Indonesia's Arms Appetite

Jakarta wants weapons. Lots of them.

Right after Valentine's Day, Indonesian Air Force officials met with their U.S. counterparts to discuss "bilateral defense cooperation." On their wish list were Lockheed Martin's F-16 fighters and C-130 Hercules tactical transport planes. There will be more defense talks in April between the two countries as they step up military cooperation.

The United States and Indonesia "normalized" military relations in 2005, ending a 10-year period during which Jakarta was essentially barred from receiving most forms of U.S. weapons sales and military aid and training because of its military's human rights abuses and corruption. Jakarta is happy to be back in Washington's good graces. U.S. Defense Secretary dropped by for a visit on Monday, February 25th and praised Indonesia as a "huge Islamic country, democratic, secular," before continuing to say: "I think strengthening our relationship with Indonesia is very important, not just in a regional context, but I think in terms of the role that Indonesia may be able to play more broadly." But its military is carefully courting other weapons suppliers so it is not again dependent on a single source.

Looking to Moscow

When Russian President Vladimir Putin visited Jakarta in September 2007, weapons were at the top of the agenda. Moscow extended $1 billion in loans for weapons and in December, Indonesia picked up medium and short-range missiles, aerial bombs, and other systems. In 2003, Indonesia bought Russian fighter planes and other hardware as part of a $192 million package of weapons, and Moscow let their new friend pay most of its tab with palm oil. Jakarta's military is now hoping for more - including 20 fighter planes, six submarines, air defense systems, helicopters, boats, and other systems that could add up to about $3 billion.

Washington is watching this new friendship with a wary eye. Throughout the Cold War, the United States counted on Indonesia as a staunch anti-communist and friend. General Suharto ruled the archipelago with an iron fist and an avaricious eye for more than 30 years.

Jakarta's rearmament push comes as Indonesia wrestles with Suharto's bloody legacy following his death in January at the age of 86. The former leader was given the burial of a statesman, and his legacy was burnished to a high gloss. "Though there may be some controversy over his legacy," eulogized U.S. Ambassador Cameron Hume, "President Suharto was a historic figure who left a lasting impression on Indonesia and the region of Southeast Asia." The "controversy" includes Transparency International's 2004 assertion that Suharto was the "world's greatest kleptocrat ever" with a fortune of $35 billion or more stolen from the Indonesian people. Other controversial issues include mass killings. His extermination of between 400,000 and one million suspected communists as he moved to seize power in 1965 and 1966 stands out in its brutality. There was also the 1975 invasion of East Timor, the Santa Cruz Massacre in 1991, and much more. Suharto was labeled "one of the worst mass murderers of the 20th century," by the East Timor and Indonesia Action Network.

Throughout the Suharto regime and since, Jakarta enjoyed the full support of the United States. Most of Indonesia's weapons came from the United States, their officers graduated from U.S. academies, and the two militaries conducted joint exercises. Jakarta was almost completely dependent on Washington for its military strength. Additionally, Jakarta's generals developed a strong preference for U.S. weapons. Thus, the congressionally mandated checks on weapons sales and military aid effectively hamstrung the Indonesian military and sent it a strong message that it must reform. But pressure from military officials from both countries and the political exigencies of the war on terrorism successfully weakened and eventually undermined Washington's willingness to use its influence to demand that the Indonesian military respect human rights and eliminate corruption.

Strengthened Ties

Normalization of military ties between the United States and Indonesia in late 2005 was accompanied by State Department assurances that "the United States remains committed to pressing for accountability for past human rights abuses and U.S. assistance will continue to be guided by Indonesia's progress on democratic reform and accountability."

The guides seem to have lost their map. This year, over the objections of the State Department, Congress withheld $2.7 million - a fraction of U.S. foreign military financing - until the State Department could demonstrate that Indonesia was taking steps to hold members of the military accountable for human rights violations and implement "reforms to increase the transparency and accountability of their operations and financial management." John M. Miller, national coordinator of ETAN, reacted to this attempt to influence Jakarta by saying "withholding this small portion of military aid is an inadequate stick, but it serves to keep up appearances. The Indonesian government looks like it is trying, but the Indonesian military correctly interprets it as a token gesture. The military gets what it wants without concretely change how they do business or losing its impunity."

Meanwhile, Washington nearly tripled Foreign Military Financing (FMF) for Indonesia. In 2006, FMF totaled $990,000 but jumped to $6.5 million in 2007. The request for 2008 is $15.7 million. ETAN reacted in a statement at the time: "we see no dramatic change in the Indonesian military's conduct over the past year to warrant such a generous increase."

But this is just the beginning of what the United States is providing to Indonesia. Under a little noticed Pentagon program known as "train and equip authority" or "Section 1206," Washington gave another Indonesia another $18.4 million in 2006 to procure coastal radar stations, and improved air and sea surveillance capabilities. In 2007, "1206" funding totaled $28.7 million and was used to beef up radar and communications equipment for the Indonesian navy and coast guard. For 2008, details have not been released, but funding is expected to be comparable.

The Global Train and Equip program is designed to help armed forces address regional terrorism problems, while bypassing the normal State Department channels for aid. In 2006, the Pentagon doled out a total of $200 million to foreign militaries through this program. Now the Defense Department is seeking to increase "1206" authority to $750 million and make the program permanent.

Military aid is not the only thing pouring in. In 2005, the State Department authorized Jakarta for $51 million in licenses for weaponry, defense articles, and services. The next year, the State Department issued licenses for more than $100 million in military hardware including spare parts for fighters, cargo planes and helicopters, explosives and torpedo launchers were issued. Not all licenses are exercised, but the list gives a sense of Indonesia's voracious appetite for weapons.

Why So Many Weapons?

Washington hopes that by bulking up Indonesia's military capacities it can help the nation counter terrorism and emerge as a regional leader able to thwart North Korea's nuclear ambitions and deter China's aggressive military build-up. That's what Secretary Gates means when he talks about the "role that Indonesia may be able to play more broadly" and that's why Washington is so threatened by the way Russian President Putin has reached out to Jakarta.

So, Washington dangles F-16s to make its sweeping vision of Indonesia's strategic importance a reality. But, in the past, U.S.-origin weapons, military know-how and aid, were not used to achieve lofty political aims. They were turned on Indonesian citizens active in the multiple movements for self-determination and autonomy in far-flung regions like Aceh, Papua, and Timor. They were used to put down political demonstrations and quell unrest after economic collapse destroyed the livelihoods of hundreds of thousands.

The checks on U.S. military aid are gone, and now the floodgates have opened. Political and military officials need to watch what Jakarta does next very carefully. Human rights, broad political participation, secular democracy, and regional leadership do not spring fully formed from the belly of an F-16 or the barrel of a gun.

FPIF columnist Frida Berrigan is a senior program associate at the Arms and Security Project of the New America Foundation.

Copyright (c) 2008, Institute for Policy Studies

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