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US restores military ties with Indonesia's Kopassus killers

Direct Action - September 2010

James Balowski, Jakarta Human rights groups have reacted angrily to an announcement by Washington that it will restore military ties with Indonesia's abusive special forces Kopassus, accused of perpetrating some of the worst crimes against the people of East Timor, Indonesia and West Papua.

The July 22 announcement, which signalled a lifting of a 12-year ban on US training of Kopassus, was made during a visit to Jakarta by US war secretary Robert Gates, who has long advocated the restoration of full bilateral ties with the Indonesian military (TNI).

"I was pleased to be able to tell the president that as a result of Indonesian military reform over the past decade... and recent actions taken by the Ministry of Defense to address human rights issues, the United States will begin measured and gradual programs of security cooperation activities with the Indonesian Army Special Forces", Associated Press quoted Gates as saying after meeting with Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono.

US officials said Kopassus, which numbers around 5000 and has a limited role in fighting terrorism in Indonesia, had reformed enough in recent years that the US saw advantages in working to bring about what they described as "further change". "It is a different unit than its reputation suggests", Pentagon press secretary Geoff Morrell told reporters travelling with Gates. Officials added that the State Department would vet any members before they could receive training.

For his part, Yudhoyono "guaranteed" that there would be no more rights abuses by the TNI. "I'll guard the Indonesian military reform and ensure that what happened 10 or 20 years ago will not happen again", he was quoted as saying by defence minister Purnomo Yusgiantoro, who attended the meeting with Gates.

Gradual rapprochement

The announcement is the latest step in a gradual rapprochement between Washington and the TNI in the face of opposition by human rights groups. In the wake of international outrage following the massacre of more than 100 peaceful protesters in East Timor in 1991, the US Congress cut off Indonesia's access to specific kinds of military training and "lethal" equipment. When TNI-backed militias rampaged through East Timor after the UN-sponsored independence referendum in 1999, President Bill Clinton severed all remaining military ties, but then quietly restored contacts the following year.

Under the 1997 Leahy law named after its author, US Senator Patrick Leahy of Vermont the US is banned from providing training or other kinds of assistance to any foreign military unit if there is "credible evidence" that it has committed "gross violations of human rights". This can be waived if the secretary of state certifies that the relevant foreign government is "taking effective measures" to bring responsible members of the unit to justice.

Following the 9/11 terrorist attack in 2001 and the 2002 Bali bombing, the Bush administration attempted to circumvent these restrictions by providing assistance through a counter-terrorism program, although this still excluded Kopassus. In 2005, the administration issued a national security waiver allowing full engagement with the TNI, and abandoned the conditions for renewed cooperation, including TNI reforms and prosecution of soldiers responsible for rights violations.

However, it was not until the lead-up to a postponed visit to Indonesia by US President Barack Obama in late March that training of Kopassus was publicly aired. In an attempt to slip around the ban, the Obama administration floated a plan to test a training program for younger Kopassus members. According to the March 4 Washington Post, the idea was that the US would conduct training and joint exercises only with Kopassus soldiers who, because of their age, could not have been involved in earlier abuses.

In March there were reports in the Indonesian media that the US would soon lift the ban. US officials denied the reports. "The US Government is reviewing its policy on Kopassus but has not yet made a decision", a US embassy statement said.

The Australian government resumed cooperation with Kopassus in 2005. Normal relations with the Australian SAS resumed after a visit by Australian army chief of staff Lieutenant General Peter Leahy in late 2002. Relations continued to improve following the Bali bombing, and several joint Kopassus-SAS exercises have taken place. Kopassus has also routinely carried out exercises with Singapore and Thailand.

Kopassus was involved in the murder of five Australian-based journalists at Balibo in 1975, prior to Indonesia's full-scale invasion of East Timor. Kopassus and other troops indicted by UN-backed prosecutors in East Timor for crimes against humanity during the 25-year occupation and in 1999 remain at large. Although some Kopassus officers were convicted of the kidnapping of student activists in 1997-98 and the 2001 murder of leading West Papuan figure Theys Eluay, the majority have evaded prosecution.

Kopassus was also implicated in the 2002 fatal ambush of two US teachers and an Indonesian national near the Freeport mine in West Papua, widely believed to be retaliation for a decision by Freeport to stop paying the TNI for "security services". According to a June 2009 report by New York-based Human Rights Watch (HRW), Kopassus continues to be involved in arbitrary arrest, detention and mistreatment in West Papua.

Rights groups slam decision

International and Indonesian human rights organisations slammed the decision, calling it a setback for democratic reform and a betrayal of Kopassus' many victims.

In a statement issued on July 22, Amnesty International said: "It sends the wrong message in a country where mass and severe human-rights violations have taken place in an atmosphere of impunity". "US support to this unit undercuts the recent efforts advocating reform within the Indonesian military", said an Amnesty spokesperson.

HRW said the decision rewards Kopassus for its intransigence over abuses and betrays those in Indonesia who have fought for decades for accountability and justice. "The Obama administration has just failed a key test. This is not the way to encourage reform with a military that has yet to demonstrate a genuine commitment to accountability for serious human rights abuses", said HRW advocacy director Sophie Richardson on July 22.

Richardson noted that Jakarta had not only failed to remove from the military the few Kopassus soldiers convicted of rights violations, but had recently promoted officers linked by credible evidence to past abuses. "Every abusive military in the world will sit up and say, if the United States is willing to go ahead and engage with Kopassus despite its failure to reform, why shouldn't the US engage with other abusive militaries?"

In a July 23 statement the West Papua Advocacy Team pointed out that opposition to US military cooperation with Kopassus is based on the unit's undisputed record of abuses, and that claims of reform are belied by credible independent reports: "The military, especially Kopassus, but also the US-funded Detachment 81 and the militarised police, routinely intimidate, threaten and accost Papuans who non-violently resist denial of fundamental rights, illegal expropriation of their lands and marginalisation".

The group noted that, despite a 2004 legislative requirement that the TNI divest itself of its empire of legal and illegal businesses by 2009, the military retains this source of off-budget funding, adding that past US State Department reports acknowledge the TNI's involvement in criminal activities such as people trafficking and drug running.

The East Timor and Indonesia Action Network (ETAN), which has been running an online petition campaign urging the US to maintain the ban, said that the decision was a betrayal of the unit's many victims in East Timor, West Papua and throughout Indonesia, and will undermine efforts to achieve justice and accountability. ETAN noted that the US provided training and assistance to Kopassus for years, and when the US was most involved, Kopassus' crimes were at their worst.

"US re-engagement with Kopassus tells Jakarta that Obama administration rhetoric about human rights reform and accountability is empty. The new policy will only embolden those resisting reform and trials for past human rights violations, as well as efforts to rein in security force criminality", ETAN's national coordinator, John Miller, told Direct Action.

Victims want answers

Indonesian rights groups and the families of victims reacted angrily, saying they would march on the US embassy in Jakarta to demand answers from the Obama administration.

Papang Hidayat from the Commission for Missing Persons and Victims of Violence (Kontras) said the government had failed to fulfill several conditions set by the US for lifting the ban. "Kopassus members implicated in human rights abuses, such as those from the Rose team [responsible for the 1997-98 abductions], who were punished and released, have been promoted and hold strategic positions in military as well as civil institutions", he told the July 24 Jakarta Post.

Mugiyanto, chairperson of the Association of Families of Missing Persons and one of the activists abducted and tortured by Kopassus, said the victims and their families were living witnesses to the lack of state efforts to tackle past human rights violations. "The government should show its accountability in dealing with the issue. So far we have not seen either judicial accountability or non-judicial accountability", Mugiyanto told the July 26 Jakarta Post.

Speaking at a Kontras news conference on July 25, Maria Catarina Sumarsih said the decision would hurt chances of punishing those responsible for past atrocities. "I am very disappointed with this turn of events. The US is acting like a washing machine by cleaning the dirt from the Indonesian military", Sumarsih told the July 26 Jakarta Globe. "I have been seeking justice for more than 12 years, since my son was brutally shot by the military, and today the US is saying that what they did is correct by reviving defense ties. Maybe they think killing innocent people is correct."

Stalled reform

Yudhoyono's "guarantees" will also be of little comfort to the victims. Despite repeated pledges to solve prominent cases such as the 2004 murder of rights activist Munir, who was assassinated allegedly in revenge for exposing crimes committed by Kopassus, not one case has been resolved since Yudhoyono took office in 2004.

"There was an explicit recommendation from the House of Representatives in September 2009 that required President Yudhoyono to form an ad hoc human rights court, search for the 13 [abducted] people who are still missing, provide rehabilitation and compensation to the victims and ratify the UN convention against forced disappearances. Yudhoyono has a constitutional and moral obligation to pursue these recommendations in his capacity as president and member of the Officers Honour Council in 1999 [which examined the Kopassus officers involved in the abductions], which means he knows the truth about the fate and whereabouts of those who are still missing", Mugiyanto told Direct Action.

Under Yudhoyono, other reforms such as the divestment of the TNI's nefarious business interests and trial in civilian courts of soldiers accused of criminal offences, have all stalled. The TNI has recently expanded its territorial command structure, which allows the deployment of command posts and detachments at all levels of the civil administration. This provides the organisational framework for the TNI to act as a political security force and maintain its illegal logging, prostitution and protection rackets.

While expressing relief that Gates did not announce full cooperation, Senator Leahy voiced deep regret and said the unit must expel officers linked to abuses before there could be greater cooperation, adding that Kopassus "remains unrepentant, essentially unreformed and unaccountable". "I deeply regret that before starting down the road of reengagement, our country did not obtain and Kopassus did not accept the necessary reforms", he was quoted as saying by Agence France-Presse on July 22.

The announcement was also denounced by Senator Russell Feingold, the former chair of the Senate's Asia subcommittee. "Further actions are needed before we can be reasonably satisfied that Kopassus, and the Indonesian armed forces more broadly, have become a reformed institution accountable to international human rights standards and the rule of law."


Moves towards a "measured" and "gradual" program of cooperation still face obstacles. In preparation for lifting the ban, US Defense Department officials said they had asked the Indonesian government in recent months to remove "less than a dozen" members of Kopassus who had been convicted of previous abuses but were still part of the unit.

Yet in April, Colonel Nugroho Widyo Utomo, who in 1998 reportedly played a key role in creating and arming the militias that later carried out much of the violence in East Timor the following year, was appointed deputy commander of Kopassus. This follows the January appointment of Major General Sjafrie Sjamsoeddin, who was implicated in the 1997-98 abductions, abuses in East Timor in 1999 and the 1991 Santa Cruz Massacre, to the position of deputy defence minister.

TNI chief General Santoso claimed that Kopassus has already sanctioned personnel involved in questionable conduct, but stopped short of saying whether they had been dismissed. "As far as the TNI is concerned, the issue of past human rights violations is over", Santoso was quoted as saying by the July 24 Jakarta Globe.

At an anniversary ceremony on April 16, Kopassus commander Major General Lodewijk Paulus called allegations of past rights violations a "psychological burden". "Honestly, it has become a problem and people just keep harping on them", he told the Jakarta Globe. "It's not fair."

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