they should be doing the exact opposite."
In particular, she denounced a ban on allowing Indonesian cadets to train at U.S. military academies.
She argued Americans should want Indonesia's young officers trained in American military academies that will instill professional ethics.
Alfred Oehlers, a researcher at the Asia-Pacific Center for Security Studies in Waikiki said there are still concerns about the Indonesian military and human rights abuses in places like West Papua.
"The sometimes checkered Indonesian history is something to be concerned about," he said.
But Oehlers said that in his interactions with Indonesian troops who study at APCSS, the experience of coming to Hawaii and taking in the culture shaped their outlook. "I hate to be cheesy, but they really do buy into the Aloha spirit," he said. "These are veterans, they're hardened now, but that Aloha spirit rubs off on them."
Enomoto argues the talk of reform and cooperation merely hides the ugly reality. "At the end of all of these trainings, there is a very active military going in to almost decimate a native population, and moving in a settler colonial population, for the sake of mining interests and other resources in the region," she said.
She said that suppression of dissidents makes it hard to raise awareness of the conflict.
The Indonesian government has been accused of reprisals against the relatives of Papuan activists who speak out abroad. It also restricts international media access to West Papua and has enacted internet blackouts in response to pro-independence protests.
"The argument isn't whether or not China gets to control it, or whether Indonesia controls it, the question is the self determination of West Papua," she said.
Indonesia remains an imperfect democracy but is making reforms in the right direction, Oehlers said. This year an Indonesian court ruled that internet blackouts in West Papua were illegal. "It's a very fine balancing act that has to be calibrated to meet these many, sometimes conflicting, demands," he said.
But Enomoto said that those arguments are excuses to allow the status quo to continue. However, Enomoto acknowledged that simply cutting U.S. military ties to Indonesia won't end the conflict since that will require a negotiated political solution.
Last week, West Papuan separatists declared a provisional government.
Lee retired from the National Guard shortly after Neil Ambercrombie became Hawaii's governor in 2010. One of the last exchanges he oversaw with the Indonesians was training them for a U.N. peacekeeping deployment to Lebanon.
"They were the most effective U.N. troops in keeping Hezbollah and Israel apart," he said. "You could depend on the Indonesian troops and I've been telling everybody, wouldn't you rather have Muslim troops that are capable of handling this peacekeeping versus another U.S. Army brigade trying to put out the fire?"
Ties with Indonesia between both the Hawaii National Guard and active duty military have only expanded as the Pentagon shifts its focus to the Pacific. Indonesian troops and warships regularly participate in RIMPAC in Hawaii along with more than 20 other nations.
The U.S. government also has gradually loosened restrictions on training with Kopassus troops, who have reportedly conducted combat training with U.S. Special Forces on the mainland.
The Hawaii National Guard had 21 engagements with the Indonesian military last year. "You're looking at at least one to maybe two a month on average, whether it's in Indonesia, or in Hawaii or the U.S. in general," said Maj. Reuben Lee, the officer in charge of the Hawaii National Guard's State Partnership Program.
The exercises included search and rescue, medical training, aviation exercises, cybersecurity and air defense. They even did disease outbreak response exercises.
"It was heavily flu focused, slightly different, right? We didn't know COVID-19 was coming," said Kim.
The Hawaii National Guard also organized a cadet exchange with UH ROTC and Indonesian officer candidates. The COVID-19 pandemic essentially put all programs on pause as Hawaii Guardsmen were called up for pandemic response duties, but they still held video conferences.
Maj. Kemas Mohammed Nauval, a 17-year veteran of the Indonesian army who was in Hawaii for the training last month, said he was eager for his soldiers to train more closely with the Americans, and to learn about their technology and a weapons systems that his country may have someday.
"They have already asked that exchanges in the future are bigger, and we grow them in scale and scope," Col. Josh Bookout, commander of the U.S. brigade participating in the exchange, said as the exercise at Schofield came to a close in late November.
[Kevin Knodell covers the military and veterans in Hawaii and the greater Pacific for Civil Beat as a corps member for Report For America, a national nonprofit that places journalists in local newsrooms.]