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Indonesia confronts unruly past

Instead of disbanding, a rogue Army unit is trying to remake its image.

By Dan Murphy Special to The Christian Science Monitor / November 20, 2000


When a rash of explosions rocks Jakarta, they are the immediate suspects. When mysterious "ninja" killers execute dozens of Muslim scholars in East Java, senior politicians whisper their names. And when aid workers are killed in West Timor, United Nations officials point their way.

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Every authoritarian regime seems to have them, a cross between Praetorian Guards and playground bullies. The Shah of pre-revolutionary Iran had his Savak. Baby Doc Duvalier relied on the Tonton Macoutes in Haiti.

In Indonesia's case, "they" are the Special Forces Command, known as Kopassus, a 6,000-strong unit that has forged a reputation as the toughest and most terrifying within a military known for its brutality.

Though it's virtually impossible for the unit to be guilty of all that the average Indonesian believes, Kopassus remains Indonesia's largest collective suspect for good reason. The Command's terror tactics it employed against insurgents in East Timor and Aceh are legendary.

When Indonesia began moving toward democracy at the end of Suharto's 32-year reign, many assumed the unit's position would fade. That view was bolstered when the reformist President Abdurrahman Wahid promised to punish rights abusers and push the military out of politics.

Instead, Kopassus has quietly begun to rehabilitate its reputation. While debate rages over whether soldiers should be tried for human rights abuses, the unit is winning back authority and respect.

"Their method was terror, and it was being employed in the service of Suharto," says Munir, a lawyer who runs the Commission for Missing Persons and Victims of Violence. "But efforts to find justice are running up against the tradition of military impunity."

The apparent success of Kopassus in putting its dark past behind it is a symbol of how little has changed within the Indonesian armed forces - and a measure of the challenges ahead.

It's a problem that plagues countries trying to make the transition from authoritarianism to democracy - and one that foreign powers like the US helped create. Indonesia's status as an anti-Communist bulwark during the cold war led to US training and support of the military, particularly Kopassus. Throughout the 1980s and 1990s, the US taught its soldiers intelligence gathering and counterinsurgency skills.

But the US and other Western powers strategically averted their eyes when those lessons were put to sometimes brutal effect at home. Like other parts of the relationship, Indonesia-US military ties have been pared down to almost nothing following the calculated brutality of Indonesia's retreat from East Timor in 1999.

Mugiyanto, who like many Indonesians uses only one name, understands the danger first hand. In March 1998, he was an unknown democracy activist. Then he was picked up by Kopassus, taken blindfolded to an interrogation center, and strapped to a table. Over two days, he was beaten and given electric shocks while being interrogated about his political beliefs and the whereabouts of his friends.