Dispatches From The Edge
Bedding Down With The Devil in Indonesia
By Conn Hallinan
Submitted to portside by the author
September 27, 2010
Bedding down with the Devil is the only way one can describe
a recent decision by the Obama administration to resume
contact with the Indonesian military's (TNI) most notorious
human rights abuser, the Special Forces unit, Kopassus.
Following a July meeting with Indonesian President Susilo
Bambang Yudhoyono, U.S. Secretary of Defense, Robert Gates
lifted the 1999 ban on any contact with the unit.
The Indonesian military has a long record of brutality toward
its own people, starting with the massacre of somewhere from
500,000 to 1 million Communists and leftists during a 1965
military coup. That massive bloodletting was followed by a
reign of terror against separatist groups in Aceh and West
Papua and the invasion of East Timor. In the latter case, the
UN estimated that as many as 200,000 died as a direct result
of the 24-year occupation, a per capita kill rate that
actually surpasses what Pol Pot managed in Cambodia.
But, even by the brutal standards of the TNI, the 5,000-man
Kopassus unit has always stood out. It kidnapped and murdered
students in 1997 and 1998, made up the shock troops for the
Indonesia's invasion of East Timor, and ruthlessly suppressed
any moves toward independence in West Papua.
West Papua is the western half of New Guinea that Indonesia
invaded in 1969.
"Working with Kopassus, which remains unrepentant about its
long history of terrorizing civilians, will undermine efforts
to achieve justice and accountability for human rights
violations in Indonesia and Timor- Leste [formally East
Timor]," says John M. Miller, national coordinator of East
Timor & Indonesia Action Network (ETAN).
The Obama administration's rationale for lifting the ban is
that U.S. contact with Kopassus will serve to improve the
unit's human rights record. "It is a different unit than its
reputation suggests," Pentagon press secretary Geoff Morell
told the New York Times. "Clearly, it had a very dark past,
but they have done a lot to change that." In any case, he
said, "the percentage of suspicious bad actors in the unit is
tiny.probably a dozen, or a couple of dozen people."
The aid to Kopassus appears to violate the Leahy Law that
prevents the U.S. from training military units accused of
human rights violations. "Kopassus has a long history of
abuse and remains unrepentant, essentially unreformed, and
unaccountable" U.S. Senator Patrick Leahy (D-Vt) told the
No one in Kopassus or the TNI accused of human rights
violations has ever been tried or removed from their
position. "We regret this development very much," Poengky
Indarti of the Indonesian human rights group Imparsial told
Reuters. "There is still impunity in the Indonesian military,
especially in Kopassus." She added, "We are confused about
the position of Barak Obama, Is he pro-human rights or not?"
According to ETAN, Kopassus-sometimes called Unit 81-helped
organize the murder of five Australian journalists in Balibo
on the eve of Indonesia's 1975 invasion of East Timor.
Kopassus is also accused of a 2002 ambush in West Papua that
killed three teachers, two from the U.S. According to
Australian intelligence, the ambush was an effort to
discredit the Papuan liberation movement.
There is also suspicion that the attack was aimed at
blackmailing mine owners into paying protection money. From
2000 to 2002, Freeport McMoRan paid the TNI $10.7 million in
protection money, but the company shut down the payments
shortly before the ambush.
No one in Kopassus has ever been disciplined for the unit's
role in organizing nationalist militias to terrorize the East
Timorese into voting against independence. The TNI financed
and led militias' killed some 1500 people, displaced two-
thirds of the population, and systematically destroyed 75
percent of East Timor's infrastructure.
It was Kopassus' involvement in forming and directing the
militias that was responsible for the U.S. decision to stop
military training for the unit.
And, rather than improving Kopassus' human rights record,
U.S. training appears to have had the opposite effect. The
"worst abuses" by the Indonesian military, according to Ed
McWilliams, a former U.S. State Department counselor in
Jakarta from 1996-99, "took place when we [the U.S.] were
According to Karen Orenstein, former Washington coordinator
of ETAN, "History demonstrates that providing training and
other assistance only emboldens the Indonesian military to
violate human rights and block accountability for past
This pattern is not confined to Indonesia. A recent study by
the Fellowship for Reconciliation found that Colombian army
units trained by the U.S. were the troops most likely to be
associated with human rights violations.
