WASHINGTON -- "The secretary's determination is premature and unfortunate," noted Sen. Patrick Leahy, the ranking Democratic member of the Senate Foreign Operations Subcommittee, who said the move to make Indonesia's armed forces (TNI) eligible to receive International Military Education and Training (IMET) grants "will be seen by the Indonesian military authorities who have tried to obstruct justice as a friendly pat on the back."
John Miller, coordinator of the East Timor Action Network (ETAN), which, since Timor's independence, has become increasingly outspoken about the human rights situation in Indonesia, offered an equally severe assessment.
"The Indonesian military's many victims throughout the country and East Timor will recognize this policy shift as a betrayal of their quests for justice and accountability," he said.
"While the amount of money may be small, its symbolic value is enormous. The Indonesian military will view the restoration of IMET as an endorsement of business as usual which, for the TNI, means brutal human rights violations and continued impunity for crimes against humanity."
They were reacting to Saturday's certification by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice that both the civilian-led government in Jakarta and the TNI was cooperating sufficiently with the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) on the investigation of the August 2002 of two U.S. schoolteachers and an Indonesian colleague in an ambush in Papua province to meet the condition established by Congress for renewing IMET assistance.
The State Department noted that the investigation had resulted in the indictment by a U.S. court of Anthonius Wamang, an Indonesian citizen who, according to Jakarta, is a member of a Papuan separatist group called the OPM, in the murders.
"The Department expects that Indonesia's resumption of full IMET will strengthen its ongoing democratic progress and advance cooperation in other areas of mutual concern," according to the Saturday statement.
The Pentagon has long claimed that IMET influences foreign military officers to be more respectful of human rights, although a prominent neo-conservative, Ellen Bork, recently questioned this assumption in the case of Indonesia.
"(B)efore any steps are taken," she wrote in an article published in the Feb. 28 edition of the Weekly Standard entitled 'Premature Engagement', "the administration should provide an accounting of past programs and their effectiveness in promoting reform, and outline a strategy that integrates military cooperation into a plan for advancing democracy and human rights in Indonesia."
IMET, which will provide the TNI with only 600,000 dollars to train its officers this year, was suspended in 1992 in the wake of an army massacre the previous year of more than 200 peaceful demonstrators at a cemetery in Dili, the capital of East Timor, which was then under Indonesia's control.
The suspension of IMET was the first of several other measures enacted by Congress, including a ban on sales of lethal military equipment, sanctioning the armed forces for their poor human-rights record.
In 1999, Washington severed virtually all military links with Indonesia when the TNI and TNI-backed militias went on a deadly and destructive rampage in East Timor after its inhabitants voted overwhelmingly in favor of independence in a U.N.-backed plebiscite. More than 1,000 people were believed killed in the violence that also destroyed most of the territory's buildings and infrastructure.
Since the Sep. 11, 2001 attacks on New York and the Pentagon, however, the George W. Bush administration has been eager to reestablish ties with the TNI, which has long been seen by the U.S. as one of Indonesia's few unifying institutions and as a possible bulwark against China, even though it has never faced an external threat.
As the world's most populous Muslim nation where Islamic extremists have had some influence, the Pentagon, in particular, also believes that Jakarta has a key role to play in the global war on terrorism.
Since 1999, Congress had demanded that Indonesia bring to justice those responsible for the East Timor atrocities and bring the TNI itself under civilian control as conditions for re-establishing ties.
In the aftermath of the Sep. 11 attacks and under strong Pentagon pressure, however, Congress watered down or eliminated these conditions, leaving only one -- that the TNI cooperate with the FBI investigation of the Papua murders, which took place when the victims and their families were returning home from a company picnic near Freeport-McMoran's Grasberg mine, the world's largest gold mine.
At the same time, the administration gradually renewed military ties on its own by opening up new aid accounts to provide "anti-terrorism" assistance, conducting joint military exercises, and inviting TNI officers to participate in regional military conferences.
The rapprochement received a shot in the arm after the Dec. 26 tsunami, which killed as many as 200,000 people in another strife-torn province, Aceh. Washington sent an aircraft carrier task force to take part in relief operations alongside Indonesian soldiers.
Rights groups and other observers believe that renewing IMET eligibility will be understood as the "Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval" for the army.
According to Dan Lev, an Indonesia specialist at the University of Washington in Seattle, the military remains dominated by officers who are unwilling to part with the power and perks they enjoyed under long-reigning former president Suharto by subordinating themselves to civilian-led institutions or giving up their substantial business interests.
The Indonesian army has long had a reputation for both corruption and brutality. Indeed, the State Department has itself been blunt about this. In its latest annual "Country Reports", coincidentally released Monday, it wrote, "The Government's human rights record (in 2004) remained poor; although there were improvements in a few areas, serious problems remained."
"Government agents continued to commit abuses, the most serious of which took place in areas of separatist conflict. Security force members murdered, tortured, raped, beat, and arbitrarily detained civilians and members of separatist movements, especially in Aceh and to a lesser extent in Papua."
The report carefully reiterated Rice's assertions about the TNI's cooperation in the Papua ambush. It neglected to mention, however, that human rights groups in Indonesia and the U.S. believe that rather being than an OPM militant, Wamang, who has still not been arrested or indicted in Indonesia, is a TNI informer who, if he was involved in the ambush, was probably acting at the TNI's behest.
Indeed, the police initially pointed to the TNI as the most likely suspects in the murders, and in an interview with the Australian Broadcasting Corporation last year, said he received his ammunition for the attack, which survivors say was carried out by at least six or seven assailants, from TNI soldiers. Significantly, Wamang has been neither indicted nor arrested in Indonesia.
That fact was highlighted by Sen. Leahy, a leader in the efforts to condition military aid to Indonesia. "I hope the Bush administration has not forgotten that two of the murder victims were Americans," he said, adding that Rice "has thrown away the last bit of leverage we had (to ensure TNI's cooperation in the investigation)."
Miller believes that "given this lack of progress, the State Department's certification of cooperation is false and misleading."
"It has far more to do with fulfilling the administration's long-term goal of re-engagement with the Indonesian military, than bringing to justice all those responsible for the ambush or encouraging democratic reforms.
Copyright © 2005 IPS-Inter Press Service