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The US Must Not Resume Training Indonesia’s Killers

by Kristin Sundell

There is something unnerving about hearing orders for your execution. Even more unnerving is the news that amid reports of continuing killings and abuses, President Barack Obama wants to resume US training for the Indonesian military unit that threatened my life and enjoys impunity in the killings of countless Indonesians and East Timorese.

On Aug. 31, 1999, I was serving as a UN-accredited election monitor in East Timor, which had just voted to end decades of Indonesian military occupation. Referendum day had gone relatively smoothly, in spite of the Indonesian military's efforts to derail the ballot through terror and intimidation. In the wake of the vote, the armed forces and their Timorese militia proxies moved to implement their fallback plan - drive out international observers and raze East Timor to the ground.

That morning, a Timorese friend rushed to our house and played an intercepted radio conversation among Kopassus, the Special Forces unit of the Indonesian Army, and local militias:

Kopassus: "It is better we wait for the result of the announcement [of the ballot] ... Whether we win or lose, that's when we'll react."

Also Kopassus: "Those white people [referendum observers] ... should be put in the river."

Militia commander (passing the order): "If they want to leave, pull them out [of their car], kill them and put them in the river."

Kopassus: "They need to be stopped."

Militiamen: "It will be done." "I'll wipe them out, all of them." "I'll eat them up."

We escaped, hitching a ride with United Nations staff as they evacuated. In the following days, East Timor was nearly destroyed, with 75 percent of its infrastructure demolished and more than a thousand civilians killed.

The Kopassus forces were long recipients of extensive US assistance, as were the rest of the armed forces during the reign of President Suharto.

The US Congress finally acted to curb training for the Indonesian Army in 1992, after it was filmed massacring more than 400 East Timorese as they peacefully demonstrated against the occupation. But training for Kopassus quietly continued at US taxpayer expense.

Eight years later, Kopassus forces directed the Indonesian military's campaign to subvert East Timor's independence vote and to destroy the territory. In response, US president Bill Clinton severed military ties with Indonesia in September 1999.

The administration of former President George W Bush resumed many forms of military assistance in the name of counterterrorism, restoring full military ties in 2005. But training for Kopassus remained off limits because of a 1997 law that barred US training for foreign military units with a history of human-rights violations unless the government in question is taking effective measures to bring those responsible to justice.

Now Obama wants to resume training for Kopassus, despite the presence of many soldiers within its ranks who are guilty of severe human-rights violations. After orchestrating the violence in East Timor, the killing of West Papuan traditional leader Theys Eluay and the kidnapping and disappearances of student democracy activists in 1997 and 1998 without adequately holding those responsible to account, Kopassus should clearly be ineligible for US training. When the Bush administration proposed restarting training of Kopassus in 2008, the State Department's legal counsel ruled that the 1997 law prohibited re-engagement.

And the crimes of Kopassus continue. A recent report by journalist Allan Nairn alleges that Kopassus members helped coordinate an assassination program, authorized by "higher-ups in Jakarta," targeting members of a political party in Aceh Province. At least eight activists were killed in an attempt to pressure the party not to discuss independence for the province.

The Obama administration says it only wants to train soldiers who were not members of Kopassus at the time of earlier abuses, but this makes no sense in light of the recent killings in Aceh. Restrictions on military assistance provide important leverage for accountability and reform. That's why Indonesian rights groups support the ban on assistance alongside international organizations such as Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International.

Obama's family ties and experience living in Indonesia as a boy give him a special connection to Indonesia and its people. Rather than push US training for the military unit that threatened my life, he should support human rights and justice in the nation.

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