May 08, 2010
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
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
The Kopassus forces were long recipients of extensive US assistance, as
were the rest of the armed forces during the reign of President
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
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
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
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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