WASHINGTON - U.S. human rights groups are expressing concern over reports that the Bush administration is preparing to renew the Indonesian armed forces' eligibility to participate in a key training program despite continuing reports of abuses committed by the army in the tsunami-devastated province of Aceh.
Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice reportedly told key lawmakers last week that she will soon "certify" that the armed forces, called the TNI, is cooperating fully in the investigation of the 2002 murder of two U.S. schoolteachers in West Papua in 2002.
Under U.S. law, that certification is the sole condition that must be met in order for Jakarta to qualify for US$600,000 for the International Military Education and Training (IMET) program from which it was suspended in 1992.
But human rights groups and others that have followed the case say that a certification is not justified and that, in any event, the military's human rights record, particularly in Aceh and West Papua, has not improved enough to reward the TNI with what is widely regarded as a "Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval" from Washington.
"The amount of money for IMET may be small, but it has symbolic importance," said John Miller, spokesperson for the East Timor Action Network (ETAN). "The Indonesian military will view any restoration of IMET as an endorsement of business as usual, (which) has been nothing less than brutal human rights violations and impunity for crimes against humanity."
"Saying the Indonesian military is cooperating doesn't make it so," said Abigail Abrash Walton of the Robert F. Kennedy Memorial Center for Human Rights.
"The Indonesian government has not cooperated fully with the FBI investigation of the brutal murders of the two American teachers at the Freeport (McMoran) copper and gold mine in West Papua," she added. "At the same time, the U.S. Justice Department apparently has shown a remarkable lack of initiative in investigating evidence showing Indonesian military involvement in the killings."
The Bush administration has long been eager to normalize military ties with Indonesia, which were severed altogether in September 1999 after the TNI and TNI-backed militias rampaged through East Timor killing hundreds of people and destroying much of the territory after its inhabitants voted overwhelmingly in favor of independence from Jakarta.
Since 9/11, the administration has gradually renewed ties by providing aid through new anti-terrorism accounts, resuming joint military exercises, and inviting Indonesian officers to participate in regional military conferences.
The rapprochement reached a new high after the December 26 tsunami, which killed as many as 200,000 people in strife-torn Aceh province, when Washington sent an aircraft carrier task force to take part in relief operations alongside Indonesian soldiers.
Washington has long seen the archipelago as a strategic asset in Southeast Asia, both as a counterweight to China and as the sovereign over key sea lanes and choke points through which every day tankers carry vital resources, such as Middle East oil on its way to industrial heavyweights Japan, South Korea and China.
Since 9/11, Indonesia, the world's most populous predominantly Muslim nation, has also been seen both as a moderate model for the Islamic world and, more darkly, as a possible recruiting ground for radical Islamist forces.
At the same time, the Indonesian armed forces, which Washington first began supporting heavily in the late 1950s, has been long been seen as the one effective--if corrupt and often brutal--national institution in an archipelago that spreads across thousands of miles and includes hundreds of islands.
Despite protests from human rights organizations over the years, Washington maintained its support and generally resisted Congressional pressure to condition aid and sales to the military on improvements in its performance.
After a massacre by Indonesian troops of more than 100 peaceful demonstrators in East Timor in 1991, however, Congress cut off Indonesia's eligibility for IMET and to buy certain kinds of "lethal" military equipment. Under Congressional pressure, the Clinton administration then severed the relationship with TNI altogether in 1999.
Faced with the Bush administration's appeals to resume a relationship, however, Congress has, since 2001, agreed to soften its initially tough conditions for restoring certain kinds of military assistance. Congress has insisted only that the TNI fully cooperate with the investigation of the schoolteacher killings, which occurred in an ambush, according to survivors of the attack, by eight or nine unidentified assailants using automatic weapons that Papuan guerrillas are not known to have.
Indonesian police initially pointed the finger at the TNI, but the U.S. Justice Department, which became involved in the investigation, last June indicted a Papuan man, Anthonius Wamang, for being one of the triggermen. Wamang, who Jakarta claims was tied to local guerrillas (OPM) and was interviewed by the FBI, remains at large, however, and has never been arrested in Indonesia.
According to local human rights activists, he also has ties to the Indonesian military as a business partner of TNI's special forces unit, Kopassus, which has a particularly brutal reputation. In fact, in an August 2004 television interview with the Australian Broadcasting Corporation, Wamang said he got his ammunition for the attack from TNI soldiers. He reportedly told the FBI that TNI officers knew about the ambush in advance.
"It seems that there has been absolutely no progress since June in resolving this criminal attack," said Abrash Walton. "How can the State Department credibly claim that more than seven months of stonewalling by Indonesian authorities constitutes 'cooperation'?"
Edward McWilliams, who served as chief of the political section at the U.S. embassy in Jakarta from 1996 to 1999, said he was also concerned. "Right now, the only leverage we have to ensure the FBI investigation can go forward is the IMET ban," he told OneWorld. "The notion that (the administration) would give up this leverage now on the eve of a very serious FBI effort is simply inexplicable."
Last month, Patsy Spier, the widow of one of the victims who was also wounded in the ambush, told Associated Press that the case "should remind us why the training funds were held up in the first place. They've got to be willing to bring to justice those people who committed crimes [in Aceh, Papua, and East Timor] and are still in service...The whole point is just to have a proper investigation."
© 2005 OneWorld US