WASHINGTON - Moving with unusual speed, the administration of U.S. President George W. Bush officially normalised military relations with Indonesia Wednesday when the State Department posted a formal notice permitting the sale of lethal military equipment to Jakarta for the first time in seven years.
The announcement in the "Federal Register" came just two weeks after Condoleezza Rice made her maiden visit as secretary of state to the Indonesia capital, where she called for closer ties with the military as part of an expanded "strategic partnership" with the sprawling Southeast Asian nation of more than 200 million people.
This marks the final legal step to open up the arms flow to the Indonesian military. It remains for Indonesia to draw up a shopping list of items they want to buy.
John Miller, director of the East Timor and Indonesian Action Network (ETAN)
It also follows the State Department's announcement last November that it intended to waive Congressionally-imposed human rights conditions on military aid and sales to Indonesia in appreciation of Jakarta's "unique strategic role in Southeast Asia".
"This marks the final legal step to open up the arms flow to the Indonesian military," said John Miller, director of the East Timor and Indonesian Action Network (ETAN), of the Federal Register notice. "It remains for Indonesia to draw up a shopping list of items they want to buy."
ETAN, along with several other major human rights groups, including Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International, has strongly opposed the restoration of full military ties with Indonesia until the government of Pres. Bambang Yudhoyono makes much greater progress in asserting control over the country's armed forces (TNI) and prosecuting officers responsible for serious abuses, particularly in East Timor.
They have argued that normalising military relations now gives the army a "Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval" that will effectively encourage it to resist reforms that would make it more accountable to civilian authority and improve its human rights practices.
"The thing about the renewal of the military relationship is that it gives a political boost to the army and makes it more likely that they will stave off pressure for reforms," said Daniel Lev, an Indonesia expert at the University of Washington in Seattle. Yudhoyono, he added, "is pushing very hard for reforms, but none really has to do with the army, which is the core of the problem".
Congress first imposed military-related sanctions against the TNI in 1991 after a widely reported massacre against unarmed protestors in East Timor, a province which had been invaded and subsequently annexed by Suharto's New Order regime in the mid-1970s. Over the next eight years, Congress gradually added restrictions on the military-to-military relations due to evidence that the army's human rights performance had not improved.
In August 1999, the TNI and TNI-backed militias went on a deadly and destructive rampage in East Timor after its inhabitants voted overwhelmingly in favour of independence in a U.N.-backed plebiscite. Congress responded by severing virtually all military ties, making their restoration conditional on a number of mostly human rights-related reforms, including the prosecution and punishment of those responsible for the mayhem.
But the Sep. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks on New York and the Pentagon changed the mood in Washington. The administration began pressing Congress to exempt certain kinds of military assistance, such as "anti-terrorist" training and equipment, joint military manoeuvres, and the supply of some "non-lethal" military equipment, from the ban.
This was despite overwhelming evidence that the TNI was not only refusing to cooperate in efforts to bring to justice the perpetrators of the East Timor violence, but was also engaged in serious abuses on other islands, including Aceh, West Papua, and in the Malukkas.
After the tsunami disaster of December 2004, the administration accelerated the pace toward normalisation. In February, it lifted the ban on Indonesia's participation in its International Military Education Training (IMET) programme and in May, it exempted from the ban on military sales certain kinds of "non-lethal" military equipment.
Congress nonetheless remained sceptical and last November extended the ban on certain kinds of financing for military equipment and training and on licenses for the export of "lethal" military equipment until the secretary of state could certify that three conditions are being met by Jakarta and the TNI.
They included the prosecution and punishment of TNI members "who have been credibly alleged to have committed gross violations of human rights"; cooperation by the TNI with civilian judicial authorities and international efforts to resolve gross abuses in East Timor and elsewhere; and implementation of reforms "to improve civilian control of the military".
The bill, however, also provided that the administration could waive these conditions in the interests of "national security". Unable to certify that Jakarta was indeed meeting these conditions, the State Department decided to waive them in late November, although in doing so, it stressed that it remained "committed" to the fulfillment of Congress' conditions and would only approve sales of "lethal equipment" on a "case-by-case basis". The latter assurance was included in the Federal Register's announcement Wednesday.
Between November and this week, however, Washington made no secret of its eagerness to fully normalise ties despite the emergence of new evidence in January that the TNI had been involved in the murders of two U.S. teachers in Papua in 2002.
In its budget request released last month for 2007, the State Department increased Indonesia's IMET allocation by 50 percent and asked Congress to approve more than six million dollars to aid Indonesia's purchases of military equipment -- a nearly seven-fold increase over the previous year.
At the same time, Adm. William Fallon, Commander of the U.S. Pacific Command, publicly urged a "rapid, concerted infusion of assistance" to the Indonesian military.
Washington's major strategic interests in Indonesia relate to its status as, in the words of the State Department, "the world's most populous majority-Muslim nation" and "a voice of moderation in the Islamic world" at a time when Washington is engaged in its "global war on terror" against radical Islamists. In addition, its proximity to and control over some of the world's most important sea lanes has long given it a special cachet with the U.S.
Indonesia has also long been seen as a potential ally in U.S. efforts to "contain" China in Asia and the Pacific, a theme that dominated Rice's tour in the region, which climaxed in a meeting between her and her Australian and Japanese counterparts.
The Pentagon reportedly is most eager to upgrade Indonesia's maritime forces in order to help it secure the strategic sea lanes against potential threats, which include piracy, terrorist operations, and, presumably, China's efforts to build a blue-ocean navy. In addition, Indonesia's navy is considered the least-problematic of the country's armed forces from a human rights perspective.
The TNI, according to analysts, has placed a higher priority on upgrading and securing spare parts for its fleet of aging fleet of warplanes, some of which have been used for counter-insurgency operations.
© 2006 IPS - Inter Press Service