After more than a decade, the US will renew ties with Indonesia’s elite army unit, Kopassus, whose members have been linked to killings of civilians and torture. Some have even been convicted of the 1997 and 1998 abductions of student activists during the post-Suharto unrest.
US Secretary Robert Gates made the announcement during a visit to Jakarta on Thursday. He tried to assure those who have been monitoring Kopassus’ violent history by insisting that relations would take place “within the limits of US law.”
Gates also pointed out what he called the “dramatically declining number of violations of human rights” as a sign of progress. Human rights groups and activists do acknowledge that Indonesia’s government, as a whole, has made progress on protecting civil liberties and punishing those who engage in torture and killings, but they say that Kopassus is a different story – and Gates should know that.
According to Human Rights Watch, in addition to abducting the students in ’97 and ’98, members of Kopassus were involved in “launching a scorched-earth campaign and forming deadly militia forces in East Timor in 1999, and abducting and killing Papuan activist and traditional leader Theys H. Eluay in 2001.” For many of these crimes the Indonesian government has, according to HRW, “repeatedly failed to investigate and adequately prosecute alleged abusers.” (The complete HRW 2009 report on crimes in Papua is available here.)
According to a February 2010 report from the group, Watch Indonesia!, and submitted to the UN Human Rights Council, a culture of impunity still exists in the country – from abuses in Aceh and East Timor to a lack of prosecution of crimes committed during unrest in 1997 and 1998.
John Miller of the East Timor Action Network tells Free Speech Radio News today that “Kopassus officers were certainly involved directly” in the killings during the genocide in East Timor. And FSRN reporter Tanya Snyder points out in the story that one-third of the population in East Timor was killed between 1975 and 1999.
Responses from inside Indonesia have been varied.
One reader in the Jakarta Post expressed support for the renewed ties, but added some caution:
“I agree with Indonesia and the United States strengthening their military cooperation,” wrote Dimasaji Balikpapan. “But I do not agree if, in return, there will be a US military base in Indonesian territory. We may need to study how human rights are implemented in our military.”
A local lawmaker took a different angle – one of sovereignty and national pride. He told the Post: “We respect the US secretary of defense’s statement as inputs, however, as a dignified nation, we want to stress that we are not going to rely on anyone for joint cooperation.”
In justifying the move, Indonesian President invoked the need to confront “security” – a nearly unimpeachable justification in our post-9/11 world. But what was not mentioned is that most of the effective anti-terrorism efforts in Indonesia are carried out by the police, not the military, notably the unit known as Detachment 88 – another US-backed force.
According to the Jakarta Globe, Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono said that he had been “communicating” and “exchanging ideas” with other governments over security in the region for the past three months.
“This area needs greater attention because, despite the relatively stable and secure conditions in the last 10 to 20 years, the region is still a source of potential conflict and clash points,” Yudhoyono is quoted in the Globe.
The US says the announcement is just “initial steps” in the process of working with Kopassus again, but it looks like the Pentagon has finally won out in its long-running argument to lift the ban – despite human rights concerns in a nation where reform is still fragile.
For more on Detachment 88, you can see this excerpt from a 2008 interview I did with Indonesian police expert, Adrianus Meliala: