Published on Friday, February 18, 2005 by Foreign Policy in Focus
After the Tsunami: Military Aid For Indonesia?
by Frida Berrigan
Although few Americans had heard of Aceh before the tsunami, they poured millions of dollars into Indonesian westernmost province that helped survivors rebuild and recover. More than 100,000 Indonesians, mostly from Aceh, were killed when the wall of water swept over the coastline.
Unfortunately, now that the tsunami has receded from the media spotlight, Washington and Jakarta are using the tragedy to push for restoration of military ties.
A long-time U.S. ally, Indonesia has been under a military embargo for over a decade because of its military’s brutal track record of repression and human rights abuses. After the September 11 attacks, Jakarta vowed cooperation in the war on terrorism. The Bush administration is seeking to restore military ties as a reward.
With help from friends in the Pentagon and White House, Jakarta donned a “moderate Islam” mantle and the Bush administration is heralding it as the world’s largest Muslim democracy. While Indonesia revamps its image and repairs relations with the U.S., it isn’t addressing the reasons military aid was suspended in the first place. Instead, the Asian country continues its pattern of abusing human rights, engages in corruption and allows the military to act with impunity.
Despite this clear lack of progress, Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz, a former ambassador to Indonesia and a close friend of the late dictator Suharto, praised Indonesia’s “extraordinary strides” on “the path toward building a strong and functioning democracy.”
President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, a former general trained at U.S. military academies, blamed the embargo for hamstringing tsunami relief efforts, saying that "if we had a stronger military, we could have done a lot more," to bring aid to victims.
In the wake of the disaster, the Bush administration worked around the ban on U.S. military sales to provide spare parts for Indonesia’s U.S. manufactured C-130 cargo planes.
The military is capitalizing on the international goodwill towards those who suffered grievously. Meanwhile, the relief efforts distract the world community from Indonesia’s intransigence.
In a written response to questions from Senator Joe Biden during her confirmation hearing, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, said that military training for Indonesian soldiers is “in the U.S. interest.” Admiral Thomas Fargo, who heads the Pacific Command, is seeking Pentagon approval to increase the number of conferences between his command and Indonesian military officers on civil-military relations, democratic institutions and other non-lethal training.
Indonesia has already received about $80 million in annual counter-terrorism aid since 9/11. Additionally, the Pentagon’s “Anti-Terrorism Assistance Program” is arming and training teams of police to respond to terrorist threats. Indonesia boosters in Washington want nothing less than full restoration of military ties.
The question is, how can strengthening the Indonesian military help the people of Aceh? Before the tsunami, the biggest disaster to befall the region was man-made — the military occupation. In the past two decades, Indonesian soldiers have killed more than 12,000 Acehnese civilians and forced tens of thousands of people in Aceh to flee their homes.
While the Indonesian military used C-130 transport planes to ferry aid to remote areas, the last time these military planes flew over Aceh, it was an act of war. In the late 1980s, in response to Aceh’s emerging independence movement, the military occupied the region for more than a decade, ravaging the province with impunity—killing, raping, torturing, and abducting thousands of Acehnese civilians. The U.S., Indonesia’s largest military provider and trainer until the 1990s, supplied the weapons for the incursion and occupation.
In 2003, Jakarta launched a new military campaign in Aceh, sending more than 45,000 troops backed by warships and fighter planes to “strike and paralyze” separatist rebels. Again, U.S. weaponry played a starring role. Paratroopers invading the island jumped from six C-130 Hercules transports manufactured by Lockheed Martin. Indonesia’s military has had a strong presence there ever since.
This long legacy of martial law and occupation has made it difficult for the Acehnese to trust the Indonesian military as their protector and provider after the tsunami. And the military has not done much to improve its image. While U.S. and Australian soldiers, and the Aceh rebels worked shoulder-to-shoulder to clear the rubble, bury the dead, dispense medical services and distribute food aid, the Indonesian military has been less helpful. Soldiers have charged refugees for food rations, beaten and refused aid to suspected rebel members and generally hindered relief efforts.
A round of peace talks between Aceh rebels and the Indonesian government at the end of January in Helsinki was one bright light in the tsunami tragedy, but the only agreement reached was to have more meetings. The military isn’t eager to give up control in a region still trying to absorb the huge influx of cash and resources that have poured in since the tsunami. As one Western diplomat told the New York Times, “the Indonesian military would benefit from Aceh, with all the goodies, all the money. They will not be easily persuaded that peace is in their interest.” The Indonesian military is notoriously corrupt, deriving as much as 70 percent of its budget through bribery, graft, and running unregulated companies.
In its most recent request for military aid for Indonesia, the White House said: “Indonesia has demonstrated its resolve to fight terrorists and violent extremism.” But regional experts paint a different picture. “The Indonesian military continues to terrorize Indonesia’s residents; the military’s human rights record remains atrocious,” John M. Miller of the East Timor Action Network, said. “Who are the real terrorists here?” The tsunami swept away many things in Indonesia but it hasn’t made a dent in the military’s atrocious human rights record.
Frida Berrigan is a Senior Research Associate at the World Policy Institute's Arms Trade Resource Center. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org She writes regularly for Foreign Policy In Focus (online at www.fpif.org).