"There are alarming links between increased reports of
extrajudicial executions of civilians by the Colombian army
and units that receive U.S. military financing," John
Lindsay-Poland told the Inter Press Service. Lindsay-Poland
is a research and advocacy director for the Fellowship and an
author of the two-year study.
Called "Military Assistance and Human Rights: Colombia, U.S.
Accountability, and Global Implications," the report examined
3,000 extrajudicial executions by the Colombian military. "We
found that for many military units, reports of extrajudicial
executions increased during and after the highest levels of
U.S. assistance," Lindsay-Poland told IPS.
The U.S. "School for the Americas" has trained numerous Latin
American leaders associated with human rights abuses and
ETAN points out that Maj. Gen. Hotma Marbun, a senior
Kopassus commander, has just been appointed regional
commander in West Papua. Marbun was a highly placed officer
during a particularly bloody period in East Timor from
1983-86, and was also involved in military operations in West
Papua in 1982 and 1994.
Human rights organizations are reporting that the INF has
stepped up its counterinsurgency operations in West Papua,
including numerous sweeps aimed at "separatists." The
Indonesian military tends to describe any West Papuan who
objects to Indonesia's military occupation as "separatists."
Some 22 non-governmental organizations from Indonesia,
Australia, Germany, Britain, Timor-Leste, and the Netherlands
have written a letter to President Yudhoyono protesting the
imprisonment of scores of Papuans arrested for peacefully
demonstrating or expressing their opinions. Some of these
activists have been sentenced for "rebellion" under the
criminal code that goes back to the Dutch colonial period.
According to the NGOs the use of the criminal code to
imprison dissenters is a violation of the Indonesian
constitution that guarantees citizens the right to "freedom
of association and expression of opinion," and the right to
right to "seek, acquire, possess keep, process and convey
information by using all available channels."
Sentences have ranged from three to 15 years, and human
rights groups say that the prisoners have been mistreated.
More than 50 members of the U.S. Congress recently sent a
letter to President Obama stating that the Indonesian
government may have committed "genocide" against West
Papuans. "Genocide is usually difficult to document since
leaders are often reluctant to state their intentions to
destroy another nation, race, or ethnic group," the letter
stated. "Even still, in 2007 Col Burhanuddin Siagian, who was
then the local commander said, `If I encounter elements that
use government facilities, but still are betraying the
nation, I will destroy them.'"
Members of the congressional Black and Hispanic caucuses are
prominent in the group of 50. The Congress members urged
President Obama to meet with representatives of the West
Papua during his upcoming November visit to Indonesia and to
make the island "one of the highest priorities of the
West Papua groups have called for an "international dialogue"
on the current situation, and Komnas Ham, the Indonesian
government's official human rights commission, recommends
withdrawing military forces from the island to encourage an
atmosphere for talks.
In the meantime, ETAN and the West Papua Advocacy Team (WPAC)
have asked the Obama administration to reject Indonesia's new
ambassador to the U.S., Dino Djalal. The groups claim that
Djalal has been a tool for the Indonesian military and that
he blamed the violence in East Timor on the Timorese. ETAN
and WPAC say that Djalal was "a dogged critic of
international journalists and human rights organizations who
sought to report these atrocities."
Why is the U.S. bedding down with these thugs?
According to the New York Times, Indonesian "officials
dropped hints that the unit [Kopassus] might explore building
ties with the Chinese military if the ban [against training]
remained." With the U.S. taking a more aggressive stance
Asia-the recent U.S.-South Korean war games, and the immense
pressure the Obama administration put on Japan to let it
build a new Marine base in Okinawa come to mind-the U.S.
clearly saw a Chinese incursion into Indonesia as a threat.
Of course, there might never have been a Chinese offer.
Indonesia learned long ago that all one had to do to open the
U.S. aid spigot was to become chummy with Beijing.
The U.S. has a long and sordid relationship with Indonesia's
military. According to documents uncovered by George
Washington University, the U.S. fingered leftists for
military death squads during the 1965 coup. During the Ford
administration, then Secretary of State Henry Kissinger gave
Indonesia the green light to invade East Timor. And the
Americans acquiesced with Jakarta's torpedoing of a UN-
sponsored referendum on independence following Indonesia's
1969 invasion of West Papua.
It looks like we are about to once more bed down with some
pretty awful characters. __________________
Conn Hallinan's columns can be found at
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